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let's make a deal?
paying a price for not paying the price
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

How many deals do we see a day, and how many do we need?

I opened one of my less-used email accounts the other day and was completely floored. There were pages and pages and pages of "deals." Somewhere along the way I got on the lists for buckets of these Groupon-type providers, and apparently they've been accruing for ages -- restaurant deals, shopping deals, drink deals, deals for classes and lessons and events and supplies. Bloomspot and Facebook deals and Swirl and some kind of random Amazon-in-your-face thing, and they just keep coming and coming.

Same thing on the streets of New York. I don't mean the sandwich boards or the occasional Vegas-style hard sell when someone tries to thrust a flyer into your hands, but the regular, reputable stores. 30% off everything at Ann Taylor that day only. 50% off any full-priced item at Banana Republic anytime that weekend. It used to be that you'd only find a meager sale rack in the back, picked over with odd sizes and missing zippers, but now things barely get in the stores before they're discounted.

What does "full price" mean when that price is neither charged nor paid?

I saw someone state boldly on Twitter the other day that the huge numbers of books selling at Borders during its last days "proves" that publishers are pricing books too high, and that consumers believe that books should be cheaper. One, don't consumers believe that everything should be cheaper? Two, the sense of urgency created by the liquidation sale might have had something to do with driving demand. Three, those heavily discounted books were a "deal." And there's something about a deal we find irresistible.

The difference between "full price" and what the vast majority of people actually pay for things may seem harmless on the surface, but it has some much more troubling applications. You could make the argument that college tuition and medical expenses have both gotten completely out of control because of this same disparity. It doesn't matter what a doctor's visit or a medical scan costs if insurance pays for it, right? Unless you don't have insurance. So the people who can least afford to pay "full price" are the only ones faced with those outrageous numbers.

I suppose you could make the case that our endless appetite for discounts and deals isn't all that serious. It's smart to try to get things for the lowest price possible; we should all be keeping an eye on our expenditures, and if that means coupons or waiting for sales or buying chicken in family packs, that's just intelligent shopping.

You could also make the case that this deal bonanza we're seeing is temporary. We're in a recession, after all, and retailers do what they have to do to move product. And maybe when the economy turns around, the deals may start to dry up. And maybe once the novelty of Groupon and Living Social and those deal machines wears off, our email boxes may be less flooded and our flit-flit-flit attention spans more focused on value than price.

But I'm not so sure. As with the tuition and insurance examples, I'm afraid there are way too many places where the real value and the real cost of things are both being warped by the different between what's supposedly charged and what's actually paid. After all, interest-only mortgages with five percent down seemed like "good deals" too, and those chickens have come home to roost. What chickens have we just not noticed yet because the price seemed right?


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

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