I was trying to dream up a topic for my latest personal finance column a couple days ago, when I suddenly found myself out of legal pads.
I use legal pads a lot, and I didn’t want to wait for a trip to the office supply superstore to pick up a fresh supply. I marched a half block to the neighborhood outpost of a national drug chain, sniffed out the school supplies section, picked up a two-pack of legal pads and ambled to the cashier for checkout.
With Illinois’ burdensome sales tax loaded on top, the price came to almost $5. That’s nearly a quintet of clams for two fifty-sheet pads of paper.
“Know why I own stock in this drug chain?” I asked the bored cashier. “It’s the only way I could avoid turning suicidal every time I have to pay these prices. But given these exorbitant pricetags, I know they must pay you very, very well.”
The minimum-wage clerk’s eyes rolled into the back of her head.
I could have put in a little effort, driven 10 minutes to Staples or Office Max, and likely paid something like half the price. But I didn’t. And I know I’m not alone in this kind of consumer mindlessness. That’s why, when we complain about the increasingly high cost of living, and cast about for someone to blame, the first place many of us ought to look is in the mirror.
Fact is, at many stores and services today, especially national chains, ownership doesn’t seem content to simply make a fair profit. They’re out to get into your pants, probe the depths of your pockets and extract as much cash as possible. In very basic terms, we’re being gouged. And we’re allowing it.
Not very super
In my neighborhood, there’s a chain supermarket owned by a major conglomerate. Many of my neighbors habitually shop there because it’s close and convenient. Only problem is, the always-high prices keep climbing skyward with the trajectory of a Saturn V rocket.
The attitude on the part of officials of the supermarket conglomerate appears to be, “If customers are stupid enough to shop here, if they can’t be bothered to comparison shop, then we’re fully in our rights to invade their wallets or purses and vacuum out every last dollar.”
In other words, they’re not just capitalists, but gougers as well.
I’d shopped almost exclusively at that market for more than 15 years, when one day I decided to check out the nearby location of a locally-owned grocery chain I’d driven by scores of times without ever bothering to stop.
The locally-owned store had struck me as looking old, beaten down, and not very enticing. That didn’t seem appetizing, so I’d never darkened its doors.
But this day, I walked in, found the place clean, orderly and well-stocked, and then sized up the prices on a few of my most common purchases. My first thought was, “I’ve flushed $17, 000 down the toilet over the years by choosing my regular store over this one.” That’s how much lower the prices were.
Subsequent visits made me grasp why my regular supermarket’s aisles were so empty you could bowl in them and never hit a soul, while in this grocery you needed the elbows of an NBA big man to get through produce or meats.
Signs of hope
The finding that the less expensive store was much better patronized is perhaps the best news I’ve experienced on the consumer price front for some time. It indicates at least some among us are doing an outstanding job of being open-minded comparison shoppers. And that gives me hope that if more of us took that approach, there would likely be a whole lot less gouging going on.
As high as the gouging gauge seems to be riding these days, the good news is that there ARE stores like the locally-owned grocery I mention above. And because we don’t owe our souls to the company store, we’re free to take our patronage to folks who aren’t out to pilfer our bank accounts.
I’m going to argue that we can collectively do something about the fat cats gorging on their own gouging. Maybe we can’t put them out of business, but we can make life more difficult for them by refusing to pay their stratospheric prices.
Not to name names, but there’s a donut chain whose next price increase will mean we’ll have to refinance our homes to buy a fritter and coffee.
Let’s avoid them and visit a nearby, family-owned bakery instead.
There are some pharmacy chains that will go unnamed whose stores have started popping up on every single corner in my town. I don’t imagine the elephantine prices they charge on every item, or the tendency of Americans to each be taking a dozen prescription medications, have anything to do with their sudden prevalence. No, and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime.
Their ubiquity doesn’t mean we can’t cut our purchases at those drug stores by 50 to 75 percent by stocking up at a local big box discounter instead.
There are some big name international fast food joints that charge $1.50 for 15 cents worth of soda. Let’s order free water instead. There are plenty of convenience store chains where you’ll pay through the nose but feel the pain in your gut when buying a snack. Let’s bring a sandwich from home instead.
Don’t complain about high prices, find a legal way around them. Only you can end the forest fire consuming your spending green.