Mr. Braley continues free-lance writing after fifty years as author, correspondent, and poet.
My friend Jones, whom 1 don’t keep down with, is very price conscious.
We were shopping in the same supermarket, and I had just dropped a package of Grandma’s Oats in my cart.
“That,” said Jones, “is an example of the way the consumer is gouged on the cost of living. Grandma’s Oats—maybe four cents worth of oatmeal in a fancy package, nineteen cents! Four hundred per cent profit. It’s a stick-up. It ain’t worth it.”
“It’s worth it to me,” I said. “I’m not paying nineteen cents for four cents worth of oatmeal, I’m paying 19 cents for oatmeal I know is accurately weighed, free of dirt and worms, cookable in five minutes instead of five hours, and put up in a convenient package to use or store in the cupboard.
“Using Grandma’s Oats instead of loose oatmeal saves on my gas bills, saves my wife labor and time, and adds maybe one cent to the cost of our breakfast. If the manufacturer and the retailer split a 400 per cent profit in furnishing me these advantages—they’re welcome to it. So, 19 cents for Grandma’s Oats—it’s worth it to me.”
Maybe our food cost runs a little higher than the Joneses—though 1 doubt there’s much difference—but it’s worth it to me in time and trouble saved by not worrying whether I could have got something two cents, or two dollars, in some cases, cheaper by bargain-hunting. It’s worth it to me in the convenience and ease of shopping where pre-packaged and wrapped goods are all ready for me to pick up and take home.
So when Jones and I met again at the milk counter—1 think he was haunting me to see what next extravagance in buying I would commit—and as I put a container of homogenized milk and a half pint of heavy cream in my cart, he said, “Two cents extra for homogenizing—which probably costs half a cent. Another stick-up!”
I said, “It’s worth it to me. I’m not too lazy to shake up the milk each time I use it, but I don’t like to be bothered, and it’s worth two cents a quart to me not to have to.”
“Is it worth ten cents more a half pint to buy heavy cream instead of light?” he protested.
“It is to me,” I replied, “I like real cream in my coffee, not fortified milk. Also, it’s worth it in the economy sense. First, I need only half as much heavy as light cream to get the same effect, or better, in my Java. Second, I can get the same consistency as light cream—if I wanted it, which I don’t—by mixing heavy cream with milk, at a mingled cost less than the light stuff.”
In the vegetable department, Jones loaded a five pound bag of potatoes into his cart and I did likewise, only, as Jones pointed out, I was paying two cents a pound more than he was.
And I pointed out that 1 was getting selected, sized, and washed potatoes, in a transparent bag through which my wife could see to pick out the particular potatoes she wanted to cook; while Jones was getting a heterogeneous lot of spuds that had to be dumped out to determine their size, and scrubbed by Mrs. Jones before they could be used.
If that extra work and bother to the Joneses is covered by the ten cents they save on the bag, it isn’t worth it to me. And, again, if the potato-packer makes eight cents out of this “fancy packaging,” he’s welcome to it, as far as I am concerned.
However, Jones to the contrary notwithstanding, there are very few swollen profits wrapped up in packaged and frozen foods. With the competition as fierce as it is, the greedy purveyor would find himself out of business in a month if he tried to mulct the buyer for more than the packaging is worth.
And in pre-cut and wrapped meats, for instance, I find a saving not only of time, but of money. In my supermarket—which is typical—I can find exactly the kind, cut, quality, and quantity of meat I want, visible and easily handled in its cellophane wrapper, labeled with its weight, price per pound, and a guarantee as to quality. And 1 don’t have to accept the extra ounces that a butcher frequently adds as he cuts to fill the order, or watch to see that he doesn’t weigh his hand with the steak, or pay him from two to ten cents a pound more than for the “prettified” kind from the pre-cut counter.
And, even if it were more expensive to buy the prepared stuff, it would be worth it to me in convenience, and the sanitary absence of flies.
In the list of grocery items for which 1 cheerfully pay a small premium in price are certain brands of coffee, salad dressing, tea, soup, pudding, detergents, scrubbing powder, and the like that have been recommended to me through years of national advertising, but permanently sold to me because experience proves their superior quality.
That same price differential is also worth it to me in a number of other categories—like car polish, floor wax, vacuum bottles, hand lotion, and razor blades, to list a few—in which certain brands demonstrably are best and most efficient to use. Incidentally, some of these special brands, while higher priced than many competitors, are not the most expensive. While 1 contend that paying more for the best is generally worth the difference, it doesn’t follow that paying the most always gets you the best.
So, I agree with Jones about shopping around for some items.
There’s no advantage to me in paying 29 cents for four ounces of perfumed lighter fluid when there’s a chain store that sells it (unscented) for 9¢.
Paying 10¢ an ounce for nail-polish remover, when lacquer thinner (the same chemical) costs 50¢ a pint, isn’t worth it to me.
Nor is it worth it, to a smoker who has “tried ‘em all,” to pay several dollars a pound for ultra-special blends of tobacco when a dozen brands at a dollar-a-pound are just as satisfactory and a lot easier on the throat.
And, to step into a higher bracket of expenditure, it isn’t worth it to me—and wouldn’t be if I were “loaded” or had a limitless expense account—to pay $25 for a steak dinner at a swank bistro, when $3.75 will get me as good a meal in surroundings just as luxurious except for the figures on the right of the carte du jour. 1 say that isn’t worth it to me; yet, I readily concede that it must be worth it to those who freely and willingly partake of such fare.
With comparatively few exceptions, it’s worth it to me to pay whatever is the small added price for a better or more conveniently packaged product; and let Jones use his price-conscience penny-wisdom in what I call pound-foolishness.
I’ve made this piece personal because I think I’m typical of the “improvident and extravagant American customer” who buys on impulse and doesn’t count the cost—and because it’s my personal opinion that the “extravagant and improvident American customer” is nothing of the kind, but actually a better economist than the price-conscious bargain hunter.
When he—or rather, she, (for women do most of the shopping)—buys advertised brands of soap or sealing wax, packaged cereals, pre-cut meats, frozen vegetables and fish, the cent or two more they cost (and not all of them do) are worth it to her in convenience, confidence in quality, time and labor saved.
It’s because Mrs. Shopper is convenience-minded, quality-minded, and time-minded that our producers have built up a market vaster and more varied than anywhere else on earth, in which “extravagant” shoppers can go on expanding the list of things that are worth it to them.
To the kind of mind that views saving string and straightening nails as economy, most Americans are heedless spendthrifts, but that sort of economy is sound only when fresh string and new nails are not on the market.
So, I think that the American buyer is basically the most intelligently provident of people in using “it’s worth it to me” as his slogan. My opinion on this may not be worth your considering, but it’s worth it to me.
Serving the Consumer
The principle which enables consumers to get the most of what they want is the principle of the free market. The heroine of the free market is the typical Queensway housewife who will go out of her way rejoicing to buy a box of detergent two cents cheaper.
Such an opportunity our heroine is glad to discover by shopping around. She would most vocally resent any restriction on her freedom to shop around. Without this vital freedom, all other freedoms—worship, speech, press, assembly, and so on—are shadowy if not impossible.
Hart Buck, Freedom to Shop Around