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What About This…? 9.17.2015

By Wayne William Cipriano

You have to be careful when you shop at one of those $1 stores.  What a great idea (and easy on the sales staff) to have everything in the place going for a dollar.  Of course, some things are good buys at one dollar, and some are not.

Some items are far less expensive than the exact same item at a “regular” store, but occasionally a regular store will sell the item for a bit less than a dollar.

Even when you compare brands, sizes, and expiration dates (usually noted “best used this century”) you still have to shop to get the best deals because you can be seduced by the concept of just one dollar.

There are items at a dollar store that you just cannot find elsewhere, often called novelties that arrest your attention and whet your acquisitive drive.  I think these things are usually called impulse items.  And, what the heck, it is only a dollar.

Often you see interesting and useful things, usually made from plastic that just fit perfectly into a real need.  You have never seen them before and they really fit the bill, but they are not a great deal in terms of value.  A good example of this is a 36” piece of curved polypropylene plastic that is a perfect no-bend-over shoehorn.  It had a bend at the top to hang from a hook in the closet, was the perfect length, was brightly colored for easy location, and the polypropylene plastic made it indestructible.  Yes, the material from which it is made and its manufacturing process probably totals two or three cents per shoehorn, but it is just perfect for it use and represents a convenience great buy.

On the other end of the spectrum are things priced at a dollar that cannot possibly be produced for a dollar, called loss leaders at regular stores, where they serve to entice customers into the store hoping once there, those customers will purchase profit-producing items.  Dollar stores seem to be full of loss leaders.  An example of this is digital wristwatches.

One summer when our granddaughter, Chuck, was visiting we took her to a dollar store on her birthday so she could select bright sparkling attractions that tickled her fancy.  When we returned home, Chuck noticed a non-operating digital wristwatch in my shop that she had seen at the dollar store. After I explained that a new battery cost more than the entire watch, Chuck, in a flash of insight, asked a series of questions that led us to dismantling the watch, gluing its fifteen or so components to a piece of cardboard, and discussing how all these components could be manufactured, assembled, packaged, transported from China to San Francisco by ship, from San Francisco to Springfield by truck, distributed to the dollar store, hung on a display rack by an employee, and then . . . sold for one Yankee dollar!

Amazing, isn’t it?

The other day this memory came back to me in spades.  As we walked through the dollar store I noticed a huge area of back-to-school supplies.  Some, like three- and five-hole filler paper, were overpriced at one dollar as were folders and the like.  But, there were some good deals, too.  Eight retractable gel pens for $1.08, tax included, is a pretty good deal since you always lose pens before they run dry.  Sixteen No. 2 pencils at 7¢ each are not bad either.  They are not Ticonderogas or even Eagles, but if their points break more than better pencils do, they offer the opportunity to stand next to the redheaded girl at the pencil sharpener and try to think of something cool to say.

The deal that knocked me out, however, was the calculator.  Not just a small one with the standard arithmetic functions and square root, nor the over-sized ones with numerals large enough for even me to see, but no kidding, a scientific calculator!

It had 42, (count ‘em 42) buttons, about half of which served two purposes.  All the standard arithmetic operations and square root, trigonomic, logarithmic, and exponential functions as well.  Percentages, two independent memories, sign changing.  It does negatives, ratios, discounts, and much, much more, like changing from degrees, radians, and grads, whatever that is.

Yes, this calculator requires a battery and is not light-powered, so what do you do when the battery fails?  You toss it and buy another one for a dollar!

I have a business calculator made by Texas Instruments that I think cost about $40, and another from Hewlett-Packard that cost even more.  And, either one of them is worth more to me than I paid for it.  I would guess that a student, or anyone else, who used all the functions or even a few offered by the $1 scientific calculator would be as astounded as I am at the price.

Sure, they steal the designs and do not have to do any of the research or development.  They pay workers virtually nothing.  Their government subsidizes these manufacturers and promotes no environmental sensitivity whatsoever.  And thus, the game is certainly rigged –– that is the reality.

Here is the question:

If we and other countries continue to import these products without balancing import duties, how on earth can anyone compete commercially with a country like China that can produce stuff like this and sell it for one freaking dollar?

And, if we do not compete on a manufacturing basis, what do we do?  We can only sell so many hamburgers, and so much life insurance to each other.