Retail Ninja Mind Trick #3: False Comparisons and False Expertise

When making major purchases, we often make false comparisons or fixate on irrelevant details and distinctions.

Imagine wandering into your local Best Buy to look at new televisions. What information will help you make the best decision?

Well, once you're in the store, there's an entire encyclopedic universe of things to know: Plasma, LCD, or projection? Which aspect ratio should I pick? What resolution do I need? Is the 70-inch screen best, or should I go big-time and get the 126-incher? Is the contrast ratio going to be high enough? The store's incredibly helpful salespeople will patiently answer all of our questions and share all sorts of information.

But this is all proxy information, obscuring a much more important fact that is completely counter to your interests as a consumer. No one in this store is going to help you decide whether to buy a TV.

Instead, we learn about differences that make no difference. The salesperson can tell us about some quantum color adjustment feature that makes the Panasonic TV's picture better than the Sony's picture. We never knew this difference existed, and quite frankly it matters only in a direct side-by-side comparison in the store. And of course once we get our new TV into our living room, any specific visual memory we might have of that difference will fade, replaced by vague self-reinforcing thoughts like, "Oh, yeah, the picture on the Panasonic was way better."

And yet this might very well be the key deciding factor on which TV we choose. Hey, it seemed really important at the time.

Buried in here is the fact that all these seemingly important distinctions displace questions that actually are important: Do I really need a new TV in the first place? Is this TV really going to be that much better than the three TVs I already own? Or most fundamentally of all: Does watching TV at all add any value to my life?

One final point. If you:

1) fancy yourself an expert on the subtleties of large screen TVs,
2) deeply understand the various moisture-wicking properties of Under Armour vs. Nike vs. lululemon sportwear,
3) are conversant in the key distinctions between iPhones, Blackberrys and Droids,
4) have an intimate understanding of whether oak, bamboo, cork or vinyl is a superior flooring material,
5) have mastered the use of the iPad and all of its subtleties,

Then I have question for you:

Are these things that you know actually important?

Nope. Instead, an entire universe of knowledge has been created for you--in order to make you more ignorant.

Next up: Habituation

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Karin said...

I'm struggling with an issue related to this right now.

We have been a one-car family for more than a year now, and for the most part it's worked well. There are times when it would be convenient to have a second car, and we've had to borrow my parents' car on occasion when ours needed work. But overall it's been a good experience to not allow ourselves to feel like we *need* another car.

However, we are expecting our first child in a few short weeks, and have come up with quite a few good reasons to buy another vehicle:
- extra space in the passenger area and the trunk
- greater scheduling flexibility
- save $100/mo on a train pass for my husband
- not having to wake the baby to drive my husband to the train station in the morning

We've been considering this since last summer, and I still can't get past this basic fact: do we really *need* another car? I'm sure we could get by with just one; it would be less convenient, but so what?

(Please note that we'd be paying cash upfront for a late-model used car, probably a Toyota RAV4.)

Any thoughts?

Daniel said...

Hi Karin,

While I don't have an informed view on whether your purchase would be a smart one our not, what you're doing is exactly what I'd like to see, both in my readers and in consumers in general.

You're weighing the pros and cons, thinking through it. You're honestly asking the "whether I need it or not" question. You're not making a mindless purchase or a purchase based on maintaining your ego or self-image. You're weighing your needs as a consumer. That's truly empowered consumer behavior.

I swear I have the best readers on the face of the earth. :)


Karin said...

We love you too, Daniel! :)

Karin said...

You should write an article on procrastination as an anti-consumerism tool. :) Putting off making a decision on a car allows us to earn interest on the money that we would have spent, and extends the amount of time before we'd have to buy the NEXT car!

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting scenario I was dealing with at multiple car dealerships when I was shopping for a new car to replace my beloved old civic which was too little to fit the rear-facing car seat in without my knees up my nose (not a good way to drive).

I grew up with a dad who liked cars, and he won't buy a car without a V6. So I'm spoiled and used to an engine with some zoom, and while my old civic was fine, it just didn't have the power I was used to. I did tons of research before I even thought about venturing out to a dealer. I knew costs and what was available on each model of cars, so all I was looking for was the best driving fit for me. So I was telling the sales dudes my requirements (engine, no leather, no fancy navigation system) and they all tried to talk me into the smaller engine. I couldn't believe they were trying to talk me into a less expensive car.

Then I realized they wouldn't have any of the "base" model with the smaller engine in stock, so I would have to upgrade to the fancier and more expensive trim line, thereby increasing their commission. Probably has worked on less experienced buyers, but they got a little defensive when I said I wasn't even interested in driving it unless it had the engine I wanted. One guy refused to even work with me then.

The sales guy we wound up buying from: friendly, respectful, said it sounds like you know what you are looking for, let me see what I have that matches. And while it isn't my much loved civic (now being driven by my coworkers 16 year old *cringe*) I bought exactly what I wanted.

So my point is basically, good planning can help deflect the on the spot sales "help"

Marcia said...

Sigh. I know NONE of those things! How will I go on??

Karin, I think procrastination is an AWESOME anti-consumerism tool that my spouse and I use often.

On the 2nd car, I will give you the same advice I gave my friend who was weighing whether to keep working or quit: it's not an irreversible decision.

I told her to go back to work. Because she might want to. And if she didn't SHE COULD ALWAYS QUIT. (Which she just did, one year later). But it's hard to "un-quit" (though not impossible around here, since she does have 10 years with the company).

I would not buy a second car. You may find that it's not a problem at all to drive your spouse to the train station with a baby. BUT - you can always change your mind once the baby is here and you've tested the waters - and then buy a second car. But it's hard to un-buy a car. (Not impossible!)

Karin said...

Thanks, Marcia! I appreciate your advice, and you make a very good point. I'd much rather regret not buying a car than regret buying it!

chacha1 said...

Love procrastination as an anti-consumerism tool. It HAD to be a benefit in at least one area!

I think the false comparisons/false expertise is where you see the "maximizer/satisficer" divide really come to the fore. Those of us who are perfectly happy with something that's "good enough" typically spend less, and I'd argue more consciously, than those who obsessively research every purchase to try and get the "best" option.

I could point to a maximizer friend who bought more than three coffee grinders, brewers, and eventually roasters along the way to achieving the "best" cup of coffee. He knows so much about coffee that he just barely tolerates the average cuppa joe.

Whereas I, who really enjoy a very fine cup of coffee, am nevertheless perfectly happy with the drip brew of my (free!) Gevalia coffeemaker using beans ground in my (free!) Green Mountain grinder. :-)

Karin said...

Just coming back to this post to say -- we did eventually buy that car we were considering! After the baby was born it became abundantly clear that being a one car family was no longer feasible.

However, since we had decided what car to get in advance, we were able to negotiate with the car dealerships entirely by email. And since we had waiting to buy the car until it was truly necessary, I felt and still feel confident that it was the right choice for us.

Daniel said...

Karin, thanks for leaving a follow-up comment! Great job separating needs from wants and making sure you weren't getting separated from your money unnecessarily. I love it.