We’ve become too complacent in finding real value for money

A study showed that 50% of us are overspending, shopping more frequently or buying what they don’t need, writes Ailin Quinlan
We’ve become too complacent in finding real value for money

A new study showed that 50% of us are overspending, shopping more frequently or buying what we don’t need, just to qualify for discount offers. Picture: Stock photo

WHEN I was small, I used to stay with my grandparents quite often in a bustling little town on the east coast.

Maybe it was on a Friday, but it could just as easily have been on a Wednesday or a Saturday, but there was a certain morning in the week when my grandmother would announce that Cheap Charlie was coming to town.

With mounting excitement, I would gobble my breakfast at her kitchen table under the window outside which two lazy tabby cats sunned themselves all day. Then my grandmother and I would walk up the street to Cheap Charlie’s stall.

Cheap Charlie, was, as I recollect it, small and lean and hard like a whippet, and to a child of the 1960s, his stall was a wonder; it was a world of baubles and trinkets and gewgaws and novelties and toys; he sold everything from bubble-blowing mixture to footballs and necklaces of beads and glittery jewellery and big dolls encased in crinkly plastic. There were puzzles with strange writing and jokes and things that jumped out of tiny wooden boxes on springs.

Because I was very young and I don’t remember the actual context all that well, it was entirely possible that Cheap Charlie’s stall was merely a sort of shop counter made out of the back of a van.

But it was always busy; Cheap Charlie was never without a crowd of haggling customers around him.

He sold lots of boring adult things as well - stuff for kitchens, and bathroom things and tools for the men and all kinds of clothing, and his stuff was not bad quality if you wore him down a bit on his prices, my grandmother said.

The toys themselves were penny-catchers, she added, but I didn’t understand and I didn’t care, because like many of the other adults who bargained with him for whatever it was that she needed that week, once she had purchased what she wanted, my grandmother always bought the child a little something.

In reality, Cheap Charlie’s toys were only a sideline, something that this roving, canny, small-town entrepreneur offered to hoover up the few coppers supposedly saved by a satisfied customer after the new tea-towels or the set of screwdrivers had been argued over and finally paid for. For a child, the experience was magic.

My grandmother had grown up in hard times, in a struggling nation in the early years of the 20th century. Her mother was widowed very young and with a family of children to boot, and like so many others of that era, my gran was forced to emigrate to England to work while still quite a young girl. She knew the value of a penny and knew what reasonable prices were, and she recognised a real bargain when she saw one.

She had never in her life, I’d imagine, bought a pig in a poke, because she understood a shopkeeper’s idea of give-with-one-hand-and-take-with-the-other. It’s the way the world has always worked.

I thought of Cheap Charlie for the first time in decades earlier this week, when new research was published on overspending by Irish shoppers. A study showed that 50% of us are overspending, shopping more frequently or buying what they don’t need, just to qualify for discount offers such as ‘buy one, get one free’ or three-for-two.

The research also showed that about a third of consumers believed that supermarket loyalty schemes and money-off vouchers led them to waste food.

There seemed to be a certain level of surprise, and not a little outrage about this among shoppers, who remarked that such offers led them to spend more than they had planned to, and buy things they did not really need or want at a time when, they pointed out, grocery prices are around 8% higher than they were a year ago.

A bit naïve, I thought. Have we forgotten the wisdom of ‘let the buyer beware’ and not buying a pig in a poke?

Because isn’t this what the whole little battle between the buyer and the seller is all about? For the customer to secure the best value at the most reasonable price and for the seller to persuade the customer to buy more than they need and spend more than they want to?

How have we become so soft, so spoiled, so complacent and so entitled as a result of living in this apparently so well-intentioned nanny state, that we assume that huge supermarkets chains are coming up with these schemes for the good of the customer and not to, er, make lots and lots of money for themselves?

Why the apparent surprise that loyalty schemes, vouchers and discounts are put in place by retailers who have access to the best marketing psychology money can buy to actually encourage the customer to spend more?

Surely we still have the wit to make an intelligent decision about what we need rather than what we might want, and to work out for ourselves how much something is really costing us?

And if we plump for three-for-one offers or whatever, and buy more vegetables than we need, we could throw the extra carrots into a stew or make a saucepan of vegetable soup instead of letting them go to waste?

Are we all gone soft in the head or what?

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