5 'First World Problems' for Companies

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- There are many reasons to lash out against companies.

Back in the days of Sinclair Lewis' The Jungle, meat packers were feeding Americans poisonous and rancid goods. Decades later, Enron played fast and loose with its crooked books and robbed hundreds of their retirement money. ExxonMobil ( XOM) ravaged the Alaskan ecology when the tanker Valdez ran aground and BP ( BP) similarly destroyed wildlife and the economics of the Gulf of Mexico.

"Too big to fail" banks and other assorted financial and government institutions ran roughshod over the economy and got rewarded with bailout money for their part in a recession, housing crisis and still rampant unemployment.

There is plenty to get folks hot under the collar. But, as revealed in sites such as White Whine -- A Collection of First-World Problems, a lot of what they are protesting online are really just trivialities of modern life given way too much gravitas.

Let regulators and Occupy Wall Street worry about the global demolition derby that replaced a lot of corporate responsibility, the complaining class seems to say. There are more immediate matters to worry about: the crying baby on an airplane; the waiter who was slow to bring ketchup; the Apple ( AAPL) iPhone that can't get reception in a subway station.

Trivial, fleeting annoyances? Perhaps, but a lot of folks are taking life's little indignities seriously enough that they are seeking support and validation in comment boards, chat rooms, blogs and Web sites.

We looked at five instances where companies have inspired a bit of "white whine" overreaction:

Netflix
Periodically, a local official in some city or town will try to bolster their standing with voters by proposing some ordinance or bill intended to make cable television more affordable and available for their populace.

While an argument can be made that Internet access is quickly becoming a necessity for everyday life, treating cable television as a utility smacks of an effort to resolve a First World Problem. Does the citizenry really have a right or need to demand equal access to Jersey Shore or whatever circle of hell it may be where the Real Housewives move into a McMansion?

Unemployment runs rampant, retirement savings are disintegrated and Wall Street protests are clogging city streets and parks. And yet the mantra for many is "don't touch my shows."

Netflix ( NFLX) is the perfect example of an overreaction in which privilege gets confused with necessity.

Sure, only the most foolish and shallow person would put the ability to stream Human Centipede or old episodes of Facts of Life in the same hierarchy as food, clothing, shelter and health care. But you might not know that if you took the recent outrage over Netflix at face value.

This much is true: CEO Reed Hastings has blundered his way through a moment of crisis. By raising the price of services, trying to split off the DVD mailing service and failing to secure more recent content, he has alienated loyal customers and hurt the company's share price (it has fallen nearly 75% from a high of roughly $300 a share in the past 12 weeks). But is either he or his company really deserving of the outrage -- the personal affront -- expressed by so many of his customer base?

This week, Netflix revealed that it has lost nearly 800,000 customers. Its base of subscribers now stands at about 21.4 million streaming subscribers and 13.9 million who use its DVD rental service. Netflix angered most of these former customers over the summer by raising the price of a combined streaming and rental plan to $15.98 per month from $9.99. Splitting off the rental side into a new service called Qwikster added insult to injury and was quickly abandoned.

Sure, in this economy watching every penny is sensible. But is a price increase of 20 cents a day really worth freaking out about? Just cancel and move onto some other service. Is there really a need for countless posts about "Greed Hastings." Even Hastings himself donned a hair shirt and atoned for his perceived sins by describing his flaw as "arrogance."

Oh, but jumping ship to a competitor is also fraught with angst. DISH Network's ( DISH) Blockbuster streaming service (resurrected from the ashes of the video rental chain) used to enjoy a head start over NetFlix by getting movies the same day they were released on DVD.

Now, just as it prevents Netflix and Redbox ( CSTR) from offering films for rental until they have been sold retail for 28 days, Warner Brothers ( TWX) has announced that Blockbuster will have to abide by the same distribution rules.

As other studios likely follow suit, expect the wail of angry customers to rise to a crescendo. We all know, of course, that the "immediate gratification" crowd will find movies such as Green Lantern far more enjoyable this week than a month from now. Isn't it cruel enough that they had to wait since summer to watch all those included extras?

Starbucks
There must be something about the agitating effects of caffeine -- especially when combined with leisure time and free Wi-iFi -- that sets Starbucks ( SBUX) up for a generous serving of First World whining.

Among the typical issues we culled from a variety of blogs, Facebook and complaint sites such as ConsumerAffairs.com (with posters' spelling and grammar left intact):

"I had to wait 15 minutes to get my Starbucks."

"I'm all out of Starbucks Double Shots and Frappicinos, and I don't want to get out of bed. Fail."

"Bought two pints of Starbuck's ice cream. We ate few hours later. Tasted 'weak and was melting fast.' Looked at ingredients: 3rd ingredient was water!! NEVER will buy or patronize Starbuck's ever again!

"OMG. My iPad didn't work at Starbucks this morning! Oh, and they messed up on my double frap slim latte. Can you believe they still have gluten on their menu?

How long can you nurse a purchase and enjoy the atmosphere and Internet connectivity offered at a Starbucks? About three hours was the answer for one enraged blogger (we'll spare naming him, as the post was subsequently removed after a healthy dose of Web bashing).

"A man in a button down approached me and politely asked, "What brings you into Starbucks today?" he wrote. "I glanced up from the work I was doing and replied, 'Just here to get some work done.' Here is where the story takes a sharp left. I was expecting his next sentence to be something along the lines of 'How has your experience been in our store today?' or 'Would you mind filling out a feedback form?' My prediction was off ... WAY off. He stated, 'Okay well we like to reserve our seating for those who are enjoying our beverages.' Go ahead and let that simmer."

Long story short, the blogger finally gets the hint that he needs to either order something or move along -- a Hobson's choice that leaves him angry and, were it not for the fact he's a non-litigious chap, would provide opportunity for a lawsuit based on "discrimination and emotional distress."

With the verve of an Occupy Wall Street protester, another online scribe offered the following: "I think coffeehouses had a reputation as place for intellectuals, businessmen, political officials to congregate and enjoy drinking the house coffee and contemplate the important matters of the day. Receiving threats for falling is not and should not be among them."

Falling? Well, maybe not exactly. He adds: "In recent months it has descended to a police-state madness, expected in a third world dictatorship, authoritarian 'acting' managers calling the cops because a customer fell asleep a couple of hours earlier."

Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri was at least honest when she expressed her displeasure with the new company logo.

"I recognize that worrying about Starbucks' logo change is sort of a first-world problem -- like accidentally buying too many colanders, or having to choose between yoga and spinning class, or being unable to return your MacBook Pro," she wrote.

No greatest-hits collection for the First World Problems set would be complete without an appearance by actor/activist/tweeter Alec Baldwin, who riled up his more than 323,000 Twitter followers (and made national news) with the following: "Starbucks on redacted. Uptight Queen barista named redacted has an attitude problem."

Bank of America
If you are stuck with a mortgage or business loan, you have every right to complain about the perceived shenanigans or insensitivity of your chosen bank.

Otherwise, our advice is to calm down, close your accounts and find better service elsewhere.

When Bank of America ( BAC) decided to tack on a monthly $5 for many of its customers using debit cards, it quickly became a call to arms. The blogosphere was filled with the sort of hate usually reserved for pitchfork-wielding peasants chasing a monster. "Gouged" is perhaps one of the kinder words used by many critics and even President Barack Obama, perhaps trying to channel the anger of the electorate, as he weighed in on how many customers feel "mistreated." Across the nation, many other politicians and activists have turned the fee into a "mad as hell" moment.

Consumers Union, the parent organization of Consumer Reports and the Web site The Consumerist, launched a site where customers can upload videos detailing their angry breakup with the bank.

"We know breakups can be emotional, but please no swearing or abusive language or images," the guidelines say. "You're bigger than that. Be sure to include the phrases: 'Hey, Bank of America, it's me. Can we talk?' and 'Drop the fee or we drop you!'"

Now, according to media coverage of a companywide "town hall" meeting with employees last week, CEO Brian Moynihan fired back, whining that he was "incensed" by how people just can't cut them some slack, seeing as they do all sorts of volunteer and charitable works. "You ought to think a little about that before you start yelling at us," Bloomberg quoted as being his response to critics.

All involved might benefit from a timeout.

Don't get us wrong, we are by no means defending the new fee. Nor are we trying to dissuade folks from a protest that might be strong enough to persuade the company to drop the added charge.

But critics and Moynihan need to relax, take a deep breath and get on with their lives. All that anger is no good for their blood pressure.

The simple action, and one thousands are doing, is to do what one would with any other unappreciative company -- take your business elsewhere, possibly even joining the Bank Transfer Day and doing it by Nov. 5. Bank of America has no loyalty to you -- something Moynihan very nearly said during his speech when he professed a responsibility to shareholders even if customers get angry. So head on over to another bank or a local credit union, transfer your accounts and be done with it.

Pepsi vs. Coke
There are Coke ( KO) people and there are Pepsi ( PEP) people.

Oh sure, in a pinch a soda drinker will take what's available. But, as borne out by Web-based complaints, people get very perturbed when their choice of bubbly sugar water isn't available.

"I ordered a Coke and the waitress asked me if Pepsi would be OK," has even gained coveted "meme" status online.

The controversy over a lack of fizzy freedom of choice actually goes beyond even the average "poor me" poster.

A lesser-known controversy and investigation involving disgraced and convicted Illinois ex-governor Rod Blagojevich was his granting Pepsi an exclusive contract for all state facilities. Accused of bypassing procurement laws, Blagojevich defended himself by saying the 10-year deal would net the state about $6 million a year in added revenue in exchange for the exclusivity.

Back in 1998, Pepsi filed an antitrust lawsuit against Coca-Cola, claiming the company controlled "90% of the market for fountain-dispensed soft drinksdistributed through independent food service distributors."

Pepsi claimed that Coke, starting in 1997, played hardball with its food service distributors, threatening to cut them off if they allowed beverages from other companies to be sold. The upshot, according to Pepsi, was that it was locked out of doing business with McDonald's ( MCD), Burger King, Domino's ( DPZ) and Wendy's. Its stranglehold gave Coke the power to set market prices, the company claimed.

A judge dismissed the suit two years later.

Today, Pepsi has managed to claim 20% of the exclusivity contracts, compared with some 70% for Coke ( Dr Pepper Snapple ( DPS) products have managed to get themselves placed alongside its competitors in some chains). Coke has had a near-exclusive contract with McDonald's for more than five decades.

The controversy continues in other venues. Increasingly, schools are a battleground for the product lines. Several years ago, a group called the Coalition Against Coke Contracts fought against the exclusivity of that company's products on college campuses in Illinois.

According to Ohio State University's student newspaper, The Lantern, a recent three-year deal with coke will net OSU at least $34 million in exchange for the exclusive right to sell its products on campus and the ability to use its trademarks in advertising.

In 2006, there was a detente in the soda wars when McDonald's bent its more than 50-year relationship with Coca-Cola to add Pepsi's Mountain Dew and Gatorade to its fountains on an experimental basis. By 2008, Pepsi was once again banished from the Golden Arches.

Facebook
Do a Web search for "privacy" and "Facebook" and you'll find link after link of vitriolic comments about the social media giant's approach to user data.

Simply put, the company is collecting, utilizing and selling user data. It's poring through your content and trying to wrap your Facebook existence around everything else you do online.

Oh well, you get what you pay for -- which, in this case, is nothing.

For all the scathing commentary and fretting, there are relatively few who have said "enough is enough" and just walked away from the site.

Instead, the site's popularity keeps growing even as people complain. There is no small irony that people even use Facebook as the forum to vent their discontent with Facebook.

Facebook may be ubiquitous, but it is not essential and a free service is certainly going to come with strings attached. If you want to keep playing Farmville and keeping tabs on Aunt Helga and her 17 cats, no amount of moaning is going to get Facebook to change its ways. Perhaps customer demand will influence the company's decision, but the fact remains that it's Facebook's world; you're just living in it.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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