The other day I was leafing through the newspaper and came across the obligatory, post-Christmas flyers beckoning me to buy, buy, buy…And, naturally, save big time! You all know the ads for stores like Target, Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Best Buy, and on and on it goes. And as I was looking at these, for some reason what popped into my head was the well-known aphorism: “Keeping up with the Joneses.” What this refers to, of course, is doing something, especially when it comes to purchasing, in order to show that you have as much money and “taste” as other people, not necessarily because you want or need the object. One of my favorite jokes about this very concept goes like this: These two friends and neighbors, Fred and Sam are always trying to impress and outdo the other. One day, they are both driving to work and are stopped at the same traffic light. Fred glances over to his right and sees Sam in a brand new Mercedes Benz. Sam rolls down his window and says: “How do you like my new car?” Fred nods, and as soon as the light changes, speeds off. The very next day, they meet at the same stoplight and now Fred is in his own, new Mercedes Benz. He rolls down his window and says: “How do you like my new car?” Sam responds: “Nice, hang on I’m getting a call on my new car phone.” The next day, same scenario, except now Fred calls Sam on his new phone. Sam answers, but before Fred can say anything, Sam says: “Hang on, my other phone is ringing!”
This concept and the phrase, keeping up with the Joneses, can be traced back to a cartoon strip by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand, “Keeping Up With The Joneses,” which ran from 1913 – 1940 in “The New York World” and was syndicated in many other publications. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of the McGinis family and their constant struggle to keep up with their neighbors, the Joneses.
However, there is a much earlier example of this type of “competitive” consumption, but with a twist. The twist is when you buy or receive something as a gift, which in turn makes you re-evaluate your other possessions. It is known as the “Diderot Effect,” a term coined by anthropologist Grant McCracken in his 1988 book: Culture and Consumption and is based on an essay (1769): “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” written by French philosopher Denis Diderot. As the story goes, Diderot received a beautiful new red satin dressing gown as a gift, and realized as he was walking around his home, that all his possessions did not live up to the new robe.
His exact words: “I was the master of my old gown and I have become a slave to my new one!” Less than a century later, Thorstein Veblen wrote about “conspicuous consumption,” the practice of purchasing goods or services for the specific purpose of displaying one’s wealth, in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).
All of which brings me back to big box retailers and the lure of “cheap” merchandise in quantity, the latter being the biggest problem. Everyone knows and, I am certain, has struggled with the words “need” and “want” when it comes to purchasing. And this is certainly an issue when it comes to these huge discount stores in particular. What is often never considered when shopping at these stores is “normal usage.” And when your consumption of goods exceeds your normal usage…Well, Houston, we have a problem. For example (and please keep in mind that these figures are all hypothetical): A family of four – two adults, two teenage boys (14-17) – “normally” consume six rolls of toilet paper a week (24 rolls per month). The take their first trip to one of these mega stores and purchase several large packages of toilet paper (often because these stores only carry large packages of goods) and are set for a long time based on their “normal usage.” However, by the time they take their third trip to one of these stores, this same family of four are now using 36 rolls of toilet paper per month, or an increase of 50%! Why, may you ask? Well, it’s a type of supply and demand, as the more that is available to you, the more likely it is for you to overuse!
Another, slightly different, example of this supply and demand comes from a friend of mine who many years ago took the Xerox sales training course. What my friend was taught went like this. You go to a company with, let’s say, twenty employees. You ask whoever is in charge of purchasing how many photocopies they make per month. When you receive this information (for argument sake let’s say 1,000 copies) you inform the person that the new model T546rty Xerox can make the same number of copies in half the time it takes your current copier, and for the same price. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to increase office productivity by reducing the time employees spend making copies, especially at no extra cost? Seemingly a no-brainer decision. However, when the same salesman goes back to the same company a year later, for some unexplained reason they are now making 2,000 copies a month, with the same twenty employees! The reason for this is that the speed of the new machine just makes it easier to copy things, and so they do. And then the process starts all over again…this new machine can…blah, blah, blah, blah. Next thing you know, the company has moved to a larger office space, not because they have more employees, but because they need more space to accommodate all the paper! Life is complicated.
Happy New Year!
Los Angeles 2022