Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Be a Smart Consumer

Avoid falling victim to marketing ploys

Do you ever notice when you're in a store or shopping online that products seem to be organized by good, better, best? There always seems to be a clear line between one product and the more expensive one. I used to work for a major chain of musical instrument stores specializing in electric guitars. While I was working there I noticed a certain trend in the kind of guitars that we would sell the most of, they were typically midrange guitars in the 500-600 dollar range.

If you were to put all of the guitars in our store into three brackets, you would have "Bracket C" being guitars cheaper than $299, these are guitars like Squier and Dean (no relation) that are usually made in China or Indonesia and are made of the cheapest components possible. Midrange guitars in "Bracket B" for $300-$999 are still not made in the United States but incorporate better components and carry the same name as their more expensive counterparts, names like Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Les Paul. And finally we have high-end guitars in "Bracket A" selling for $1000 or more. These are your standard series Strats and Teles, American made Gibson SGs, and Ibanez guitars that are made in the big factories in Japan. Everything in this final bracket I would consider "pro" gear, and depending on options prices can go well beyond $5,000. Out of all these brackets, Bracket B by far outsold everything else in the store.

The reasoning for this is very simple and is no secret. When faced with three different product choices at different prices, consumers will usually choose the middle of the road. They think to themselves, "I don't wanna buy the cheapest piece of crap, but I also don't want to go outside my budget, I'm not a professional anyway. So I'll choose the second-best choice." Retailers have known this for a long time and they do this with everything from microwaves to TVs to cars. It's called "price pointing".

The pros are obvious; the system works, retailers make a lot of money when they use this system. But the cons are pretty serious. First of all you have a major decrease in quality when you manufacture something to be "good enough". This is usually where "Bracket C" resides, products here are the cheapest and are usually just built to be good enough to get by. You can pretty much take all the products in this bracket straight from the store shelf and throw then directly in the local landfill. Realistically it might be six months or it might be two years or it might be ten years, but eventually that microwave for $29.99, that TV for $69.99, or that car for $9999.99 will end up in a landfill somewhere. I'm sure you have fallen victim to Bracket C before, I know I did. You needed a toaster for your new apartment, went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond and saw that sweet deal for $29.99 and thought, "perfect, I'll take it!" One year later, where is that toaster now? It became trash.

Ever notice how people rave about antiques and how good the quality is? I'm sure you've heard the expression, "They don't build 'em like they used to." Well its true, things like kitchen appliances, cars and musical instruments from the 50s are fucking fantastic. The Sunbeam Mixmaster you see to your right is over 50 years old, and it is the best appliance in my kitchen. They didn't have price pointing back then, or at least they didn't use it the same way as we do now. Leo Fender built some of his best guitars in the 50's. He was a skilled Luthier, a genius when it came to building guitars. In 1950 Fender built and released the first solid-body electric Telecaster and it was perfect. He built it with all the right components and sold it for what he though was fair, only a few hundred bucks. Today his guitars from this era are considered the "Holy Grail" of great tone, and are auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars.

Just to give you another example, acoustic guitars are really expensive to make, unless you make them with laminated wood and shitty components. before price pointing nobody could afford an acoustic guitar, but that was okay because back then nobody really wanted one, they weren't popular. As soon as something becomes popular the manufacturers find ways to get it out to the public as fast as possible. You don't see grand pianos selling for $129.99 do you? Well maybe not yet, but when you do you can be sure that the quality will be reflected in the price.

In the center of it all we have Bracket B, the middle of the road, the middle child, half-baked, not really a full commitment but more of a half-hearted compromise. Some sort of mutated twin of the Beautiful American Standard, shunned and cast out into the forest to live in exile. I once bought a used Fender Telecaster. It was the Mexican made version that originally sold for about $400. When I got it, she was a wounded bird, a two-tone sunburst that someone had sanded down with a bench grinder to give it that "road-worn" look. The pickups were a fucking joke. The neck pickup was made of plastic, and when I took apart the controls I noticed the electronics looked like they had been soldered together by a blind gorilla with Parkinson's Disease. It had been sitting in the store for quite some time and nobody really took much notice in her, but after playing it a little I could see the potential this guitar had: a straight neck, good tuners, and a lightweight, resonant body.

I took her in a nursed her back to health. I stripped off all the old paint and refinished her in powder blue. Then I took apart all of the electronics and replaced everything including the pickups with american standard gear. I put it all back together and slapped a white pickguard on her to offset the powder blue body, a fresh set of strings and I was ready to go. The second I plugged it in I knew I had done something right because it sang like never before, since then this guitar has become part of my regular gear that I play on stage, and it all started out as an inexpensive half-mutant.

So I guess my point to all this is that when you're out in the world making your purchases, be an informed buyer. You should know what you're looking for before you go into the store or start surfing the online businesses, especially when it comes to musical instruments. Bracket C is for the cheap-skate who thinks he's getting a great deal, Bracket B is the one that usually everyone falls into because it's halfway between quality and suckage, and Bracket A is the real deal. Bracket A will probably end up saving you money in the long run because you don't have to go through a bunch of Bracket C's before you finally settle on the good one, and it's better for the environment because you won't be filling up all those landfills. You pay for what you get in this world. If you are an informed buyer and you know about the stuff you are looking at, then maybe a Bracket B is good for you and will suit your needs just fine. Just don't be a sucker and fall victim to price pointing the second you walk in the store.

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