BOSTON (TheStreet) -- We're sorry. The home, car, plane ticket and sandwich you wanted are all out of stock. Can we interest you in a gift card?
That's kind of how it went for many consumers this year as prices and loan rates rose, brands and discounted gadgets disappeared, airlines played hardball and restaurants just toyed with their emotions. With some products gone completely, others never to be found new again and still others facing steep markups or obsolescence next year, here are 10 items consumers should have bought when they had a chance:
This former military mainstay was supposed to handle anything that was thrown at it, but couldn't manage 20 years in the American auto market. Somewhere, a Jeep driver is laughing.
One of the hardware heroes of the first Gulf War -- if only because Patriot missile systems made lousy lawn toys -- the original Hummer produced by AM General first hit U.S. streets as a civilian vehicle in 1992. It wasn't until
bought the brand in 1998 and spun it off into smaller H2 and H3 models that the iconic vehicle gained traction.
"The Hummer, in that form, was the perfect symbol of the consumerism and the economy that we were all a part of in the early 2000s," says Charlie Vogelheim, executive editor at Intellichoice. "When you consider anyone buying, owning and operating the H1 in a suburban environment, it's absolutely ridiculous, but to fault GM for offering different iterations of it is hard when consumers were lining up for it."
Ten years later, however, amid soaring gas prices, shrinking vehicles and alternative fuel sources, GM started to give the Hummer second thoughts. Impending bankruptcy and slumping sales made the hardy Hummer expendable and, after a Chinese automaker passed on buying the brand, GM put it to rest this year. It made the last one in May and offered deep discounts on the remaining supply.
Hummer haters rejoiced, but the death of the symbolic all-consuming SUV did little to curb appetites for big trucks. Porsche's Cayenne SUV, fetching $75,000 to $100,000, is the brand's top-selling model. The redesigned crossover Ford Explorer is actually longer and wider than the SUV it replaced. The Jeep Grand Cherokee grew even without changing its designation. The difference is that each of those vehicles looks like the family car when sitting in the mall parking lot, while the Hummer still looked like a rich guy playing war games.
"It was over the top and extreme in a segment that grew over the top and extreme," Vogelheim says. "In the current sensibilities, it's the opposite of everything the consumer is looking for after the economic downturn in terms of obvious consumption."
Put simply, if you had the money to spend on a house or condo this year and the credit to pull off a mortgage, you should have done it ... early.
At the beginning of the year, the government was still giving first-time homebuyers $8,000 worth of incentive and repeat buyers $6,500 for jumping back into the market. This just happened to coincide with U.S. median home prices that the National Association of Realtors said hit a rock-bottom $166,400, well below the $217,900 average in 2007 and still lower than the $172,100 average from a terrible 2009.
The tax credits dried up and prices inched up again -- with home sales averaging $176,800 in the second quarter -- but the market kept on giving. The rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage sunk from 5.09% in January to a scant 4.17% in November, according to Freddie Mac, while Realtors dealt with a more-than-10-month backlog of homes in a buyer's market.
Now interest rates are back up to 4.89%, median home prices are above $177,000 and nearly a month's supply of housing inventory has disappeared from the market, with all of it trending in the sellers' direction as spring approaches. Scared buyers on the sidelines missed out, but the savvy investors who dove in have changed the market drastically from the bubble years -- and are in it for the long haul.
"The key thing that, hopefully, most homebuyers are thinking about when they consider buying a home is that it is a long-term commitment in terms of mortgage and financial value," says Paul Singer, the NAR's vice president for research. "This is not the market we had in 2003 and 2004 where flippers could come in and make a pile of cash by owning a home for a matter of weeks or months. That time has passed, and that's a good thing."
A seat in AirTran's business-class section
It isn't much, but
12-seat business class is comfy and relatively inexpensive, with upgrades from coach costing between $49 and $129 per segment. After AirTran was bought for $1.4 billion in September by
-- which prefers a more buslike approach to seating -- it may also be extinct next year.
"AirTran has a business class that's actually affordable for the average person, and I can't imagine Southwest keeping it, because Southwest doesn't have a business class," says Anne Banas, editor of SmarterTravel.
That loss isn't a small one. Discount carriers such as
also shun classes altogether, while Alaska's Frontier, JetBlue and Continental charge $10 to $25 for seats with extra legroom. AirTran itself is part of the problem, taking the tall-traveler-friendly exit row and charging a $20 premium on its seats, with Spirit Airlines following its lead.
"The only people who can take advantage of many upgrades now are frequent fliers, and when we say frequent fliers, we mean elite frequent fliers," Banas says. "Just because you have a card and earn some miles doesn't mean you're going to get those perks."
Easy American Airlines bargains online
Want a cheaper ticket on
and one-stop shopping through an online travel agent? Tough.
American Airlines made it abundantly clear earlier this month it has no intention of continuing a contract that paid
to showcase its rates when it can do the job just fine on its own site -- yanking its fares from Orbitz when contract negotiations broke down. In response, Orbitz competitor
made it clear it has no intention of letting American duck consumer price comparisons and immediately hid the airline's fares behind several clicks on its site.
sniped at American's decision, saying it would "make it much harder and more costly for agents and consumers to easily comparison shop among airlines, which will result in increased prices for consumers," but took no action.
The tide is already shifting against consumers and online travel sites, however, as
ended relationships with online travel sites
on the same day as the American/Orbitz announcement and United reportedly announced plans to cut ties with Orbitz shareholder
and jump to
Shares system. This is bad news for Orbitz and fellow agents such as
, but it's equally painful for aggregators such as
Bing Travel, which SmarterTravel's Banas recommends in light of the American decision, but which rely on those agents' data for their comparisons. In the end, it's ultimately bad for the online consumer, who'll have to go airline site by airline site combing for deals if this trend continues.
Before American dances on those agents' graves, however, it may want to consider the repercussions of its actions. When the University of Michigan released its American Customer Satisfaction Index's airline numbers in July, American Airlines rated a 63 out of 100 -- an eight-point drop from its score 15 years ago, below the industry average of 66 and behind Southwest (79), Continental (71) and "all others" (75, which includes discount carriers such as AirTran and JetBlue). In light of its recent decision to complicate the customer experience, American shouldn't expect that number to ascend next year.
An iPhone 3GS
iPhone 4 or its high-resolution "Retina display," 720p HD camera, front-facing camera, teleconferencing ability or gaming gyroscope, but a $99 iPhone is what gets the cheapskates into the fold.
There's a lot that could be said here about "Antennagate," Steve Jobs' "You're using it wrong" response and the flap and free bumpers that ensued, but consumers ended that conversation about 14.1 million iPhone 4 handset purchases ago. Instead, smartphone stragglers who picked up an 8-gigabyte 3GS for $100 less than the newest need-it-now toy got the iPhone 4's OS and its nongyroscope apps for the closest thing Apple has to a sale price. They also bought the only iPhone Consumer Reports saw fit to recommend this year after scarcely shrouding its disdain for stopgap iPhone 4 antenna fixes including cases and duct tape.
Fanboys would never stoop this low, but Apple seems just fine with using bargain prices for last year's iPhone as a lure for entry-level smartphone buyers loath to let go of their favorite flip phone. Besides, the iPhone will still be on this list -- next year, after the 4GS is released.
Max Factor makeup
Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Judy Garland all wore Max Factor, which doesn't mean a whole lot to generations answering "Who?" when hearing those names and balking at wearing grandma's makeup.
The line that spawned cake makeup and was the toast of Hollywood in the early 20th century was discontinued in the U.S. by
Procter & Gamble
earlier this year. While Max Factor products may have looked just swell on Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow, they weren't finding their way onto the airbrushed faces of Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Queen Latifah or Drew Barrymore -- who push P&G's competing
cosmetics. Max Factor clung to life at department store counters after its sale from
to P&G in 1991, but its core consumer contingent aged and shrank while its competition's spokeswomen could be mistaken for the grandchildren of its most famous fans.
The Max Factor brand will live on abroad and on some online outlets, should someone feel the urge to shoot a silent movie, but the line that celebrated its centennial just last year was discontinued at most stores three years ago. Like Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and other stars who wore it, Max Factor has faded into a grainy celluloid memory.
Where Hummer bloated itself out of existence, Pontiac was genericized into obscurity.
This was the brand of the GTO, the V-8 engine, Burt Reynolds' sweet T-top Trans-Am from
Smokey and The Bandit.
American muscle. By the time it atrophied this year, however, faceless models such as the G3, G4, G5 and G6 looked more like cars for flabby beancounters than the Bandit's ride. Models such as the Toyota joint-venture Vibe showed promise, but never really distinguished Pontiac from the rest of GM,
or anyone else in the market.
"It was the performance brand for General Motors but, as it was mainstreamed, it became irrelevant," Vogelheim said. "It wasn't enough of anything."
An independent manufacturing facility in Spring Hill, Tenn., a small and affordable product, a "no-haggle" pricing system and friendlier showroom -- it's a wonder Saturn lasted 20 years.
While GM's "different kind of car company" that died this year came a long way from its utilitarian S-series roots -- and lost a bit of its independent spirit during the trip -- it seemed like quick-to-market concepts such as the then-novel Saturn Vue crossover SUV (introduced in 2002) and sporty Sky roadster (launched in 2006) were just starting to make inroads. After the brand spent much of the late 1990s and early 2000s foundering in what Vogelheim calls "typical GM fashion," though, all that effort came too late and all of the lessons GM could have gleaned from its little Tennessee salon may have gone to waste.
"A lot could have been learned, but I don't know where the takeaways are," Vogelheim says. "Even if there was plenty to learn and everyone was earnest, bankruptcy trumps all."
Saturn's point seemed to be lost on the industry overall, as global automakers' brand consolidation continues and little details such as the showroom experience are all but lost in their wake.
"A large part of their success early on was that people could go into the showrooms and get treated differently," Vogelheim says. "I was at a recent new car intro and they're talking about how they're really going to make a difference with their retailers and I'm thinking 'Really, is that really a differentiator, decades after Saturn?'"
DVDs or Blu-ray discs from a closing Blockbuster Video or Movie Gallery
The slow death of the record store gets all the tears and tomes, but the vanishing video store should get at least a short elegy from children of the '90s who grew up on Kevin Smith's
or two movies and Coke or candy from one of the chains.
Instead, any romance for these consumer relics is crushed by the convenience of
, Apple's iTunes,
and everything that came afterward. Movie Gallery and its
subsidiaries didn't go bankrupt and close more than 4,000 stores in less than three years despite being beloved. Blockbuster didn't shutter 900 stores this year and announce plans to close another 182 next year because it was an underdog like those romanticized in the films it rented.
These were the places that, with few exceptions, put their mom and pop competitors out of business with huge selection and cheaper prices. They were also a huge pain in the posterior for customers whose schedules didn't coincide with the store's when new releases needed to be snuck into the drop slot. By the time the video stores responded to pressure from Netflix, on-demand services and supermarket kiosks such as
's RedBox with mail and streaming services, nobody was feeling too sentimental about the superstores.
Though Blockbuster is optimistic about emerging from bankruptcy next year, exactly what it will emerge as remains a mystery. The Friday-night-at-the-counter rental culture it thrived in is gone as movie stories in general retreat into niche markets or memory. But what about all that inventory and Quentin Tarantino's first job and
? Tarantino hasn't needed to rewind a rental copy of
in a long time, and his
Zack and Miri Make A Porno
were available for $3 to $5 on clearance at closing Blockbusters this summer.
After pushing salads, smoothies, McCafe coffee and adult Happy Meal pedometers and trying everything it could to convince America it wasn't a burger joint,
tore down its grown-up facade and dug to its clown-faced fast-food foundations to give its consumers what they've been clamoring for: a sandwich of boneless, porkish substance molded into "ribs" and smothered in sauce.
For six glorious weeks in November and December, fans of this 500-calorie bit of Americana no longer had to consult a regional
to track down their boneless bounty. The results were satisfying -- a 4.9% sales bump for McDonalds in November -- but like the McRib itself, didn't last. The folks at the Golden Arches pulled the McRib again in mid-December, saying "people get tired of it." Tired
it, perhaps, but the only tiresome part of the McRib's resurgence is having it yanked off the plate in a promotional ploy yet again while third-pound burgers and "snack wraps" still get a place at the table.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.