Are Customers to Blame for Cheap Products and Services?

Last Updated Apr 14, 2011 5:29 PM EDT

We live in a world where you can buy a laptop computer for $100 and a video camera for less than $40, and in which our cell phones -- yeah, even the smart ones -- are "free" with a contract.

I used to be able to say, "If it's too good to be true, it probably is." Now, not so much.

Question is, who's to blame for this world of ridiculously cheap, or even free, products, many of which are just disposable junk? When the price of many goods and services today is unbelievably low cost, just what should customers expect--and companies deliver?

The Downside of Low Prices
As Ellen Shell observed in her 2009 book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, scientists have discovered that the very anticipation of a bargain "sets our neural networks aquiver." Low prices can confuse customers and "ignite the impulsive, primitive side, the part that leads us to make poor decisions based on bad assumptions," she notes.

Or are you responsible for this, as a manager -- pushing your employees to improve profits?


I'm seriously conflicted by the question.

Whenever I ponder this problem, I crave a taco.

A Taco Bell taco, to be exact. The fast-food restaurant's burritos, enchiladas and tacos are cheap, delicious and of the highest quality. At least that's what it claims.

"Our taco meat is made from USDA-inspected beef and is subjected to quality check points," the restaurant chain says. "It tastes great because it's simmered in 12 authentic seasonings and spices and is never frozen. Moreover, our taco meat is leaner than what you'll find in a restaurant-cooked hamburger because of the unique way that we prepare our taco meat and remove fat."

Mmmm. Quality food at 99 cents a taco? At that price, who wouldn't want to think outside the bun?

But a class action lawsuit claims Taco Bell beef isn't beef at all. The "meat" consists of 65 percent binders, extenders, preservatives, additives and other agents. It wants the fast-food chain to stop calling it "beef."

Taco Bell insists only 7 percent of its meat isn't meat, and says people asked for it. Without the extra ingredients, its tacos and burritos would be "boring."

The fast-food chain launched an aggressive campaign to counter the negative publicity, including a print campaign that "thanked" the plaintiffs for suing the company (because presumably it would give the company a chance to talk about its superior beef) but placing a strong emphasis on social media and the Internet. The intent was to drown out any critics under a pile of positive PR.

But wait! Did customers ask for this?

Maybe.

Americans indiscriminately chow down on discounted Mexican fast food, sending a clear message to the restaurant that they want inexpensive, tasty grub. At the same time, they shrug off nutrition and quality, signaling that they draw little distinction between 7 percent artificial ingredients â€" and 65 percent.

Other examples of customers demanding impossibly cheap products are all around us, from airlines to cable TV subscriptions.

Have customers been willing participants in this race to the bottom, or are they, as some of my consumer-advocates would claim, just helpless victims?

A hard look at the facts suggests there's plenty of blame to go around for today's "too-good-to-be-true" products. What do you think?

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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Photo: HowardLake/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.

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