Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Problem With Consumerism

I like to think I am like most American consumers in that I prefer to get the most bang for my buck. I shop sales and when I plan to make a purchase I do my research so I know I’m getting the most value for my dollar. If the purchase is an item worth for than $50 or so I’ll sometimes even go so far as to research pricing on the Internet and comparison shop locally. Above all else I refuse to impulse buy and I take personal pride in getting a good deal.

That being said, every now and then I come across a situation which really makes it difficult to understand why some consumers essentially ‘waste’ money without looking at the alternatives. I can understand people not bothering to comparison shop when it comes time to buy new socks or batteries for their remote controls. However sometimes all a person has to do is actually take a few seconds to read the price tag and compare it to other options available in the very same store… often in the very same aisle.

Case in point – this past weekend I found myself in need of a replacement filter for my Ridgid shop vac. Since Ridgid is a Home Depot brand, I knew the best possible location to obtain a replacement filter was likely Home Depot. Since I had some other things to shop for, I decided to make a trip to the big orange store and see what I could find.

As I’m walking through the front entrance I notice as stack of flyers so I grab one and give it a quick glance to see what they have on sale. As luck would have it, they have a Ridgid shop vac on sale for the whopping price of $19.98. Now granted I don’t need another shop vac because the one I have works just fine and isn’t that old, but this got me curious.

As I walked over to the part of the store where they sell the vacuums, I notice a pile of the special sale priced vacs in the main aisle. According to the box it includes two sections of hard plastic extension wand, one seven foot flex hose, and one nozzle. It also just happens to include the same pleated filter as my current shop vac uses. Keep in mind all of this costs $19.98.

So I then walk over to the wall where they stock the accessories and filters. To buy the single filter – with no shop vac, no hoses, no nozzles or other accessories… it costs $15.97.

Yes you read that correctly – the filter costs 16 bucks and the entire shop vac with filter and accessories goes for 20. So basically Home Depot would have me believe that the shop vac itself with the accessories is worth a total of $4 while the filter is worth four times as much.

To make matters that much worse, about eight feet to the left of where I was looking at the filter, they have a display with a twin-pack of filters for the exact same price of $15.97. Knowing that you can buy two filters for the same price as you can buy one filter… why would anyone ever buy just one?

Now I suppose I could buy the whole shop vac and just use that filter with the knowledge if my existing shop vac dies on me or if I break a hose etc I will have a spare, but that is just one more thing to store in my already over-crowded garage and frankly I just don’t see the value in obtaining vast quantities of stuff that I don’t really need. My point here is that Home Depot is almost forcing people to buy things they don’t really need merely due to the pricepoint. This just suggests an older perfectly good shop vac could end up in the landfill when someone replaces it with a shiny new model just because it was cheap.

Just because something is cheap, does not mean it makes sense to buy it… but it is difficult to recognize this when we are continually bombarded with opportunities to “get a good deal”.

This same principle applies with many products and I often times find buying replacements or accessories for products is just as expensive or even more expensive than the original products themselves. One example of this is batteries for power tools. If you want to buy a two pack of 18 volt batteries for a Dewalt drill, you can expect to pay around $119. However if you wait until the drill is on sale, you can actually get a whole new drill, two batteries, a charger, and a hard case for $99! In fact Home Depot and Lowes run this sale on Black Friday almost every year, and I’ve seen it at other random times as well. This explains why I own two drills rather than one drill and extra batteries – because it is just cheaper and a better value.

So what is a person to do? Should we just continue to buy new inkjet printers each time we need a new ink cartridge rather than buying the actual cartridges just because it is about the same money? Should we continue to buy light bulbs in the multipack because they include a free LED flashlight rather than buying the same light bulbs without the flashlight? Should we do this even if we already have five of the ‘free’ flashlights and cannot possibly use any more?

As if this wasn’t all confusing enough, I found myself at Lowes a few days after my Home Depot experience. As I was walking through the store I came across some drill bit kits that were priced at $9.97. The kicker was if you buy the drill bits there is a $10 off a $50 future purchase at Lowe’s. So basically if you buy the drill bits they will cost you $9.97 plus tax (which in my area would equal a total of $10.57). You can then take those drill bits out to the car, remove the coupon, and then return to the store to buy the rest of your purchases. The net result is the drill bit set will cost you a whopping 60 cents.

Now I’m a tool guy – I like tools, I have a lot of tools, and I can almost always justify the purchase of even more tools… however I did not buy the bits even though they are a great deal. The simple truth was I have done things like this so often that I have enough bits to last me a lifetime plus ten years – so even if another set costs less than a candy bar, I just don’t have the need for them. I suppose I could have bought them and given them to a friend or family member, but I was just so amazed at the logic behind the pricing that I just couldn’t bring myself to add them to my cart.

Sometimes being a well informed consumer can give a person a headache.

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