The Yin and Yang of American Consumers
By Denny Hatch
A guy I know bought two Fedders air conditioning units and a VCR from American Appliance, an independent discount appliance chain in my area. One of the machines didn't work, and he phoned the store. The line was perpetually busy.
He went to the store during regular hours and was told the store was closed. "When will it be open?"
"I am telling you, the store is closed," was the reply.
It turns out GE Capital called in its markers, and the 33-year-old, privately held American Appliance instantly shut all 24 stores and fired its 700 employees. For The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, Linda Loyd and Jeff Gelles wrote:
It was unclear whether appliances would be delivered to customers who had paid for them recently and whether those who had bought extended-warranty or service contracts would get their money back.
Think of it: You buy an appliance and don't get delivery. You step up for an add-on service contract, and your money is stolen from you!
In the early 1990s I bought a laptop computer at Computer City, a Tandy operation in Cherry Hill, NJ. Two years later I bought a better Apple laptop from that same outfit, together with a warranty service contract that cost me an extra couple of hundred bucks.
A month later, I stopped by Computer City to pick up some supplies, and the store was shuttered and vacant. Tandy, with its vaunted customer database (at that time you couldn't buy batteries from Radio Shack without surrendering your name and address), didn't write me to say the Cherry Hill store was closing and that my nearest Computer City was at such-and-such an address. Just left me—a customer who had ponied up several thousand dollars—hanging out to dry. The next time I heard from anyone at Tandy was two years later when they wrote that my service contract was up for renewal.
We cavalierly trust our satisfaction and service to these dubious, distant purveyors. I'm reminded of a reporter who asked John Glenn how he felt moments before he was about to be blasted into space for the first manned orbit of the earth. "How would you feel," he shot back, "knowing you were sitting on top of 2 million parts that all went to the lowest bidder?"
American consumers are either in the yin or the yang camp when it comes to prices and service. On the yin—or dark and brooding side—are the pathological bargain hunters who spend hours on the Web comparing prices of merchandise and hunting down the cheapest source, and then driving many miles to acquire it—only to blow the savings on tolls, depreciation and $1.69-per-gallon gas.
Yang consumers, on the other hand, are those sunny, optimistic lounge lizards who belly up to the bar and happily part with $15 for a martini—a 20-percent increase over last year's prices. In the words of Wall Street Journal writer Sarah Collins:
Strangely enough, some argue that higher prices are almost a status symbol. "If drinks get cheaper, people will be wondering, 'What kind of a place am I hanging out at?'" says Will Candis, a New York publicist who represents a number of bars across the country.
Whether you have a yin or a yang mentality—whether you're a consumer or stockholder—it's a good bet you'll will be taken to the cleaners by some American business people. Barry Gray, the mellifluous-voiced fixture on New York talk radio for 50 years, remembered the great American humorist and trick rope artist Will Rogers telling a story from his boyhood. One day, Rogers was sitting on a split-rail fence on his family's spread in Oklahoma. He saw an immense, blue-ribbon prize bull from the adjoining ranch being led across his property to an adjacent ranch where he was scheduled to service a prize heifer.
"Since then, every time I hear the word 'service,'" Rogers said later, "I know somebody is going to get screwed."
Denny Hatch, contributing editor, consultant and freelance copywriter, is the author of the books "Method Marketing" and "2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success." He can be reached at www.methodmarketing.com or by e-mail to: email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.