The price wars have gone nuclear. From Target’s $3 coffeemakers to Best
Buy’s half-price washing machines to Staples’s $350 laptops, the theme of
this holiday shopping season is, without a doubt, “we sell for less.” Even
Wal-Mart’s commitment to “every day” low prices isn’t preventing it from
going lower. An online skirmish with Amazon.com that started with $9
hardcover books has
dominoed into other categories, driving down prices on everything from
mobile phones to Easy-Bake ovens. The deals are everywhere.
Well, pardon my saying so, but I don’t want them. I don’t want to pay less.
If anything, I’d rather pay a little more.
Crazy talk, I know. Where is this coming from Well, it began with some
reading I’ve been doing about the trade-offs we make for ultra-cheap
goodsthe child workers in Bangladesh who sew our clothes and brush their
teeth with ash since they can’t afford toothpaste, the oceanic dead zones
that come with $5 factory-farmed salmon filets. They’re the sorts of stories
that make a person think that buying carts full of cheap stuffensuring the
production of even more cheap stuffshouldn’t be the social goal we’ve made
it out to be.
Now, I do realize it’s an odd time to lobby for higher prices. We’re coming
off the worst recession in a quarter century. One in ten Americans is out of
work and plenty of people feel like they need low prices to be able to buy
anything at all.
But I also realize that part of what got us here was overspending, and that
that overspending was fostered by a shopping culture that uses cheap goods
to hook people on feeling like they’re winning at something. As a country,
we held nearly $1 trillion in credit-card debt this time last yearabout the
same as the value of all the goods and services produced in South Korea
annually. We’ve bought so much stuff that we’ve struggled to find places to
fit it all. The U.S. went from having 300 million square feet of
self-storage space in 1984 to 2.4 billion square feet in 2008, according to
the Self Storage Association, a 700% surge. By 2005, one in five new houses
came with three garage baysthe third, real-estate agents explained, to
store all the “toys.”
Consumer spending and debt have been on the decline of late, that’s true.
But the most recent numbers show signs of a return to our old ways. In
October, consumer spending rose 0.7% over the previous month, according to
the Commerce Department, which is particularly interesting since personal
income only edged up 0.2%. It seems it’s going to take more than economic
calamity for us to realize that perhaps we should be more prudent with our
And that leads to my second argument for higher prices: if stuff costs more,
we’ll buy less of it