Consumerism

consumerism

Why I’m Still Spooked by Butterfingers

For a sweet-toothed male like myself, Halloween remains a highlight of my fall season. I love candy and sweets as far as the eye can see.

Yet the holiday also evokes some remnants of trepidation – and not because of the ghosts, goblins and witches wandering the neighborhood.

You see, my prime trick-or-treating years took place during the 1970s, when stories of treat tampering ran rampant. Caramel apples and popcorn balls (two of my favorites) were said to be effective receptacles for razor blades. I don’t even remember why Butterfingers were off-limits, but apparently they were magnets for sharp objects as well.

To this day, I think twice about consuming a Butterfinger – unless I’m feeling particularly rebellious.

I know this apprehension is unnecessary, but I’m a slave to stern warnings from my youth.

Like the caution against getting into cars with strangers, this one boils down to trust — or the lack thereof (in this case, questioning whether one of my neighbors might be trying to maim me with a razor-filled popcorn ball).

Which brings up an intriguing question:

Does trust need to be earned, or should it automatically be bestowed on someone unless/until that bond is breached?

I tend to favor the “need to earn it” position. It’s definitely the safer option, but likely causes me to miss out on some opportunities and relationships.

I’m always surprised (and a bit jealous) when I encounter someone with a seemingly endless bank of trust.

Are they truly that naïve, I wonder? Or maybe they believe the potential rewards trump the potential risks. They probably don’t give it much thought at all.

It’s interesting to consider the many times that I blindly trust – knowingly or unknowingly. I trust that the car whizzing past me in the next lane won’t suddenly swerve and collide into me. I also willingly hand my credit card to the random waiter, oblivious that he could be in the back room copying down my account number.

The whole concept of trust can be confusing and deceptive, to be sure.

I’m just grateful for my trusty friends (pictured, in part, below).

Previous Halloween post: SomeChum’s a Bum!

Who Else is Tired of Playing Password Roulette?

As a security measure, it used to work like a charm: utter a secret code word and gain VIP access to my neighbor’s tree fort.

It was simple, efficient, kept out the riff-raff.

At some point, however, the concept of a password shifted into some sick, sadistic game whose rules keep changing to increasingly favor the house.

Now, nothing conjures up anxiety and dread quite like a vacant box beckoning for me to enter my unique string of letters/numbers/characters.

Such a seemingly straightforward request, yet it demands some masterful sleuthing skills on my end.

You see, my password history is long and rocky and littered with debris.

My original password was simple and memorable: something along the lines of “mike” (though not quite that obvious).

Soon I was asked to complicate it by adding a number, so “mike55” (also bogus) became the norm.

Next, I had to add a special character to the mix, and “mike55$” was the ticket.

And the latest – and most grueling – demand is that I create an entirely new, unique password every 30/60/90 days.

Given that I have active passwords created during each phase of this evolution, I think you get a sense of my frustration. I’m guessing you may relate.

It’s sometimes helpful when the empty password box is accompanied by an offer to retrieve a lost password — that is, of course, unless I can’t recall the answer I provided to a security question posed months or years earlier (as if I can remember which “childhood best friend” or “favorite teacher” I cited…)

My work BlackBerry is arguably my least merciful opponent, granting me just eight attempts to hit the jackpot before it wipes itself clean (and I know first-hand that it means business). This ticking time bomb loves to threaten its self-destruction while I try to recreate the convoluted logic my mind used to concoct the latest password. Maddening.

I’ve heard about those apps that serve as a master repository for all your passwords. Seems like a good idea, but guess what’s required to access it…that’s right, even my passwords need passwords.

Oh how I pine for the day when a simple retinal scan or iris scan is my ticket to ride. Heck, I’d even submit to a urine test if that’s what it took.

Unfortunately, all of this really just proves one point: that I’m too old and crotchety to play in tree forts anymore.

Got any password tales of your own to share?


 

Counting the Cost of Free

A funny thing happened on the way to reaching for my wallet.

I didn’t need it anymore.

It’s hard to fathom that so much of what we had to pay for a few years ago is now 100% free.

Free memberships. Free music. Even a free lunch.

The emergence of the consumer-pays-nothing business model is an intriguing one – at least to me.

Maybe the economists and futurists saw it coming, but I sure didn’t.

And while I appreciate freebies as much as the next guy, I’m troubled by the notion that all this free stuff can sometimes come at a hefty cost.

In short, I think we’re turning into spoiled brats (with me at the front of the line). We now expect something for nothing. As if it’s owed to us.

Even if I don’t pay a single cent, I still demand flawlessness. This blog, for example, is built on a platform that’s absolutely free for me to use, yet I get miffed when it crashes or doesn’t accommodate my blogging whims (and trust me, those aren’t just hypothetical theories…)

Sometimes, not having to pay for something equates to not having to care much about it. It devalues the entire product/service in that I have nothing to lose if I misplace it, destroy it or ignore it altogether.

Sometimes, though, the exact opposite happens. Facebook and Twitter are both free platforms, but have opened up new friendships and business connections while connecting me with family, neighbors and classmates from long ago.

Hard to put a value on that.  

Another slippery slope is the pay-what-you-want model. Panera Bread operates several non-profit cafes that replace cash registers with anonymous cash boxes and suggested donations.

A sign at the entrance says: “Take what you need, leave your fair share.” Customers who can’t pay are asked to donate their time.

Love the concept. Have no idea how it can possibly work.

But apparently it does work, with the majority of patrons paying retail value or more. Panera reports that about 60% leave the suggested amount; 20% leave more; and 20% less.

Guess humanity exceeds my faith in it.

I do know that I am often willing to pay more than what’s required for indie music if I’m particularly fond of the artist or feeling extra generous. And I’d probably pay at twice as much for a Chipotle burrito.

But offer me something I’m lukewarm about, and I’ll most likely grab it and go.

It will be interesting to see how this era of freebie economics continues to evolve — and how it will shape our lives and our concept of value.


Chasing Real Value

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My cat, Chase, just loves it when I bring home a new jug of milk. Not because he enjoys lapping up the stuff (although frankly, what feline doesn’t?), but because he craves the free toy inside.

Now before you jump to vulgar conclusions, let me assure you that there isn’t a fake mouse floating in my dairy beverage.

Instead, Chase covets the small plastic ring that holds the cap in place. To him, it’s the coolest object ever, delivering far more entertainment value than any of the overpriced cat paraphernalia currently gathering dust in my basement.

Of course, I discovered his affinity completely by accident one morning when I unknowingly dropped the ring on the floor. An hour later, my high-strung cat was still batting it around the kitchen, hallway, dining room and halfway down the stairs. He just couldn’t get enough of it.

The only thing that seems to curtail Chase’s antics is his tendency to knock the toy somewhere out of his reach – usually under the fridge. I personally think he does this on purpose, but I have no real proof to back up the charge.

Watching Chase stalk his plastic prey brings me an awful lot of pleasure. Everytime he runs after that “worthless” piece of plastic, he somehow snubs his little whiskered nose at the entire world. Like an excited kid on Christmas who’s more enamored with the boxes than their contents, Chase serves as a constant reminder of the true meaning of value, and how it doesn’t always line up with what others want us to believe.

Grateful as I am to Chase for this deep life lesson, however, I remain deeply resentful of his ability to sleep approximately 16-18 hours each day. Clearly, this boy’s no dope.

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Those Glory Days of Mood Rings and Pet Rocks

You can tell a lot about an era by the gadgets it spawns.

In the mid-’70s, two must-have items were the mood ring and the pet rock (both of which I owned, courtesy of my fad-sustaining mom).

Although both of these product niches flared out in fairly short order, I think they reflected some common values of the time – at least in America.

Both embodied the “Me Decade” mantra that Novelist Tom Wolfe coined to describe the passive individualism that took root in the 1970s (contrasting the communal lifestyle associated with the ‘60s). The mood ring, in particular, empowered each of us through its ability to measure – and share – a wearer’s unique state of mind at any given time.

Another intriguing characteristic of both gadgets is how they supported – even celebrated – a sedentary lifestyle. You didn’t actually have to ‘do’ anything to enjoy their benefits. Body temperature regulated the color that purportedly evaluated your mood, and the pet rock was, well, a ROCK.

(Of course, this elevation of inactivity would be dethroned in the early ‘80s by the Jane Fonda-inspired workout video craze).

In retrospect, probably the most amusing part of our ‘70s baubles is the fact that they were total farces – and we all knew it. Neither product actually delivered what it was supposed to, but we all played along with the gag as if for the sake of a clueless bystander (a role, oddly, also played by us).

I kind of understand the appeal of the mood ring. It was fun, gimmicky, gaudy-stylish. And from what I remember, comparing moods with others could be a hoot (stop snickering, I had a men’s version).

But the pet rock? It was an inanimate object devoid of any meaningful characteristic of owning a real pet. It was nothing more than a corny joke.

That didn’t matter – at least not to my mom, who thought it was hilarious. I think I played along for a while, until I got bored and decided to paint a monster face on the stupid stone.

We demand so much more from our gadgets these days.

Unlike kitschy jewelry or faux pets, our smartphone devices can’t be one-trick ponies. They need to connect us, direct us, inform us, entertain us, awaken us, and on and on.

So what will they ultimately tell future generations about what we valued during this era?

Certainly that we craved technology. Couldn’t get enough of it.

We liked to explore and were easily distracted by bright, shiny objects/apps.

We had short attention spans.

And probably most telling of all: that we were all too willing to increasingly devote our lives to a tiny device that promised so much (yet, like the ring and rock, didn’t necessarily deliver the satisfaction we hoped it would).

I wonder what gadgets will define us in 10, 20, 50, 100+ years? 

Hey Chick-fil-A: No, it’s ‘MY’ Pleasure

Think common courtesy is outdated and great customer service is obsolete? Then you probably haven’t visited your local Chick-fil-A restaurant.

I stopped at mine for a bite to eat on Saturday night (a day after Cow Appreciation Day) and was confronted by an uncharacteristically warm hospitality – particularly for a fast-food restaurant.

The experience started when I pulled up to a backed-up drive-thru, dreading an inevitably long wait. But remarkably, it was one of the speediest, most efficient drive-thru lines I’ve ever navigated.

My order was taken by a cordial guy, who immediately comprehended it, repeated it back (correctly!) and replied to my “Thank you” with a genuine-sounding “My pleasure.”

Nice.

When I arrived at the pick-up window, my bag was awaiting me, accompanied by a pleasant woman who greeted me and efficiently completed the transaction. She eagerly responded to my “Thanks” with a familiar refrain: “My pleasure.”

Nice.

So how can Chick-fil-A achieve this high level of service when its fast-food brethren falls miserably short?

I won’t pretend to know the secret formula, but I think it’s safe (and logical) to assume that it boils down to hiring great people, treating them well, providing them with a nice environment, and holding them to high standards. I’m sure a killer training program is part of the equation.

The resulting culture of respect shapes employees who exude pride (the good kind).

Founder – and current Chairman – S. Truett Carty has never been shy in proclaiming that he built the business on traditional “Christian principles,” including an uncommon-in-the-retail-world practice of staying closed on Sundays. It also supports numerous community service activities and sometimes-controversial alliances.

 

The formula seems to be working at the $3.5 billion chain, which has more than 1500 locations in 39 U.S. states and continues aggressive expansion despite the anemic economy.

Next time I visit my local restaurant, I plan to play a little game. Not only will I say “Thanks” to every crew member I encounter, but I’ll kick it up a notch by responding to their “My pleasure” with a quick retort of my own: “No, it’s MY pleasure.”

I’ll be curious to see if their responses are equally as cheerful and consistent.

Regardless, I gladly join those famous cows in exhorting everyone to:

Eat-more-chikin

 

 

 

Penny From Heaven

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At first I thought it was junk mail. It had that mass-mailer look and bore the logo of AT&T (an entity known to distribute its share of direct marketing pieces.)

But then I noticed those two magical words on the envelope — “Accounts Payable” — and my eyes lit up with dollar-sign dreams. 

Might I have overpaid one of my bills or earned a generous rebate, I wondered?

I tore open the envelope with reckless abandon and discovered the icy truth: it was a check for .01. That’s right, one penny. A single Abraham Lincoln.

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These clowns spent many pennies to print and mail a check to me for a single penny.

Given that I receive two separate invoices from AT&T each and every month, I have to wonder why they didn’t just deduct a cent from one of my next bills.

Maybe they were afraid I would have demanded a full cash payout instead.

Apparently, my logic is different from that of AT&T, as I will not be spending many pennies in gas to visit my local bank and cash my silly little check.

I will, however, drop it into my silly little recycling bin. Seems like the most responsible thing to do.

 

The Choices That Bind

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Excessive choice has once again trapped me under its devious spell.

This time, paralysis took hold as I was browsing refrigerators at a local appliance superstore (check out my other recent paralyzing experience: “Panic in the Toothpaste Aisle”).

I embarked on my current retail engagement in response to the near-demise of my current fridge (the not-so-subtle clues of its impending death include a failing motor and a small puddle of water slowly emerging beneath its body).

Given the strong possibility that this minor incontinence will eventually lead to a full-blown river in the middle of my kitchen, I decided to begin the replacement process.

And not surprisingly, the market is chock full of choices. Beyond the familiar freezer-on-top and side-by-side model options, stylish alternatives include French refrigerator doors, a freezer door (or drawer) at the bottom, and sophisticated door-mounted water and ice dispensers – not to mention various options in both color and finish.

Of course, most of these choices are offered by numerous brands that include Whirlpool (which apparently now owns Maytag, KitchenAid, Amana and Jenn-Air), General Electric, Kenmore, LG, Samsung, Electrolux, Viking, etc., etc.

Stop, I want to get off.

I know it seems counterintuitive, but I continue to believe that the availability of so many choices actually leads to LESS personal satisfaction. Instead, it creates confusion, compounds stress, and dramatically increases the likelihood of some degree of buyer’s remorse.

Reinforcing those beliefs is Barry Schwartz, a sociology professor at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. During his 2005 TED presentation, he explained how and why the abundance of choice in modern society is actually making us quite miserable:

And here’s a Newsweek article on the topic as well.

While you ponder this concept further, I need to go change the towels beneath my fridge.

 

Very Grateful for a Very (Stylish + Comfy) Task Chair

Sitting has never been so sweet since I received my Very Task Chair from the very generous folks at Haworth.

Apparently, I was randomly selected from Haworth’s thousands of Twitter followers to win this stylish and ergonomically advanced new product.

Lucky for them, I just happened to be in dire need of a brand-new chair at my home office.

Special thanks to Haworth PR dynamo Julie Smith for graciously helping me to choose my ideal companion from among numerous fabrics, colors and finishes.

Bet you’re very jealous…

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My new chair, just aching to come in from the cold.

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The former top dog waits in the wings — and strategizes its next move.

Meet My New Metallic Bundle of Joy

I’ve recently endured one of the most traumatic experiences of an indecisive consumer’s life: purchasing an automobile. For someone who obsesses over buying toothpaste, this is quite a nerve-racking feat.

Over the past several months, I’ve pored over online reviews, labored through showroom sales pitches, and taken my fair share of crucial test drives.

And, of course, I’ve done quite a bit of good old-fashioned waffling along the way.

Growing weary of this madness, I finally sealed the deal this Saturday, purchasing a 2011 Volkswagen CC. She’s a delightful metallic light brown color, and her innards are black “leatherette” (our little secret).

Here’s to “CC Plotkin,” my little metallic bundle of joy. Please be gracious to her as she passes you on the open road.