Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Dumb Money: 6 Products That Aren't Worth It

From a $500 towel to a $2,600 bottle of water, items that aren't worth the money.
The Beach Gets Haute: A $530 Towel
The Promise: Sun, sand and -- status symbols? For the price of a night in a luxury hotel, Hermes, maker of the famous six-figure Birkin Bag, offers a line of $530 beach towels for those who crave the It beach accessory. Not to be confused with the label's "yachting" towels, the beach versions come in 10 designs, each backed with Hermes's signature orange. According to the company, the towels are screen-printed using the same technique employed on its iconic silk scarves.
The Reality: We couldn't resist sending the tony towel out to be poked and prodded at an accredited lab to see how it fared against a $20 competitor. Rather than soaking up the accolades, the Hermes tested the same as the cheaper model in a color-change test and lost 4 percent of its width after three washings (the $20 towel shrank just 2 percent). And considering it's already the smaller of the two, it can hardly afford it; at just under 59 inches long, it leaves any sunbather over 5 feet with her toes hanging off the edge. The company's printing process may add some cost, says Nancy B. Powell, a professor at North Carolina State's College of Textiles, but not "hundreds of dollars." Hermes didn't return calls for comment.
Water, beach towel, bike Credits (L-R) - Water -  Courtesy of Bling h20, Beach Towel - Courtesy of Hermes, Bike - Courtesy of Ciclotte
Is a $2,600 Bottle of Water Hard to Swallow?
The Promise: With its founder dubbing it the Bentley of bottled waters, Bling H2O promises to quench consumers' thirst for both "award-winning" spring water and the luxe life. Part of a wave of high-end bottled water launches in recent years, Bling's elixir starts at $20 for a small bottle and can run as much as $2,600 -- if you opt for a 750-milliliter vessel hand-encrusted with more than 10,000 Swarovski crystals. (Display case and white gloves included.)
The Reality: The bottle might scream L.A., but the water comes from a more humble source: the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The company that bottles the water for Bling says its water is sold under about 90 brand names in the U.S. -- including one that prices its bottles at $2.49 each, available at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store locations. (Drinkers who prefer a glass bottle, which better preserves taste, can buy the Tennessee water under yet another name, for $35 a case.) Bling's founder, Kevin Boyd, doesn't dispute that his company's water comes from the Tennessee bottler but says the "couture" packaging justifies its price, especially with its hand-applied crystals and customizable designs. "I'm not just selling a water," he says, "but a lifestyle."
Take a Spin on an $11,000 Exercise Bike
The Promise: It's easy to dismiss an $11,000 fitness gadget -- especially when its maker touts it as "destined to become a must in the world of interior design and luxury fitness." Still, there's no denying the cool factor of the Italian-made Ciclotte, a design-forward exercise bike made with feather-light carbon fiber. (For the coastal crowd, there's also a humidity- and salt-resistant version, "ideal for use on yachts.")
The Reality: Sure, it would look at home in a billionaire's bachelor pad, but we can't help wonder if its real destiny is any different from that of most home fitness products -- to collect dust. From a purely fitness perspective, experts say the Ciclotte's use of magnets to create resistance doesn't significantly improve the workout experience. Says Stephen Cain, a University of Michigan mechanical engineer who specializes in the dynamics of bicycles, the bike "is unique in its aesthetics only." The company says the Ciclotte feels more realistic than other models and attributes its price tag to costly materials and hand-assembly.
The All-You-Can-Eat Seat
Baseball or the buffet? For those who can't decide which is truly the great American pastime, here's the ultimate temptation: a seat package that includes an endless spread of hot dogs, popcorn and other fan favorites. These ballpark food fests range from $32 for a single-game seat at the Cincinnati Reds' park to a whopping $2,835 for a season ticket to stuff yourself silly watching the Baltimore Orioles.
The problem: You may need binoculars, since many of the clubs offer the buffet option only in their hard-to-sell outfield seats. And oddly enough, most of the gourmet and regional treats now sold at many stadiums (think fish tacos or ribs) aren't included in the pig-out packages. "It was standard garbage food," says Jonathan Parker, a Miami attorney who tried the all-you-can-eat seats at a Florida Marlins game. ("It's baseball food, which everyone seems to love," says a team spokesperson, adding that the seats get raves from fans.) The last straw? The spreads rarely include the biggest-ticket ballpark purchase of all, beer.
The Professional Roomba
The Promise: Selling for $599, this "professional" version of iRobot's Roomba vacuuming robot claims to motor through up to four rooms, sucking up dirt and dust bunnies before zipping back to its charging hub -- all while its owners tackle more rewarding tasks (like, say, lying on the couch eating Cheetos).
The Reality: While it is pretty cute, some users say the little robot has a few behavioral problems: It has been known to steer itself under the bed, where it sits and sulks, and it sometimes gets stuck in thick, dense carpeting. Jeff Mathewson, an IT technician from Salem, Ore., says his first professional model conked out after just seven months because of clogged gears and that his second Roomba requires daily cleaning and maintenance. The company says it has had lots of "positive feedback" on the devices but adds that they work best on hard floors and low- or medium-pile carpet. Bottom line? Don't toss the Dirt Devil quite yet.
The $7,000 Mattress
The Promise: Swedish bedmaker Hastens Sangar says its Superia II mattress offers a "sleeping experience on a whole new level." But will that level require a second mortgage? For $7,000 and up, Hastens delivers an Arctic pine frame, topped with horsehair, wool and flax. It's heavy and pricey, but at least if you live near a dealer, they'll send someone over to flip it for you.
The Reality: There aren't any scientific studies showing that deluxe mattresses improve sleep, says, well, everybody we talked to. (Hastens agrees but says its customers say they sleep better on these mattresses.)
The Solution: For $2,500 or less, customers can get innovations like memory foam -- and a mattress they can flip themselves.

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