Saturday, November 01, 2014

Too Cheap

The technical definition of the term inflection point is "the point on a curve at which the curve changes from being concave to convex or vice versa." But it has a broader meting beyond mathematics. It's pushing the thermostat up to the point where you get too hot and have to turn it back down. It's passing cars on the highway until you realize that you're the one going the fastest and slow down. And it's eating that leftover Halloween candy thinking that it's just little itty-bitty pieces (and how bad can it really be?), which takes you right up to the point where you realize you're going to be sick.

Well, I think I found one specific inflection point in the retail world. They say that you can't be too rich or too thin, I'm pretty sure I've found the point where you can actually be too cheap.  

First, the setup from the both the internal and external perspectives. As far I go, I would say I'm frugal or thrifty. (OK, call it cheap.) I don't mind spending money, but I want it to be worth it. To that end, I am fine with off brands as long as they perform like their more storied counterparts. My ties tie the same even if they're not Ferragamo or Brioni. I used to buy only Sony TV's, but I've come appreciate those from Korean manufacturers like Samsung and LG. And while I grew up on Skippy, I'm OK with Jif, especially if it's on sale.

From the other side of the coin, the price per whatever has been steadily dropping over the years, driven mostly by advances in technology. Our first flat screen television cost $1500. Now you can get a bigger, better model for less than $600. Likewise phones, laptops, almost anything you plug in. I'm not an economist, but while things might cost more in absolute terms, the bang you get for that buck can be amazing compared to what you could purchase in the past.  

I'm usually looking for that that trailing edge, or how little can I spend and still get something which does what I want it to do. As to the specific example in question, I often need to play music for a crowd. And every show and client wants something different. Some want jazz, others current pop, still others something more background-y. Year ago we would have to burn a CD, hook up a player and use that. Now the standard is MP3 files we get from iTunes. But that means we need an ethingy on which to play them.

To that end I kept my eyes peeled for a small, cheap MP3 player for just such a use. I don't need a top of the line Apple device or anything close. Just a simple, cheap (there's that word again) device I can load specific tunes onto, and hand over without fear that losing it. I was walking through a computer store the other day, and saw just such an item. Styled to look like a more expensive player, it did exactly what I required, and it was just $15. I asked one of the sales people if they had experience with it. He confirmed what I thought: the technology was old hat by now, and it worked exactly as you would expect. I plunked down my card, and took it home.

Once in my office, I unpacked it and scanned the directions. I plugged it in to charge, and went onto other things. A couple of hours later, I went to play with it. I pressed one button, then another. Nothing. I read the instructions to see if there was a trick. Nope, just on/off and play/stop. But nothing worked. I called the help line in the package (already expending way more effort that I was planning), but they didn't have an answer. Alas, I will have to wait till I'm in that neighborhood again, hopefully within my 30-day return period, and get my money back.

So at least in this one particular case I have found the point where low cost doesn't equal value. I however, have not given up hope. I'm convinced a sub $20 player is out there. And so I will keep looking, confident that someone has invented, if not a better mousetrap, then at least one that catches mice at a substantial discount.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes walking through discount stores. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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