Money isn’t everything

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?

5 thoughts on “Money isn’t everything

  1. EW

    This is precisely why, last year, I decided to boycott Coles & Woolworths where possible, and shop at Maxi instead – not necessarily cheaper, but independent and a different range of goods. Plus, I like knowing my local greengrocer and his family (and being friends with his wife on FB), and I was devastated when my great local butcher closed down at Christmas, but I have found another butcher not too far away. It means I have to go to three places to do my Saturday shop, but they’re all within a few k’s of each other. Plus, I hate the self serve checkouts at Coles, and the milk ‘selection’.

  2. Dana Tymms

    I totally agree. I’m also planning to discontinue my flybuys and coles card, because I hate the way they collect information about me and manipulate our shopping choices by their continual campaigns and “specials”. However, there doesn’t seem to be an opt-out button to push anywhere!!
    Thanks for the great post, as always.

  3. Joe

    I hate the standard banana. I preferred it when they came in variety fun sizes, especially smaller.

    (“Once it’s been opened, you know it won’t keep.”)

    I’ve often expressed bemusement at the over-attention petrol prices receive, and the corresponding power of such a cheap (in all respects) marketing ploy, amounting to at most a few dollars a week for all but the most firmly ensconced driver. Petrol being less than half the cost per km of car travel, and only a fraction of the cost per km of car ownership, if a few percent here or there is going to break the bank… you’re using the wrong transport! A different car or different modes should be considered.

    (My wife works for Woolworths. We get permanent discounts at all Woolworths chains and Woolworths-aligned Caltex outlets.)

    (Oh, and you have a slight miscalculational hiccough. 4c per litre on 50 litres will always be $2. Though I believe $1.40 “saving” being 35 litres would be closer to average weekly Australian domestic car petrol usage.)

  4. Stephen welsh

    Cracked it with the FSs (flaming …yeah…that’ll do … Flaming Supermarkets) a couple of years back. Myriad of reasons but the visual assault I find quite offensive actually. Fish is the main reason for a visit these days. What happened to fishmongers? The strip shopping centre with green grocers ( plural! ) I cannot believe people are so gullible as to believe they aren’t paying as much or more for petrol or gas. I take great pride in not knowing what a rewards card is, or fly buys….
    Just on petrol, I happened on a “garage” a week or so back where they actually filled your car for you and asked after the well being of the under bonnetry. An actual “service” station. One of the known brands too. They get my business when I’m in the area – don’t care if the petrol is a couple of cents dearer, it’s worth it to have a chat and support locals.
    She’s back … Or nearly so :-)

  5. Yes, many of us here talking about these issues are rich, in absolute terms. And I appreciated Linda reminding us to keep this in perspective. That also means we are in a position to act in a purposeful way towards our purchasing. And yes, the market is out there to ensure that they get their tonne of flesh as you gullibly hand it over to them.

    Be thoughtful. Ask. Think. What’s important to me? Where will I take my money? Your actions won’t always be perfect. But better to keep questioning rather than answer without questioning. And yes, those frequent shopper cards are vacuuming up your information for huge benefit to the big guys with very little payback for you.

    Being part of the Chinese culture, we have the concept of “kiasu” (afraid to lose) where we will travel far and wide to ensure a deal, or make sure your neighbour doesn’t get a better deal than you, that you didn’t miss out on that extra discount. You will go to extraordinary lengths.

    But you lose perspective. So I saved 85 cents out of $70. What did that cost me? Quite often, a lot. Stress on yourself and other people around you. Search cost (um, how much petrol did you burn driving around town? how many hours in the day did you spend?). Loss of peace of mind. Resources (time, environment, etc).

    Everything has a cost. Including saving on discounts and making a deal. We need to be mindful of that.

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