panera

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.