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Consuming Interests
A blog for the smart consumer
Workers pick up greater share of health care costs, survey finds

Health care costs might be rising less sharply than they were a few years ago, but employers continue to make employees take on more of the burden, and that's likely to continue, a new survey shows.

Plans with high deductibles are becoming the norm, and employers are contributing less to the employee health savings accounts tied to those plans, according to an annual survey released last week by benefits advisory organization United Benefit Advisors.

"More and more of this is on the back of the employee," said Jonathan Weiner, professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "They're paying more up front and more after the fact," and, he said, seeing steeper increases in their share than employers.

Employers are shifting more responsibility and cost to workers through increases in out-of-pocket costs and cutbacks in family benefits, according to the survey of nearly 10,000 small to large employers, billed as the largest benchmarking...

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Tax filers can pick up refunds in cash at Walmart stores

Walmart is encouraging tax filers to skip the government check and pick up their refunds in cash in stores.

The discounter's Direct2Cash service is now available through more than 25,000 tax preparation locations using the Walmart software, for no additional fee or up to $7 at the time of filing.

"We know tax refunds can be one of the largest financial payouts of the year for many of our customers, and the last thing they want is to wait for their refund check to arrive and then spend money on unnecessary fees -- in many cases upwards of $70 -- to cash it," Daniel Eckert, senior vice president of services for Walmart U.S., said in today's announcement.

Customers who choose the option would get an email with a confirmation code for their federal or state return when the refund is ready. Customers can pick up refunds at Walmart stores.

This year, Walmart will also offer in-store tax preparation services by Jackson Hewitt. Eligible clients will receive a $50 Walmart eGift card when they...

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Toys 'R' Us will take back used baby items in exchange for new-product discounts

Toys "R" Us stores will be taking back used baby products — cribs, high chairs, car seats, strollers and more — starting this weekend in exchange for discounts on new items, an annual event that has helped remove more than a million potentially unsafe items from the marketplace.

The chain's "Great Trade-In" event starts Friday and continues through Feb. 21 at Babies "R" Us and Toys "R" Us stores.

The retailer is hoping to raise awareness about ever-changing safety standards for baby products.

The stores will take any used cribs, car seats, bassinets, strollers, high chairs, infant swings, bouncers, travel systems, walkers, entertainers and play yards, in exchange for a 25 percent discount on the purchase of a new baby item in any of those categories.

Customers can exchange any number of used items from any manufacturer. 

"The Great Trade-In was conceived to bring attention to the dangers associated with potentially unsafe used items in circulation," said Hank Mullany, Toys "R" Us...

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WOW to start BWI flights to Iceland early, make service year round

High demand for cheap seats on planned flights this summer from BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport to Iceland and beyond to Europe has prompted airline WOW Air to move up the start of its newly scheduled route and offer the service year-round.

The new service first attracted attention last fall when the low-cost Icelandic carrier began touting $99 one-way fares from BWI to Reykjavik and London. The service was supposed to begin in June and end in October.

Instead, WOW will begin offering round-trip service between BWI and Reykjavik four days a week starting in May, the airline said Tuesday. In early June, round-trip service will begin running five days a week, with no seasonal end date.

"Although we were always optimistic about the success of new service at BWI, our bookings to and from the Washington/Baltimore region have far exceeded what we anticipated," Skúli Mogensen, WOW Air's founder and CEO, said in a statement. "Ticket sales on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in Iceland have...

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Two Mars grocery stores to close in Harford County

The Mars Super Markets stores in Bel Air and Aberdeen will be closing soon, officials with the Baltimore-based grocery chain announced recently.

The Mars Super Market in Bel Air Plaza Shopping Center on Baltimore Pike will be closing for good on Jan. 25, according to a sign posted at the entrance.

The customers of the store, which opened in 2011, were thanked for their three years of support, according to the sign.

Mars, which is headquartered in Rosedale and operates 17 stores in Central Maryland, is also scheduled to close its store in the Aberdeen Marketplace shopping center off Beards Hill Road, along with its store in the Dogwood Station shopping center west of Baltimore and in the Pine Grove Shopping Center in Anne Arundel County.

Those three will close around May 1, according to an emailed statement from the company. The Aberdeen store opened in 1993 and it was remodeled in 1995, according to Kathleen Shaffer, a spokeswoman for Mars.

Chairman and CEO Chris D'Anna said in the...

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Holiday retail sales reach highest level since 2011, NRF says

Retail sales for the 2014 holiday season rose 4 percent to $616.1 billion, slightly less than expected but still the strongest holiday results in three years, the National Retail Federation said today.

December sales, meanwhile, fell by 4.6 percent, the trade group said.

The NRF had called for a 4.1 percent sales increase during the holiday season, including November and December.

"There is every reason to believe that we have moved well beyond the days of consumer pessimism and that the trajectory for retailers continues to point up,"  NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement.

Holiday sales came in at the highest level since 2011 thanks to increased spending power in an improved job market with declining gas prices, said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.

While December sales were "disappointing" ... "preliminary holiday results affirm our initial belief that consumers going into the holiday season had the spending power necessary to give retail the shot in the arm it...

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