BOSTON (TheStreet) -- We haven't had a city-crippling blizzard in a few weeks, but that month between now and spring has a lot of cold and cabin fever left in it. Get ready.
Melting snow piles and solid days' worth of sunlight aren't making winter-stricken America any more comfortable of a place to be, as the sun tends to lie this time of year and lure hopeful morning commuters into bright, blue-skied hotbeds of hypothermia. Guzzling coffee or cocoa and cursing the seasons is the least costly coping mechanism, but huddled post-recession hermits are signing up for modest sessions of retail therapy.
The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index rose this month to its highest point since February 2008. That optimism about income and the economy weathered the worst storms January could throw at the country, with retail sales rising 7.8% from January 2010 to $381.6 billion after increasing 4.4.% in the fourth quarter. If the U.S. is ready to shop its way through the winter, who are we to impede this seasonal-affective-disorder-induced economic recovery?
In the interest of comfort and convenience, TheStreet has come up with seven must-have items for any cold-weather recluse. It looks like a checklist for pessimistic misanthropes, but if you've spent the past few months digging out your sidewalk and steps just to have them snowed under again or digging out a parking spot just to find a neighbor's plastic patio chair "claiming" it when you return, chances are you could use these services to deal with a few less people as well:
Netflix (NFLX) - Get Report
Depending on what Netflix user you talk to, the new pricing scheme introduced in November is the greatest little bit of awesome since Starz's Party Down came back to streaming or the biggest sellout move since the 30-day new-release window. Netflix raised the price of its one-at-a-time DVD and streaming plan from $8.99 a month to $9.99, but offered streaming alone for the first time for $7.99 a month. That pretty much ended any argument about how Netflix values new releases and DVDs -- they don't -- but consumers didn't seem all that put off by the change, as the subscriber base grew by nearly 3.1 million, to more than 20 million overall.
Let the investors sweat over whether media companies will renew their sweetheart content deals with Netflix. Consumers still get tens of thousands of titles that they can stream over 200 devices -- including just about every Apple (AAPL) - Get Report product, every Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Report Windows 7 mobile product and every game console. Oh, and Netflix just signed content deals with Disney's (DIS) - Get Report ABC and CBS (CBS) - Get Report to stream seasons of Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Scrubs, Frasier, Medium, Cheers, Family Ties, Star Trek, Twin Peaks and other content.
The Hulu Plus subscription service needed to be something pretty special when it launched in November. At $7.99, it was a dollar less than Netflix's base service at the time. It's near-immediate access to current seasons of shows such as Fox's (NWS) - Get ReportGlee and House, ABC's Modern Family and NBC's The Office and 30 Rock was a big selling point as well, but nowhere near as enticing as the deal Hulu just reached with Viacom (VIA.B) . Not only did it return Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to Hulu after Viacom yanked them because it couldn't see the money in the service, but it also brings aboard current cable offerings such as MTV's Jersey Shore and Teen Mom 2 and TV Land's Hot In Cleveland. Combine that with library content such as Reno 911, Beavis and Butthead and The Chapelle Show and Hulu's lineup looks like all the DVR content with none of the cable overhead. If only they'd do something about the commercials and buffering.
This wouldn't have made the list at the beginning of winter, but Amazon (AMZN) - Get Report made its $79 Prime product hard to ignore by taking its two-day shipping perk and coating it with a sweet offer of free streaming for any of 5,000 movies and TV shows such as Syriana, the Swedish-language Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, the BBC version of The Office and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
It's a small, strange assortment of content that in no way equals either Netflix or Hulu's offerings, but doesn't really need to. Paying $79 for "free" two-day shipping is kind of tough for the average consumer to swallow. A bunch of "free" streaming content to go along with it makes the medicine go down a lot quicker. As if customers needed more incentive to avoid snowed-in stores, it warms the heart to see Amazon offer their consumers a little something to watch while they wait.
Video games on demand
Once gamers have beaten all the new holiday presents, their game console can become a reminder of the blizzard-addled boredom. Gamefly's been taking the early Netflix approach to game rental by mailing such titles as Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Bulletstorm out to gamers for a monthly fee -- which starts at a $7.95 intro price for newbs, but quickly kicks up to $15.95 a month to take one game out at a time or $22.95 a month for two. Why can't you just play them instantly over the cloud? You can, but you either need your laptop or a system you likely don't own.
OnLive allows users to rent three- or five-day access passes to games such as THQ's (THQI) Metro 2033, Sony's (SNE) - Get ReportAssassin's Creed 2 or 2K Sports' NBA 2K '11 for $5 to $9 or allows users to buy games such as Warner Brothers' (TWX) Lego Batman and Lego Harry Potter or Ubisoft's Shaun White Skateboarding for $10 to $50. Unless you're comfortable using a keyboard, though, you'll also need the $99 OnLive console, without which you're basically getting the same deal as you would at a PC and Mac cloud site such as Steam -- but without new content such as Bulletstorm, Crysis 2 or Dragon Age II. When all else fails, the downloadable content on the Xbox Live, Playstation Network and the Wii's Virtual Console will do in a pinch.
Groceries to go
At one point in this nation's history, grocery delivery was reserved for the infirm. Boy, are those days over.
Whether you're placing an order with Peapod in the Northeast and Midwest, grabbing a week's worth of food from Homeland Delivery in the South or selected locales such as Kansas City and Los Angeles, dialing up FreshDirect in New York or filling out an order for Schwan's for just about everywhere else, you're doing the rest of the wintry world a huge favor. For every lazy slob like yourself who has groceries delivered, there's one less person elbowing everyone in the supermarket aisles over the eggs, bread and milk he or she needs for their snow day french toast.
When you're out of takeout menus and out of options, this is a great little nationwide clearinghouse for all your couch-ridden needs. A quick glance reveals a lot of pizza, Indian, sandwich, burger, Mexican, Mediterranean and chicken-wing establishments, but there are also celebrity hot spots such as Zach's Cafe in Los Angeles' Studio City, food trucks for hungry skiers such as the tread-equipped Rolling Mammoth in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and treat purveyors for pampered pets such as Canis Minor Dog and Cat Boutique in New York's TriBeCa.
Do yourself a favor: Clean out the menu drawer, delete restaurant numbers from your phone and embrace online ordering. Fewer people, fewer hassles, a lot more options.
Sometimes it feels like Canada's just taunting us. Sure, they're getting it much worse than much of the U.S. this winter, but beer delivery sites such as The Beer Guy and Dial-A-Bottle are getting them through by bringing those sweet suds to Canadians' doors by the bottle or by the 28-bottle case.
While there are plenty of neighborhoods in the U.S. where this is an option -- college town pizza places that deliver beer come to mind -- larger operations including New York-based Beer Right Now and Miami-based Mr. Beer Express are still in the minority thanks to alcohol delivery laws that vary not just by state, but often by county.
We understand there's an ongoing war against underage drinking much as there's a war in the U.S. against anything that's generally naughty and illegal, but it would be nice if just once we took a cue from Canada, treated the beer-drinking public like adults and brought them a beer every once in a while.
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