Ah, money. The lengths we will go to to save a few cents, or get a bit more for our money. Queueing for hours at Shell so that we can save that 4 cents a litre that we just idled away in petrol fumes while we were waiting. For international readers, one of our biggest supermarket chains, Coles, has teamed up with one of our largest petrol companies, Shell, to “give” people a 4c/l discount on their petrol. Spend more than $35 at Coles and you get a discount voucher that you can take to Shell.
It’s a magical marketing move. People don’t shop around for cheaper petrol anymore – they go straight to Shell, brandishing their discount dockets. Woolworths shoppers are not left out – they can take their dockets to Caltex to get the same deal. Bonanza! Cheap petrol at your fingertips! That’s worth queueing for, right?
Except… it doesn’t seem to matter if it actually is cheaper. You get a discount. That makes it cheaper! Never mind that it’s less than 3% of the price, saving a massive $2 on 50 litres of petrol ($70 worth). And never mind that petrol could easily be more than 4cents per litre cheaper elsewhere (highest petrol price in Sydney today for unleaded was 149.9c/l, lowest was 119.9 – a 30c/l difference!).
We are thoroughly bought by a marketing device so effective that the queues outside our local Shell frequently disrupt traffic quite severely.
But here’s the radical part. Even if it were reliably cheaper (which it’s not – I have bought petrol at the local independent for less than the discounted Shell rate), it would not necessarily be a good idea to buy it.
Same product. Cheaper is better, yes? Of course. It’s a no brainer.
But… but… but… Big companies frequently use discounts and promotions to drive prices down (hey, still good news, right?) and squeeze out smaller retailers… sorry, I mean “gain market share”. Once there are no small retailers, the big guys have the playing field to themselves and can set the price, and indeed the quality, to whatever they want. Want to argue? Go buy from an independent. Oh. Sorry, you can’t. We ate them all.
And it’s not just petrol. Big chain supermarkets manipulate the fruit and vegetables we buy so that they are cheap, robust, long lasting and great looking. Notice any significant qualities missing?
They measure bananas with callipers to ensure the correct amount of bendiness. Anything that doesn’t measure up is binned. Growers have to provide picture perfect produce or chuck it in the bin.
We have allowed supermarkets to divorce us from real food. But it’s cheaper!
I buy my fruit and veg from a local organic shop. They know me by name. They carry my shopping to the car (against my frequent protests, I might add!). They know my kids and they ask after them all the time. I know their names. They know mine. My butcher recognises my voice on the phone and tells me if I’ve left something out that I would usually order. He knows my address.
And then there’s fairtrade, where how you spend your money can change lives.
All these things are priceless, but they are also very easy for me to enthuse about, because I am not wondering where our next meal is coming from, or how I am going to afford the rent or mortgage payments this month. I get to make choices that aren’t limited by price. But I am not alone.
We all make economic choices every day. And most of them we make thoughtlessly, driven by the latest marketing campaign or cunning discount. Often we can buy the fairtrade version, or go to an independent retailer, for the same amount we would spend at a big name company. Even if we only made the thoughtful choices that cost us nothing, we could change the world. What kind of world would it be if we thought about where, how and why we spend our money?