The Public Square

Joan Villa from White Heath on holiday bargain shopping


This is Joan Villa. I'm a business journalist who has observed retail and consumer trends for two decades. But as a shopper, I love a bargain as much as anyone. Who doesn't get a rush when they pay $12.99 for a name-brand belt that has the original $32 tag still on it?

So on a recent Saturday I set out among scores of other holiday shoppers to find gifts and other irresistible bargains. At one of those chains that advertises big brands at discount prices, a pair of New Balance running shoes jumped out at me. They were stacked on an end-cap with 40 percent off -- in big letters -- the already discounted price of $44.95 - (discount to be taken at register).

Now - let me be clear -- I already have running shoes. But immediately my skin flushed with excitement at the thought I could have NEW running shoes and pay next to nothing for them. Like a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, I began weighing the pros and cons of shoes that would cost me $26.95.

Now New Balance is a pretty high-end brand, and I bought my current pair just six months ago. Those were expensive -- over $100 - so I did a Web search to find the best price, and eventually bought them for about 15 percent off. But here I was in the store -- facing the same brand shoes for one-quarter of the $100 I had recently paid and -- I was feeling vaguely uncomfortable. I couldn't shake two sayings that sprang to mind: You get what you pay for and, If a price seems to good to be true, it probably is.

What accounted for this huge price difference, I wondered? It could be that these shoes are "out of style" or an older model, but to the tune of $75? Is there really that much mark-up in running shoes? Or - another possibility -- have these high-end manufacturers started producing a lower-quality product to meet the needs of discounters and bargain-hunters like me?

Either way, there's a limit to how low a price even I will pay. I moved on to another store where I found a set of three cobalt blue ceramic canisters - the kind with a wooden spoon on the side for ground coffee or flour - for $9.99. Again, I jumped at the box - thinking how good they'd look on my counter -- and then hesitated. Not so long ago, these canisters would cost $40 or more. I would have carefully considered the purchase, and appreciated it a great deal. Now I worry that I'm getting these bargains thanks to the labor of some low-paid Chinese worker, and at the expense of American jobs. In the end, I didn't buy the shoes or the canisters, and my own reaction puzzled me.

Shopping for the holidays should be joyous, but here I was feeling downright queasy among aisles cluttered with Christmas merchandise that I just knew was headed for people who don't need more "stuff." And what isn't sold will be red-tagged for after-holiday clearance, when our consuming feels stale, overindulgent and a little sad like our wilted post-Christmas tree.

Once upon a time, discounts were limited to after Christmas, and rarely before. Now it's no longer unusual to see stores stay open from 5 a.m. to midnight, making the old 12-hour sale look quaint. Has greed replaced giving? Do we feel obligated to "buy" in order to celebrate our most holy season? And even though we are buying and buying, retail year-over-year sales remain sluggish, perhaps due to all the discounting. We're purchasing more but paying less, so retailers' gross sales don't reflect the real impact of all that credit-card swiping. And from the consumer side, price no longer seems connected to worth.

Leaving the store empty-handed, I couldn't help wondering just who benefits when consumers buy more but pay less. Not retailers, not American workers, and in the end I'm afraid, maybe not even us die-hard bargain-hunters.