Thursday, January 31, 2008

Take On More Responsibility, Get a Better Deal

It’s one of the most familiar rules of economics. If you take more responsibility, you can get yourself a better deal.

And I’m not just talking about buying furniture at Ikea, although that works well enough as an example. Cart the box from the warehouse to the checkout to your car, then spend two hours putting it together when you get it home, and you save about half the price of a new sofa, and you end up with a noticeably nicer sofa, at that. By taking charge of the delivery and the assembly, just two of the many details of getting a sofa, you get a better deal.

If you want to buy a design, lumber, hardware, and fabric, then cut the lumber and sew the cushions yourself, you can do even better. You take charge of more of the process, and you get a better deal. Part of it is that you’re doing more work, but it’s not really about that. If you’re working from a well-written design, building a new sofa doesn’t necessarily take much more time or effort than you would spend rearranging your other furniture around a fully assembled new sofa that isn’t exactly the right size for your room. The reward you get isn’t payment for your efforts — it’s the better deal you get by taking charge of more of what goes on in your life.

If you want to think about this idea in supply-and-demand terms, it’s about the advantage you get from being unique — from being yourself. If you decide you’re going to fit into someone else’s plan, and that’s what you’re doing when you decide to solve a problem in your life by being a customer of a business, then you have to compete with all the other people who have come to that same decision. The business can charge a premium price precisely because there are so many customers. When they think about raising their prices, they are thinking of keeping some customers and losing others. This is what you run into when you make yourself part of the crowd. Make your own plan, and you are essentially only competing with yourself. No one else has exactly the same problem or the same approach as you, so no one is competing directly against you.

As I see it, there are three ideas that keep people from looking for a better deal.

First, as consumers, we are so used to having businesses tell us how to solve problems that we forget sometimes that we can solve our own problems. It’s easier to decide which parts of Victoria’s Secret’s fashion guide you agree with than to actually decide what you want to look like.

Second, many people think looking for a better deal means shopping around. The problem with this is the assumption that your range of action is limited to choosing among competing businesses’ plans for you. Much of the time, what you really need is to make your own plan. Shopping around sometimes is like switching between the channels on your television when what you really need is to turn off the television and stand up.

Finally, there is the idea of “no free lunch.” This cliché of economics seems to imply that you can’t get something better unless you are prepared to pay more in one way or another. This thought discourages people from trying to imagine a better deal for themselves. Yet sometimes it is possible to find an entirely better deal. It’s better all around: it costs less, takes less time and effort, produces a better result, looks better, is more impressive to your friends, and leaves you feeling better. And sometimes, the only thing that keeps people from finding that better deal is the belief that it doesn’t exist.

Despite what your elementary school teacher might have told you about daydreamers, taking responsibility starts with using your imagination. You have to think about what’s possible before you can notice what could be better. It’s a bit scary to realize how much we lean on advertising as a substitute for imagination. Businesses will give you only the merest hint of what’s actually possible. To get at the rest, to get that better deal, you have trust your own ideas and be prepared to follow one or two of your own dreams.