Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Affordably Entertaining: Swap Parties

Last spring, I participated in a seven-part, one-minute, home entertaining video series where I discussed swap parties. By the way, swap parties are one of the most popular topics on Bargainista.

I hope you enjoy my interview with the lovely Samantha Gutstadt, host of Affordably Entertaining:

Check out the other episodes and blogs too:
Creative decorating with Gillian Lawtie from Pink Mafia
Grow your own with gardening expert Veronica Sliva
Host your own tasting party featuring Ange and Pax from iYellow Wine Club
DIY hostess gifts with Angelune des Lauriers
Value-priced wines with Victor Borja-Sheen from the LCBO
How to make your next house party ROCK featuring Noah Cappe from Superfly Entertainment

FYI, the series currently airs on Pizza Pizza-TV, a network in more than 200 southern Ontario Pizza Pizza locations, operated by Rogers Digital Network Solutions.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Seasonal sales and sundresses

In this week’s baby bargainista column, Jenny shares her shopping tips for scoring big at seasonal sales while buying sundresses for her pre-schooler.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true – kids grow up quickly, right before your eyes! When the first heat wave of summer arrived I reached into our first-born’s closet for the summer sundresses bought last year, hoping that a few of them might still fit, but it seems Girl #1 has sprouted about a foot in height, almost all of it legs. Even the sundresses bought a size larger at the end-of-season sales last year are no better than tunics now.

So, I headed out to find our beanpole some summer wear. Luckily many stores have already started marking down summer merchandise. I first went to Old Navy and H&M in the Eaton Centre; both had big SALE! signs in the windows and I rejoiced! My procrastination was about to be rewarded.

Old Navy may have had kids’ dresses, but the day I went the children’s section was a mess! Picked over, understocked, and understaffed, with many items misshelved so that it was hard to tell what was on sale and what was not. I couldn’t find anything in my daughter’s size, and when I asked a passing staffer for help, she told me it “wasn’t her section”.

Thoroughly dissatisfied, I headed a few doors down to H&M. There I had the opposite experience: sale racks and individual items were clearly marked, and despite the crowds, when I asked a passing staffer if anything else was marked down she happily directed me to another sale rack hidden in a corner. I found nearly a dozen summer dresses but eventually settled on a half-dozen, including the $10 sale item pictured above.

Bottom line? When shopping seasonal sales, remember to:
1. Ask sales staff if any other merchandise is marked down – sometimes sale items aren’t clearly marked and you might find more bargains

2. Buy up for next year – if you can’t find anything in your kid’s current size, there’s no harm in buying a size or two larger – they’ll grow into it!
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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hazel’s Diner: try it, you’ll like it

I don’t know about you but I love lazy Sundays. And one of my favourite activities is to go for brunch. Since Mr. B isn’t a big fan, we don’t go very often but today he decided to oblige me and try Hazel’s Diner, a new addition to the north Toronto landscape.

Although it’s sad seeing many local businesses fade away during tough times, one of the benefits is the recent surge of new eateries in the Yonge St. strip between Lawrence and York Mills.

Hazel’s Diner came with a respectable pedigree in that it’s owner, Tony Xavier is a well-known restauranteur responsible for Chega, the successful upscale restaurant with the grey stucco and no sign a few doors down. Always wanting to support neighbourhood businesses, after reading a review in North Toronto Post, I wanted to see for myself.

Arriving at 1 p.m., this cozy diner was about half full, mostly with young families. Within 20 minutes, it got much busier. Service was friendly. The atmosphere was warm and casual.

As expected from a diner, the small menu offered predominantly all-day breakfasts and other comfort foods (salads, sandwiches, several varieties of burgers and 5 or 6 typical diner entrees) at reasonable prices. Meals started at $3.99 and the average price was around $9 with nothing more than $14.

Mr. B. ordered an all-day breakfast for $6.95 (Update: $3.99 between 7 a.m.-11a.m.). I ordered the vegetarian omelette with mushrooms, roasted peppers and broccoli. My request for salad instead of home fries was granted hassle-free. Both our meals were delicious. I was impressed by the lack of grease (there didn’t appear to be any oil or butter on my omelette) and the freshness of the food.

We’ll definitely be back and for Hazel’s hand-cut New York steak with side priced at $12, we’re looking forward to returning for dinner. (I’m guessing it’s orderd along with the meat for Chega’s kitchen and a great bargain.) Oh ya, that’s my one complaint, in a neighbourhood with few true family-friendly restaurants, Hazel’s closes at 6 p.m. every night but Sunday when it’s open until 9 p.m.
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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Random thoughts about art and passion

I don’t know a lot about art. Nor do I pretend to know a lot about art. But today when I visited the AGO, one thing became quite apparent. Art is truly a labour of love and most of all passion.

Before most art has any value, it’s created entirely from an artist’s vision, talent and passion. The passion to keep on creating and sharing, regardless of whether or not he or she is making any money. Even the artists responsible for some of the most expensive pieces of art today probably weren’t making a living from their art.

Yet, that didn’t stop them. The results of their efforts are works of absolute beauty enjoyed by people around the world. That’s what defines and drives the value of a piece of art, long after an artist is no longer around to realize the impact her vision and creativity had on generations to come. These visual artists weren’t thinking about being rich in monetary terms. They were thinking about self-expression, doing something they loved and sharing with an audience who appreciated their talents – day in and day out. Now that’s passion.

This got me thinking about why so many people are hung up about being paid for pursing their passion today. There are many things I’m passionate about in life that don’t have a monetary value, nor should they, like family and relationships. It’s the relationships I’ve made here that drive my passion to maintain this blog – and if you’re wondering, less posts do not mean I’m any less passionate – so please keep your comments coming.

So why are so many people hung up about making a living from creating personal online content? If you can make a buck or two at it, that’s great. If it’s getting in the way of other things you value, maybe you aren’t as passionate about it as you think.

Oh yeah, and if you’re looking for a way to get a lot of value for your money on a rainy summer day, visit an art gallery.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pottery Barn rugs at bargain basement prices

One of the cool things about my day job is having a couple of new sisters (sister companies that is) and the opportunity to meet and work with people who, like me, spend a lot of time online. Kristy Pryma is one of those people. When I learned about her amazing rug bargain on Twitter, I asked if she’d write a guest post and share it with you too. So here goes... Kristy’s a writer, the mom of a preschooler and the wife of a man without a stomach. Follow her on Twitter or visit her blog.

The only thing better than getting a great bargain is telling other people about it. Here’s my latest coup, of the home furnishing kind.

Two years ago when we moved our two year old daughter into her big girl bed, we started the hunt for a new rug to tie her room together. After flipping through the gorgeously girly rugs on display at Sherway Garden’s Pottery Barn Kids, we noticed a small sign that said “Ask us about our selection of discontinued rugs not on display.” As true bargain hunters, we asked, and were treated to a visit through the website with a helpful stockroom guy who showed us a dozen options online that they no longer had room to display on the floor. We chose a pattern and drove home with a still sealed $800 rug for $225.

When we needed a new rug for our living room, we were jonesing for a similar experience, so lurked around the city’s Pottery Barns hoping to find a discontinued gem. A few Fridays ago history repeated itself. This scenario was slightly different—Pottery Barn at Yorkdale Mall is in the midst of its floor model sale, so dozens of pieces of furniture, including rugs, have been significantly marked down. My husband spotted a lush 8' x 10' wool rug in the right colour at up to 70% off the original price, so he lured me to the mall after work to take a look. The colour was perfect, the size was right and the price was amazing: it was labelled $249.

When we got to the register, however, it appeared the rug had been mistagged: it came up at $599, which would have made its original price significantly higher than we thought. As soon as the wrong price was revealed, I bristled, preparing myself for an argument, but to my delight the salesperson adjusted it, and we walked away with a mint-condition floor model rug for $249.

Don’t you just love happy endings?
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Air Canada – makes a save and a happy customer

Taking off, Montreal-TrudeauImage via Wikipedia

Until about 8 months ago, my airline travel was limited to once a year while visiting my kids at summer camp. I’d been flying WestJet and been perfectly happy receiving warm, friendly service from their cheerful flight attendants. I’d been hearing lots of negative chatter about Air Canada.

Last winter I flew to Vancouver and Halifax on family and business matters. I tried Air Canada again because they had the best combination of price and convenient flight times. Despite traveling in horrible snowy weather, they came through. Last month I had the pleasure of flying Porter – more about that experience in an upcoming post.

Air Canada had a great seat sale in February. Knowing we had to book flights to visit the kids this summer, Mr. B booked our tickets. Knowing very little would keep us away from visiting our kids, Mr. B didn’t arrange for flight insurance.

So, when camp cancelled visiting day this year because of H1N1 fears, we thought we were SOL. According to Mr. B’s research, we were eligible for a credit good for one year from the time of purchase (not the date of travel), we’d have to pay a penalty of $150 per return fare, and either pay the difference for a higher fare or lose the difference on a lower fare; and the credit was non-transferable.

Since we really only use air travel during the summer with a very specific purpose, having a credit through next February wasn’t much of a benefit. My sister told me about having to cancel a flight on Air Canada last year and after asking for an extension, she was given an extra three months.

I called the airline this morning to see if there was anything they could do to help. I explained the situation and the customer service representative (CSR) told me in no uncertain terms since Air Canada didn’t have an H1N1 policy there was nothing he could do. No extension, three-month or otherwise. He lectured me about buying cancellation insurance. I was getting annoyed. I asked to speak to his supervisor. He raised his voice and told me his supervisor wouldn’t do anything different. I told him I didn’t care and I wanted him to escalate the call. The next thing I heard was a dial tone.

After I got over the initial shock of a CSR hanging up the phone on me, I called back. This time a friendly woman helped me and offered to extend the credit period by three months. I asked if she’d consider extending it until the end of July. She explained she couldn’t. I thanked her, told her I still needed to deal with the rude CSR and asked to speak to her supervisor. She kindly obliged me.

The first thing I asked the supervisor was whether or not calls are recorded. His answer: “Sometimes”. I told him about my experience with the first CSR and how I found him to have an abusive manner. I was brutally honest about my airline travel habits and recent exceptions. I confessed that my tone was curt in response to the CSR in question and that although I wasn’t abusive, I may have elevated my voice out of frustration. He was sympathetic under the circumstances. He understood both my difficult predicament and my disappointment with the service.

Within seconds he not only found evidence of the recording, he identified the CSR, told me they worked in the same office and I got the distinct impression he wasn’t a team player. He didn’t have listen to the recording. Without missing a beat he offered to refund our non-refundable tickets in FULL!

To be clear, I was told the refund wasn’t because I had to cancel our flights etc. It was an apology for the poor customer service. And to that I said, “Thank you!” and before we ended the call, a refund confirmation appeared in my inbox. Now that’s what I call service. Air Canada made a fan out of me.

What I’d like to know is how much money companies lose apologizing for poor customer service? Have you had a similar experience? Did you take poor service at face value or did you escalate the call and if so, what happened?
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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hooked on LÄRABAR

My sister has been raving about LÄRABAR for years because she’s the more athletic one of us. So, when Jess Bennett from Palette PR asked if I’d like to try some, I said sure.

I received a lovely sampler with four different flavours (Cashew Cookie, Coconut Cream Pie, Pecan Pie and if memory serves me correctly, Ginger Snap) in a stainless steel thermos. They’re all made with various unprocessed, uncooked combinations of two to eight different ingredients consisting of fruit, nuts and spices. I’ve tried about six or seven different flavours. My favourite ones are Cinnamon Roll and Ginger Snap although I’d really like to taste Peanut Butter & Jelly and Cocoa Mole.

According to LÄRABAR, three new flavours are coming soon. Although the flavours sound creative and these bars are relatively tasty, I’m not sure I’d go as far as saying they’re “indulgent deserts” – a claim I read on the Wikipedia page.

If you’ve been reading Bargainista for a while, you probably know I’ve eaten a lot of NutriSystem and my favourite items were the bars. LÄRABAR is a completely different type of product. I think it’s designed more as an energy bar than a meal supplement. I really like the idea there are no additives. For those of you who are concerned about various allergies (except for allergies to nuts) and dietary restrictions, you may want to take a closer look LÄRABAR.

Being able to purchase LÄRABAR at many retail outlets including grocery and health food stores make them easily accessible. I’m also comfortable giving them to my kids who want to give them a try as soon as they come home from camp. As for the price, I’ve spent anywhere from $1.99-$2.99 per bar. I’ve found grocery stores tend to be less expensive than convenience stores and health food stores are selling them anywhere within that range.

Costco sells a 12-pack for $15.99 with three flavours - Key Lime Pie, Cashew Cookie and Cocoa Coconut Chew - it’s a great deal. I’d like it better if there were more flavours or at least two combinations to choose from.

Perhaps, like my sister you’re a fan of LÄRABAR. If so, you may want to check out their fan page or tweets.

Have you ever tried LÄRABAR? What are your favourite flavours?
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Monday, July 13, 2009

And an now for a special update...

Editor’s note: Welcome Baby Atkinson! Our best wishes go out to you and your loving parents, Rebecca and Mark.

In this week’s baby bargainista column, Rebecca Atkinson shares tips about how to save money while in labour, seriously!

Surprises are a part of life and babies come when they want to. That’s the biggest lesson I learned last week. Not due until Jul y 23, I was shocked when I arrived for my weekly check up and found out my OB wasn’t happy with some of the things that had occurred since my last check-up. A few tests later and suddenly I was going to be having a baby in a few short hours – or so I thought.

After being induced on the evening of July 3, Mark and I finally welcomed our daughter Meredith Jane Atkinson into this world at 3:58 am on Sunday July 5, 2009, weighing 6 pounds and 12 ounces (Yes, I caved and took the drugs, that was too long for me!)

I can’t help but constantly stare at her to make sure she’s breathing and to just ponder the miracle of life. The week has gone by really fast, but it’s incredible how much we’ve learned already.

Lessons Learned
If using disposable, buy small packages of diapers at first – or get samples if you can until you find the best diaper for your baby; it will save money in the long run.
2. Find rides to and from the hospital for Dad because overnight parking is expensive!
3. Bring or have someone bring snacks and food, and a thermos of coffee – especially for your partner – because you can only take so much hospital food. And if baby wants to be born in the wee hours of the morning, most hospital cafeterias follow regular business hours.
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Monday, July 06, 2009

Support your local toy store

In this week’s baby bargainista column, Jenny discusses one of my favourite places: toy stores.

I’m a big believer in supporting local businesses. Sure, you can often find better and bigger bargains at chains like Walmart and Toys R Us, but I’ve been doing a lot of local shopping lately during my maternity leave, and it’s cemented for me that when shopping for toys, price isn’t always everything. Here are some compelling reasons to support your local store.

1. special orders
Recently I stopped into Mastermind’s Beaches location. A friend had recommended to me a bamboo mat, designed to fit any stroller, that wicks sweat away from baby’s back in the hot summer months, that she had purchased at that location a few weeks earlier. I was set on getting one because both my girls suffer from heat rashes and I figured this item would provide some relief. Unfortunately a lot of other moms had counted on it too, and the store was sold out; but a salesperson immediately set about special-ordering one for me – an option no Toys R Us clerk has ever offered.

2. knowledgeable staff
My local toy store, Treasure Island Toys, is a great example of how knowledgeable, friendly staff can make a shopping experience effortless and comfortable. Many’s the time I’ve stopped in to buy birthday gifts for girl #1’s cousins, classmates, and friends, armed with only a gender and age; the staff never fail to offer assistance within a few minutes, and always have a recommendation or two that’s appropriate for the child’s age and sex, taking out all the guesswork for me.

3. free gift wrapping
Treasure Island Toys also offers free gift wrapping – an incredible boon to busy moms, especially when faced with the often oddly-shaped packaging of many toys! Again, not a service I’ve ever heard offered at a chain store (except perhaps during the holiday season).

All these reasons have a common thread – unparalleled customer service. The service I’ve gotten over the years at big-box stores has been spotty at best; but the local stores I’ve frequented have never failed to surpass my expectations. I like a good bargain as much as the next person, but often (like when I’m hauling a hyper 5-year-old and a cranky infant along with me to the toy store) speedy, friendly, knowledgeable service that goes the extra mile is well worth the extra few dollars I might pay at the cash register.

Editor’s note: As I was preparing this post, I learned Mastermind has gone full force into social media and they seem to be doing a great job – they blog, have their own YouTube channel and you can reach them at @MastermindToys on Twitter.
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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Six String Nation - a Canada Day story

Looking for something to be proud of this Canada Day? Want to read a kick-ass story about our culture and heritage in a way that’s never been told before? Read on...

For the second year in a row, I had the good fortune of attending Podcasters Across Borders. Despite it’s name, this gem of a conference – organized by Canadian Podcast Buffet hosts Mark Blevis and Bob Goyetche and their wives, Andrea Ross and Cat Bobkowicz – is about so much more thank podcasting. It’s really about content, creativity and inspiration. The three key elements in plain old-fashioned storytelling, the best way to engage an audience.

That’s exactly how the tone was set with keynote Jowi Taylor, Peabody award-wining writer broadcaster formerly with the CBC, as he presented an overview of his career leading up to the inspiring story of Six String Nation.

What’s Six String Nation and why should you care?

Six String Nation is many things to many people. It started with a dream in 1995 and over the past few years, it’s the result of a cross-country journey and collaboration culminating in:
64 pieces (hand-crafted from vast riches of our history, heritage and culture)
6 strings
1 guitar (the Voyageur)
1 Canada

According to Jowi, the goals are simple:

invite the many voices and perspectives that together define the spectrum of Canadian identity and experience to speak to one another – each in their own voice;
celebrate the people and stories that make each part of Canada distinct;
tell the story of a country from the roots to the trunk rather than the other way around; and
encourage us to tell that story to ourselves and the world through music – the language that Canada speaks just about better than anyone else in the world.”

After Jowi’s story, we were further wowed when Jay Moonah, accompanied by Bob, Mark and a chorus of PAB attendees, started to play With a Little Help from My Friends on the Voyageur. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Many of us also had an opportunity to be photographed and photograph our friends holding the Voyageur as well.

What struck many of us as odd was the fact that there was no direct government support and next to none from corporate Canada. Six String Nation has really been Jowi Taylor’s labour of love.

Help support Jowi by telling others about his story, buying his book – I bought one for Mr. B as a Father’s Day gift – and checking out the Six String Nation tour this summer or a slew of visits to schools and community events throughout the year. You can even have your picture taken with the Voyageur.

Happy Canada Day!

photo credit: Six String Nation at PAB09 by lexnger on flickr, Thanks Lex!
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