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Survival in Tough Times: Smart Shopping

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When economic times are good, you may be inclined to shop with little regard for price or value. But when conditions turn sour, as they have for many Americans, it’s another story. The advertising industry is devoted to identifying what citizens consider significant. Even more so, the market manipulators create those choices. With customers now in short supply and lesser sums to be spent, the competition is as fierce as it is grotesque. As your dollars must be stretched longer and harder, you’d better spend each of them wisely.

What brand of watch do you wear? Whether a top-of-the-line Oysterquartz Datejust, a fashionable Cartier, a respectable Bulova, or an economy Timex, recognize all are battery-operated, with a similar quartz movement, and none fail to keep excellent time. Except for the archaic Rolex, the day of the mechanical Swiss movement is a thing of the past. The current models all do a better job than the “precision” pocket watch your Great-grand-uncle Elmo used as an engineer on the Lackawanna Railroad. The only justification for a high-priced model is self-image and the illusion of prosperity. The value of these qualities is overrated.

And while on the subject of small mechanical devices which serve a need, consider the hyperbole employed by one firm to convince us of the importance of a $600 ballpoint pen. The arguments include an appreciation of beauty and workmanship, the profound emotional experience you receive utilizing a fine writing implement, and the implication you will be admired by clients and associates for your taste and culture. A number of competing firms aggressively promote substantially identical versions, with radio and television ads regularly employed. There are two fascinating aspects of this campaign, the first being that the hired pitchmen manage to keep a straight face while reading their lines. The other is that anyone not certifiably demented actually believes a word of it. Nonetheless, for whatever reason, the pens enjoy a market. On a personal note, the pen in my shirt pocket, with probable value of about 29¢, carries the somewhat worn inscription “Resdeck Plumbing, Redondo Beach, Calif, Your problems are our problems.” In the past month I used that pen to sign a variety of documents which, to borrow a line from one of those ads, were truly “admired by my associates.”

What can be said about wristwatches and ballpoint pens is equally true as to other highly promoted products. These include magazine offerings, timeshare projects, $300 per ounce bottles of perfume, Las Vegas weekend getaways, and the purchase of lottery tickets, to name just a few. As a rule of thumb, the more overpriced the merchandise, the more innovative its promotion. Perhaps there is a connection, if only because moderately priced items which represent honest value incur less sales resistance, so need not be touted with such vigor. Reflect, for a moment, on the recognizable voices and faces making the outrageous claims. If there’s a benefit to this, perhaps it’s that the association of certain marketing celebrities with a product of any sort saves you the effort of analyzing the offering; you may reject it out of hand.

Let me offer a few other examples of money badly spent. This behavior pattern multiplied and added up over a lifetime represents a fair chunk of your earnings.

Twenty-four rolls of a popular brand of toilet paper is available at Walmart for $10.19. Six rolls of the same product, selling at a major market of $6.46, is easily dropped into a shopping cart. The two-hundred-fifty percent markup doesn’t seem to bother many housewives. It should.

An envelope containing three sheets of paper arrived in the mail yesterday with two 42¢ stamps-total: 84¢. At two ounces, its correct charge is 59¢. Actually it weighed just under an ounce, so the sender evidentially guessed on the high side. Much correspondence arrives with excess postage¾a lazy and expensive way to send mail. As you might guess, my desk drawer contains a small sixteen-ounce postal scale. I’ve owned this little device since 1962 when postage was 4¢ per ounce. Over the years the scale has paid for itself a thousand times.

And speaking of envelopes and paper supplies, where might they be bought cheaply? Except for top-grade rag content or custom-engraved stock, avoid the stationery stores. Even the major discounters are not the places to go. A little comparison shopping reveals paper supply houses offer the lowest prices, and most are open to the general public.

When you fill your car with gasoline, does the lesser-priced regular grade or the higher-priced premium grade end up in your tank? Don’t base your decision on assurances by the service station manager promoting the more expensive fuel, but on performance you can actually experience. The fundamental difference between the two grades is octane number¾burning speed-when in earlier years slower burning helped prevent engine “knock.” Because of the lower compression ratios of today’s cars, most function satisfactorily on 87-octane fuel. The test is simple to conduct. With the lower octane gas in your tank, accelerate up a slight grade in drive gear. If you experience no unrelenting “pinging” of the engine, then the lower octane gas is working well and you may save yourself the cost of the more expensive fuel.

I hope this message is coming across clearly. You’re not well advised when you make your buying decisions based on urging from shopkeepers or exhortation from advertising. Sharpen your buying habits with a healthy dose of skepticism. Look closely at the product, read the specifications, verify the quality, and compare prices. You’ll often find what is claimed is not what is offered. In most of your purchases you are less familiar with a product than are its vendors. You can overcome this disadvantage with a little effort and by educating yourself. The results are cumulative and your performance will improve with time.