About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

How not to order online for in-store pickup

As a student of online retail, I’m occupationally obliged to try a newly-touted shopping option from a big-name retailer. And as one of the least efficient Home Depot shoppers ever born, I’ll do a lot to avoid walking up and down aisles for an hour to find a particular widget.

So when I realized I had an intersection of limited time for shopping with a growing to-do list of home repairs, I decided to take Home Depot up on its invitation to let the employees at the nearest location grab the items on my shopping list. I’d pay in advance, and then I could pick up my purchases on the way back from another errand I already had on my schedule.

Of course, none of that happened as I’d hoped.

The promised same-day pickup came and went, which I’d accepted upfront as a risk given the generalized logistical hell of life in the novel-coronavirus pandemic.

But after 48 hours with no update on what Home Depot had done with my money, I thought I should try to get an update. Texting the number on my e-mailed receipt, however, yielded this disheartening and unexplained auto-reply: “To support the high volume of help requests resulting from COVID-19, we have temporarily suspended messaging services.”

I tried calling next. After spending 25 minutes on hold, most of that featuring recorded reminders that I could order online and pick up in store, the call dropped. I also tried calling the store directly; after 11 minutes on hold, that call also went into the bit bucket. I tweeted my annoyance at this display of botched customer relationship management and moved on for the day.

Two days later, I must have been in a mood for more punishment, since I tried calling the Home Depot customer-service line again. This time, I only had to sit through 17 minutes of hold music before my call got dumped.

My tweet about this latest fascinating development drew the attention of one of Bernie Sanders’ more devout fans, and I spent the next few hours getting roasted for my alleged selfish disregard for the plight of Home Depot’s workers.

I thought I’d been pretty clear in trying to complain about a broken CRM stack that took customers’ money and offered no hint about when they’d get the items they’d tried to purchase. But I have been on Twitter way too long to be surprised to see context crumble there.

The next morning, Home Depot e-mailed to say that my same-day pickup was ready, a good five days after I’d clicked a purchase button. My receipt of this message was my cue to remember one item that I’d forgotten to put on this order, a short stretch of water hose to replace the leaking connector on a hose reel.

And then I waited until the next afternoon to stop by Home Depot’s Seven Corners location to pick up my purchases. On arriving there, I realized that the window-screen repair kit I’d ordered did not include the screen itself, just the frame. I could have known that in advance by, you know, reading the kit’s description online–but instead I had to spend a little more time meandering around the place.

Anyway, here’s the important part of the story: The employees in this store were great, as usual.

Weekly output: OurStreets for groceries, browser choices and sports-network fees, coronavirus effects on tech

In a fit of optimism two weeks ago, I put together a panel proposal for this fall’s Online News Association conference–which, at the rate things are going, could be my next business trip if I even go anywhere for work over the rest of this year. Over at Patreon, I wrote a post Tuesday for subscribers about how I put together this pitch and recruited two other panelists for it.

4/28/2020: Can’t find toilet paper, eggs, or flour? This app knows where to go, Fast Company

I wrote about the reincarnation of an app that I’d covered first in January as a tool to report bad behavior by drivers. OurStreets now delivers crowd-sourced intelligence about the availability of such staples as toilet paper, bread, milk, eggs and flour. It’s done that impressively well around D.C. in my own experience, but in other cities it’s yet to see the same shopper pickup. (I have to credit my editor Harry McCracken for asking me to go into more detail about this app’s slower adoption outside its launch market of the greater Washington area.)

4/28/2020: This Morning with Gordon Deal April 28, 2020, This Morning With Gordon Deal

I was on this business-news radio show to talk about my USA Today columns on desktop browser choices and sports-network fees on pay TV.

4/30/2020: Moor Insights & Strategy Podcast (4-30-20), Mark Vena

I joined my analyst pal’s podcast with fellow tech freelancers John Quain and Stewart Wolpin to talk about working from home and when we’ll ever get to meet in person again at some tech event. Appropriately enough, our conversation about using collaborative tools to work remotely got interrupted when Stewart mysteriously dropped off the Zoom call.

Here’s why I have trouble buying things quickly online

Like many of you, I’ve been doing a fair amount of online shopping. But I’ve probably been much slower at it than most of you.

Not “slower” in the sense of taking forever to pick one product over another (although my indecision-making there is considerable), but in the sense of deciding how I’ll pay for it and which third-party site I should click through before making the purchase.

Picking a credit card is the easier part even if I’m not buying stuff for my job (work expenses go on a separate card to ease my accounting). Most of the time, the 2% cash-back rebate on the Citi Double Cash Mastercard makes it the obvious choice. It’s been an even easier call when Citi’s offered extra cash back in promotions with various merchants.

But other card issuers have their own extra incentives. American Express and Chase offer extra cash back and do so much more often, but you have to sign up for each such offer on their sites or in their mobile apps. So I need to consult both before any purchase–and then hope the merchant in question doesn’t drop one of these deals the week after my purchase.

(Note that Amex and Chase also have tiered cash and points rewards for categories outside of online retail; a proper discussion of them would require a separate post.)

Not too many years ago, my shopping decisions would have ended there. But then I had to start considering shopping portals, the points-for-purchases sites most frequent-travel programs provide for members. By itself, a mile or a point for a dollar spent somewhere is barely worth thinking about. But that incremental addition does deserve your time if you’re nearing an award-redemption threshold or have miles or points that will expire without new activity in your account.

These portals don’t all offer the same rate or each offer the same rate over time. To verify which one offers the most return, I use a site called Cashback Monitor that tracks these deals and lets you set up a custom page with your favorites. (For more details, see this concise how-to by One Mile At A Time’s Tiffany Funk.) JetBlue consistently offers some of the best earn rates; fortunately, TrueBlue points have not seem the same deflation as other frequent-flyer currencies in recent years.

You may find no future-travel benefit for a potential purchase. Best Buy, Target and Walmart recently seem to have dropped out, while I can’t remember seeing any travel incentives for Amazon. In those cases, I’ll go to one last site before starting a purchase: my client Wirecutter, which often tells me what to buy and makes a decent chunk of its money off affiliate payments from Amazon and other retailers. If I can’t treat myself to a little kickback on a purchase, helping one of my favorite clients seems like a decent fallback.

Weekly output: sports-network fees without sports, astroturfed “reopen” domains

My home-baking experience has gotten more analog this week after our beloved and much-used KitchenAid stand mixer fell off a counter and took enough damage to break some non-user-accessible part of its motor. After hand-kneading the dough for two loaves of bread, a pizza crust and a batch of English muffins, I can report that old-school baking provides a decent upper-arm workout.

4/26/2020: How sporting is this? Sports-network fees stay in the pay-TV lineup despite no live action, USA Today

If you were hoping one tiny upside of the novel-coronavirus pandemic would be a break from regional-sports-network fees on your TV bill, you’re going to have to wait for the leagues involved to announce formally that their 2020 season either won’t happen or will be cut back by a large and defined margin. Sorry!

4/26/2020: Suspicious “reopen” domain names, Al Jazeera

I appeared via Skype on the Arabic-language news network to discuss reports from Domain Tools and my old Post pal Brian Krebs that many of the sites suddenly created to urge reopening the U.S. from coronavirus lockdown were actually created by the same set of sketchy right-wing activists. This led me to ask my producer in AJ’s D.C. bureau how you’d say “astroturfing” in Arabic; he said the closest thing would be “التنجيم” (pronounced “tanjeem”), which apparently has a dictionary translation of “astrology” but has lately picked up other meanings.

At least I’m getting caught up with my photography

I’m old enough to remember putting pictures into photo albums as a regular rainy-day activity, so now that we’re in an endless series of metaphorical rainy days I’m not surprised to find myself finally editing, captioning, organizing and sharing old photos.

And I’m not surprised to doing this on Flickr, because I’m old enough to have started using social media before that term meant Facebook and Twitter. I’ve tried to keep up with sharing new photos there–both as I take individual ones that interest me and in album form (photoset form, if you’re an old-timer like me) after I come back from trips and events.

But those same trips and events also often got in the way of me taking the time to edit, caption, organize and share. Because Flickr isn’t Instagram, I want to take the time to make sure I’ve decided what makes one photo better than those I took immediately before and after and therefore worth including in an album–and then crop it just so and write a correct and useful caption instead of throwing in a clever phrase and stamping the pic #travel.

So my Flickr output lagged, even though as a paying Flickr Pro user I should want to get the most out of my money.

Now, however, I have nowhere to go and a lot more free time. So my photostream may have looked more like a time machine as I’ve finally posted albums from such past happenings as the 2018 edition of the IFA tech trade show, an hour or so I spent last April flying above Sonoma County in a friend’s plane, and last year’s Web Summit.

I’ve also filled out such older albums as my set of ballpark pictures and my collection of window-seat photos from aircraft. And each time I do this, I come across more old photos that I don’t want to keep confined to my private backup.

I worried at first that seeing pictures of interesting places that I can’t visit now or anytime soon would depress me, but instead this exercise has reminded me of what I like about photography. And at least that’s one hobby I can still pursue in my backyard if I must.

 

Weekly output: your browser choices, how Virginia got suckered by Intuit

I didn’t have to file taxes, file for an extension on taxes, or make quarterly estimated-tax payments this week. So it had that much going for it.

4/14/2020: Chrome, Edge, Safari or Firefox: Which browser won’t crash your computer when working from home?, USA Today

My editor asked if I could assess which browsers would leave the biggest dent in a home computer’s processor and memory, so I tested Chrome, Edge, and Firefox on my Windows laptop, then tested Chrome, Edge, Firefox and Safari slightly less systematically on my Mac desktop. (I wrote up my methodology for Patreon subscribers.)

4/14/2020: Virginia’s free-file fail, The Washington Post

A decade ago, I tried in vain to use my perch at the Post to stop Virginia from signing onto the “Free File” initiative championed by Intuit and other tax-prep firms that would require the state to scrap its good, free iFile tax-prep app. You can treat this piece for the Post’s Local Opinions section as my I-told-you-so revenge, showing how after 10 years the number of commonwealth taxpayers using the income-limited Free File option remains a small fraction of the number that had used iFile. (The Virginia Department of Taxation provided the numbers I requested almost immediately, so you’re also welcome to wonder why we haven’t seen them in stories before.) This story also notes that the non-income-limited Free Fillable Forms Web app Intuit provides to anybody amounts to the stone tablet of spreadsheets. This is what crony capitalism looks like.

 

 

The quesadilla assembly line

I’m in the middle of my longest stretch of home cooking in years, so I’m falling back on one of the recipes I always make before heading out of town for work.

Quesadillas check off several critical requirements in family cuisine: cheap ingredients, simple to prepare, most picky-eating kids will eat them, most grownups like them too, easily reheated, freezer-tolerant.

I won’t call this recipe authentic; I can’t object if you label it cultural appropriation, given my absence of Latino heritage. It is, however, an affordable and low-stress way to put together dinner for multiple nights. So I hope this helps some of you trying to avoid total dependence on takeout and delivery.

  • 1/3 onion
  • 1/2 bell pepper
  • 2 tbsp. cooking oil
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. cumin
  • 1/4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 15-oz. can black beans
  • 1 ripened avocado
  • 1/2 lb. Monterey jack cheese
  • 10 8-in. flour tortillas

Dice onion and bell pepper. Warm 1 tablespoon oil in a pan over medium heat, then sauté the vegetables until softened while adding the salt, cumin and chili powder.

Slice the avocado in half and remove the pit, drain and rinse the black beans, and divide the cheese into 10 portions. Place a nonstick pan or griddle on the stovetop over no more than medium heat.

Put a drop of vegetable oil on aluminum foil or another clean and washable or disposable surface and swab it with one side of a tortilla. Take one heaping tablespoon of avocado and mash it on half of the other side of the tortilla. Add a dangerously-heaping tablespoon of black beans atop the avocado, then a tenth of the sauteed veggies. Dice one of the one-tenth portions of the cheese and scatter that over the other fillings.

(This is also your opportunity to add any other random ingredients that could suit this context: a tomato diced up, leftover BBQ, chopped spinach or arugula from the garden or remaining from a grocery-store purchase, diced cilantro, etc.)

Fold the quesadilla over into a semicircle, then cook it on the pan or griddle until browned on each side while frequently pressing down on it with a spatula to ensure the ingredients meld. You should be able to do at least two at once, but move them often to avoid them lingering on any cool spots in the pan or griddle.

Serve as is or with salsa or sour cream. Try to save some of the batch for leftovers.