The Recession, Marketing and Human Nature

When times are tough, people often have to resort to a number of tricks to make some money. Consumers become aware of a lot of these ploys and appeals over time, but we are inevitably drawn to them. We read warnings about them, we get burned by experience, we counsel others and yet we succumb when something is priced at only $4.99 instead of $5.

Psychologists tell us that we are hardwired for some of this and conditioned for others. After all, one of the major employment sectors in this country, marketing, is dedicated to understanding what makes a purchaser tick and then pushing a product or service at us. We are so immersed in it 24/7 that we are barely consciously aware of the onslaught.

The problem with all of this is that we sometimes end up spending our hard-earned managed care dollars inappropriately, excessively and all too often without thoughtful planning. No wonder we end up with houses stuffed with things that we wonder how and why we acquired. Like the late comedian George Carlin said, "Home is where you keep your stuff while you're out getting more stuff."

How many infomercials have you stumbled across which called for "five easy payments of only $XX.99" for some garage sale-worthy gimmick or other. My personal peeves are the unused exercise devices which just end up becoming expensive clothes racks. And we seem to be suckers for the size of the payment rather than the total cost of the product or service. That's particularly a problem with large amounts like car leases and credit card balance minimum payments.

Or how about the classic "Sale! X% off while supplies last!" They never say you can "save" 100% by not buying the marginal item in the first place. And when they say "If you don't buy now, it won't be available next day, next week etc. Limited Edition!" we take them at face value. Or if you just ask, a needed purchase can be obtained many times at a better price when you need it, not just when there is a "sale." And you also never notice when prices are quietly raised so that a dramatic reduction can be taken, at a good profit, of course. That's just "good marketing." Oh spare us from the "sale" impulse purchase!

And don't you just love "shipping and handling" where a $10 item suddenly becomes $19, almost double, but $10 still seems like a good price? Or the "money back guarantee" that they hesitate to mention either a) requires weeks to months, if you are lucky, b) paying for return shipping yourself or c) leads to fruitless calls, letters and complaints to various agencies that are supposed to protect us against suchlike.

One of my favorites is "If we can't beat our competitors price by 5%, the item is free!" Really? All that means is that they've built in such a comfortable margin that giving another 5% means nothing. But they hope that all you see/hear is "It's free!"

There is also the ubiquitous "Instant cash for your house/car/gold!" Instant maybe, but not at a reasonable, let alone best, price. They figure that anyone falling for that pitch is desperate and will accept a low-ball offer.

The current gold bubble is one case in point where the Feds are struggling to contain the proliferation of scams. True, the current spot price is in the $1700 range, but your average gold bauble, if it really is gold, is 14 Karat, not 24K (53.5%). Then there are smelting fees, "handling" (middleman profit) fees and many others. So you won't see anything like $1,700, maybe just a quarter of that. And if your specimen has jewelry value above and beyond its bullion weight, too bad for you. Also, there is an internal jewelry industry shell game between ounces, troy ounces, grams and something called pennyweight. Caveat emptor!

Another current recession game being played by many companies is that in times of flat or declining sales, many products are being left at the same price but are being repackaged to contain less. And too few of us remember to check either the size listed or the tiny grocery print of cost per ounce or item. Especially important because sometimes the item is issued in an odd-count amount or weight that makes comparisons unwieldy. Why does shopping have to turn into story problems?

Many of us are not "shoppers," men mainly, I'm guessing, but that does not spare us from constant marketing exposure or our inherent psychological susceptibilities when necessary purchases are required.

I am reminded of a story a wealthy friend told me. He’s usually insulated from these mundanities by his staff. One night his wife came down with the flu and he was forced to go out and shop. He returned exclaiming "Do you know what things really cost?!" He didn't, but, yes, I do, and so should you.