Bargain Fever

Cover image for Bargain Fever by Mark Ellwoodby Mark Ellwood

ISBN 978-1-59184-580-5

“This sense that there’s always a sale can make shopping an exhausting process, as you constantly fret that you could have found a better price. An all-discount world is one where buying is a time-consuming process, and sales can even backfire if shoppers feel unfairly treated. Was there a coupon you missed that everyone else used? Maybe Amex card-holders got an exclusive mark-down, and you paid with Visa? Didn’t you read somewhere about a 10 percent discount if your name started with M? Such relentlessness could make it refreshing, relaxing even, to pay full price, as long as that meant you didn’t have to worry that a sale might start tomorrow.”

Some people love to shop, and acquiring new possessions and scoring hot deals can be better than a competitive sport if you’re wired the right way, thanks to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Look no further than extreme couponers and Black Friday enthusiasts to find this type of shopper. For others, shopping is exhausting and stressful, but budget-consciousness demands attention and effort to this necessary task. Whether you like shopping or not, most people want to feel like they’ve gotten a good deal. In 2011, up to 45% of goods were sold at some kind of discount. If you’re the sort to be skeptical about how everything can always be on sale, this book offers insights into how modern retail pricing works across a variety of industries from groceries to fashion to travel.

Bargain Fever is equal parts a history of retail, and research into what goes on behind the scenes as retailers decide how to price their wares. However, I think a lot of people will expect this to be a how-to guide to scoring deals, and it isn’t really that. This may be down to some marketing indecision on the part of the publisher; the edition I borrowed from the library is subtitled “How to Shop in a Discounted World,” but it is also listed online with the subtitle “Our Obsession with Getting More for Less,” which is much more accurate. You will definitely learn about some strategies that will make you a savvier shopper, but a lot of what you will learn will be about why some of those deals aren’t really as great as you thought. For example, most chains have enough overstock that they can support one outlet location for every five retail stores. With over 180 outlet malls in America alone, many retailers are forced to turn to outlet exclusives—products produced especially for the outlet market that were never sold in their regular stores—in order to keep the shelves full. Those products may or may not be of the same quality as their regular stock. Much of the information Ellwood provides is specific to America, but he ventures out to Japan, Germany and the UK as well.

In the midst of all this discount-mania, one of the most fascinating sections of the book was on luxury brands that distinguish themselves by rarely or never offering discounts. These firms include Apple, Nespresso, American Girl, and the most hard-core non-discounter of all, Louis Vuitton. These companies hold the line on high prices by limiting their inventory, tightly controlling production and sales, and providing high levels of customer service. However, this strategy can also backfire. Thanks to their refusal to discount, Louis Vuitton is the most forged brand in the world, and after expanding operations beyond their artisanal origins, they now face the problem of superfakes—purses produced after hours in their own factories and by their own workers, but sold on the black market. When one purse retails for a third of a worker’s annual salary, it’s easy to see how the superfake problem could become an epidemic.

Bargain Fever is a fascinating book about marketing practices, but it does not delve deeply into trying to understand consumerism, looking no further than dopamine to understand our drive to buy. Even as he unveils a staggering variety of pricing gimmicks from reference points to versioning, Ellwood tries to advance the thesis that under “shopping 3.0” there has never been a better time to be a buyer, largely due to the transparency afforded by the internet. What was clearest to me, however, was the constant tension between shoppers demanding a deal, and retailers trying to turn a profit. Ellwood has a good eye for interesting topics from extreme couponing to outlet malls to data mining, but draws overly optimistic conclusions about how the current system empowers buyers.  However, the content is engrossing, even when the presentation is hampered by a thesis not borne out by the evidence.

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