|Photo © Peter Morgan, 2013 http://www.flickr.com/photos/pmorgan/62563356/|
There was a time -- I think -- when automobile dealers were the exception. Automobile dealers and, a generation ago, in Chicago, anywhere in the famous Maxwell Street Market and at Polk Brothers.
Nearly 30 years ago, shortly after we were married and bought our first house, my wife and I went into Polk Brothers shortly before closing. I'd been home long enough to grab a quick bite to eat and change out of my suit. My wife was dressed for painting and deep cleaning, which was how we occupied our time in those days. (One of the bedrooms in our then-new home was painted a bright orange; the kitchen was two different shades of green. We never could completely cover up the darker shade in the 14 years we lived there.)
Anyway, we walked into the Polk Brothers store (it was somewhere near the Maywood Racetrack as I recall) and the store was pretty much empty. The salesmen were hanging near the front door so they could scout, and pounce on, any likely prospects that drifted in.
We did not look like likely prospects apparently.
The old guys took one step back, leaving the youngest among them inadvertently out front. His colleagues pushed him toward us. Go, they were saying, you need the practice. To the more seasoned among them, we must have looked like bums -- or, worse, browsers. But we needed a stove, a washing machine and a refrigerator and we were prepared to buy.
We picked the items out in 10 minutes. We didn't haggle. In Polk Brothers, you were supposed to haggle. I didn't know that then. Besides: the prices were in line with what we were prepared to pay, the brands were reputable, the store would deliver, and I wanted to go home.
The other salesmen trailed along behind their junior colleague, just a few at first, but in increasing number and excitement as he whisked us from refrigerators to stoves to washing machines. There was an audible groan from the peanut gallery when I produced a credit card. Here's where it falls apart seemed to be the consensus; surely the card would be rejected. I think some of the senior salesmen may have begun rehearsing insincere words of comfort for their soon-to-be-disappointed junior.
The young salesman took our card and went somewhere to seek credit approval. He was gone for a long time. My wife and I felt ourselves increasingly under the scrutiny of the elders.
Of course, my memory may be playing tricks with me, or I might be inventing this for dramatic effect in the retelling of the story, but I think the kid's legs were wobbling slightly as he walked back to us, bearing our card in one hand and a sheaf of necessary papers in the other. We signed and signed and signed and the kid may have made more money in commission from this one transaction than the other salesmen had all day. Looking back, I can almost hear them muttering to each other: Damn Yuppies -- Oh, sure, you said they looked like browsers -- Can't you tell a serious customer when you see one? -- They're idiots! I would have given them 10% off....
But -- again -- I thought Polk Brothers was the exception, not the rule.
I thought the American rule was that the merchant set his or her price and the consumer decided whether to pay it or take his or her trade elsewhere. I thought this was called capitalism.
I've decried the spreading of Polk Brothers-ism into health care (Blue Cross gets one price from the hospital -- Unicare gets another -- and the person who comes in off the street with no insurance is billed the most of all) and higher education (try and find a college that will tell you, straight out, what it charges for tuition, room and board -- go ahead, try). But now I begin to believe that the exception has swallowed up the rule.
Yesterday, one of my wife's colleagues asked her whether she takes any newspapers.
"The Tribune. Why?" (No names are being changed here to spare anyone's feelings or avoid embarrassment. No way. Indeed, I'm hoping to inflict some.)
"How much do you pay?"
"I don't know," answered Long Suffering Spouse. "$400? Something like that, I think." (She was right. Like a lot our bills lately, we haven't actually paid this bill -- which is substantially increased over last year's charge -- but that is roughly the amount of my most recent bill from the Chicago Tribune.)
"Well, that's what we were billed, too. But then I found my neighbor was paying $132 for the same one-year subscription."
"Well, that's how I reacted, too. So I called them yesterday."
"You called the Tribune?"
"Yes," my wife's colleague said. "I told them I wanted to cancel my subscription. The price increase was just too much, I told them. Right away, they dropped the price to $200." (That would be less than the price the Tribune charged me last year.)
"What did you do?"
"I said 'no way.' I told them I knew my neighbor was paying $132."
"The Tribune gave me the same price." My wife's colleague was proud of herself.
I'm outraged. I love newspapers. I've subscribed to the Chicago Tribune for decades. I read the Chicago Sun-Times every day I take the train. Yes, I increasingly get news online, but I like newspapers. I want them to succeed. Or I did.
Look: Discounting your price cheapens your product and insults your loyal customers. If you can make a go of it for $132 a year, that's your price. If you can't, charge the price you need. But don't charge $400-a-year-or-whatever-we-can-negotiate.
Haggling rewards obnoxious behavior: The person who screams the loudest gets the best "deal." Is this the way we really want to live?
God, I hope not. Am I totally out of line here?