Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Cool Today, Cold Tomorrow

We were driving south of Lubbock last night and my wife interrupted me mid-sentence. “See that old travel trailer over there? It’s a Holiday Traveler. It’s like the one my family had in the 70s. Except we had the Holiday Vacationer.”

She went on to explain how the Vacationer, Traveler, and Rambler were the three trailers made by Holiday, in order of cost, appointments, and coolness.

And my wife the PK (Preacher’s Kid) knew all too well what it felt like to always settle for the least.

Coolness. Yep, it’s for sale. Marketers are the refrigerator salesmen of culture. Hot is out; cool is in. And it isn’t just something sold to young people.

CoolWhile Douglas Rushkoff in The Merchants of Cool may bemoan the fact that marketers often are anthropological manipulators among our youth, he overlooks the fact that it is no different as we age. The only difference then is that egos and checkbooks get in the way

I once had a student who told the class, “If you scrape the paint off a Lexus, you will find a Toyota Camry.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “but you would still have Lexus-sized payments.”

And so it goes. Marketers are quite familiar with the innate human need to differentiate oneself, to demonstrate uniqueness among the lemmings. We want to be the one with the biggest, baddest, most expensive model available, tricked out with all the custom doodads. The things we own are but a reflection of who we are, badges to be worn (driven, towed, whatever) down the parade of one-upmanship.

Of course, there is irony in that last paragraph, for in drinking the coolness Kool-Aid, we just cement our relationship to the crowd. In trying to be oh-so-cool and legends in our own minds, we merely become members of the latest consumption tribe.

I now know quite well the gimmickry sold by the RV industry, for my wife pushed me hard to replicate the experiences she had as a young girl. First we bought a travel trailer, and then a gas-sucking motorhome. While we settled on a nice used one, I had to endure countless hours of sales pitches as my wife did her due diligence at dealers. While most RVs are built on the same chassis with the same engine, the price range of these freeway barges can reach over $200,000, and mostly because of what you put in them.

Fortunately, my wife’s PK upbringing was not lost on her, and we agreed that the idea was simply to be able to go camping, not owning a mobile Taj Mahal.

But whenever we go camping, I cannot help but remember those models with the LCD TVs, leather sofas, and surround sound. And when I get passed by one of those rock star rigs, I realize that I am not cool. Nowhere near it.

But at least I didn’t blow all my cold cash in the process. .

Dr “Marry Frugal, Not Frivolous” Gerlich

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Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

The Order Of Things

Without doubt the funniest cartoon to ever grace the comics page was The Far Side, penned by Gary Larsen. It was a great loss to American humor when he retired in 1995.

And one of my Far Side faves is the classic “First Pants…Then Your Shoes” scene. I have used that line countless times since it first appeared, for its message is so profound…yet often overlooked by adults who should know otherwise.

First PantsSo why is it we seemingly intelligent grown-ups repeat the same stupid things over and over? Have we not learned that there is a proper sequence in some things? That we should learn from our mistakes? That it looks ridiculously funny when we try to put on a pair of pants, thinking that it will save time if we just leave the shoes on?

Not that I’ve ever done that. OK, I have. And I bet you have, too.

But this is not just about shoes. You see, we human consumers fall into this trap repeatedly. Take credit, for example.

Now I will be the first to say that credit can be a good thing. How else would we buy our homes? And with the price of a new car these days, it could take many months’ salary (or even years) to pay for it. Lest we live out back at the dumpster and walk around pushing a shopping cart, we probably have more debt than we care to admit.

And in spite of knowing that debt can lead to bad things, we say “Bring it on!” and assume ever more of it.

I suppose it is just an innate American urge to consume more than one’s income. In fact, Gerlich’s First Law of Personal Finance says that “A person’s ways will always meet or exceed his means.”

So there. When you write the blogs, you get to make up the laws.

But there’s a lot of truth in my simple observation. If you make $100K, you feel compelled to live like it’s $150K. In other words, as you move up the income ranks, you climb the ladder to new levels of poverty. You may be living the Blu-Ray life, but at the end of the month, I bet you’re worrying as much as the guy across town with the tape stuck in his VCR.

It’s all relative.

So here’s my prescription (in addition to getting dressed in he right order):

  • Resist the urge to trade up in housing, unless you absolutely positively need it. It is better to stick with your present home, pay it off, and then start banking the money. Besides, with housing prices increasing in the long term, you will be paying old prices well into the future. We are still paying 1989 prices on our house.
  • Buy a quality used vehicle and then drive it until it falls apart in the driveway. Your insurance will be less, as will your payments. Even if you have to repair it, factor in $400-500 each month as “allowable,” because that’s what a new car payment would be. Each and every month. I doubt you would spend $5000-6000 each year on repairs; if you do, then it really is time to get rid of it. And buy another used vehicle.
  • Use your credit cards as short-term advances on your paycheck, and then pay them off promptly.
  • Whatever you buy, plan on totally consuming it. Don’t worry if signs of wear appear. That’s why you bought it.
  • Take care of what you own, and it will take care of you. I wish I could lay claim to that phrase, but I have found it really does work.

I know…I sound like your old man. But I am getting close to being one, so I hereby grant myself permission to act the part. It’s just that I have had to learn some things the hard way. And I am not through learning. I could probably start a club called “The Not Good Enoughs,” and be its president. But at least I no longer fall on my face getting dressed.

Dr “First Save, Then Spend” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Grounds For Divorce

It wasn’t very long ago that being a barrista at Starbucks was an eviable job. There was nary a dull moment, and the tip jar was always there ready to collect loose change.

Once again, though, the price of gas has caused people to reconsider how they spend their money. With just basic coffee (no “-chino” suffix allowed) costs about $12 a gallon at the Seattle brew house, and more than double that when you start stirring in the exotic ingredients.

StarbucksAnd so it is no mistake if you happen to notice the lie at Starbucks or your favorit java hut is a little shorter these days. In fact, about 25% shorter, according to a report in Wired. When push comes to shove, gas is more important, and what OPEC taketh, we must find a way to give back to ourselves.

We really find out a lot about ourselves during a sudden economic crisis, like the doubling of gas prices in the last few years. It’s like the basic Micro Economics course being played out before our very eyes…and we are the lead in the play. The interplay of Price and Quantity Demanded becomes a daily struggle as we are forced to make decisions, learning about price elasticity, and how sensitive we are to monetary issues.

In other words,w e have to decide what’s really important, and what’s not.

And it’s not just the coffee retailers stuck with a pot full these days, either. Tap water is becoming the hip and trendy thing to sip (never mind that the environmentalists are giddy about bottled water sales taking a hit).

So I suppose it’s time to take stock of how my family has altered spending habits to absorb the high price of gas. Here are a few things I can think of right off the top of my head:

  • Still eating out a lot, but getting water to drink most of the time, and always watching for “Kids Eat Free” deals.
  • Driving less, and combining trips (we live 18 miles from Amarillo).
  • Cutting way back on discretionary items like DVDs and CDs. If I must have a song, I’ll buy it at iTunes for 99 cents.
  • Cutting back on the household AC, with the thermostat set at 78.

My father always warned me that times would get tough again. No, this is not another Great Depression, but the lesson he taught over and over has come home to roost. And you know what? I really don’t mind divorcing myself from a lot of those frivolous expenditures. Because I really didn’t need them anyway.

Dr “Saving Grace” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Snap! Crackle! Bop!

Don’t you just love it when companies try to come at you under the radar? They must think our defense systems are so weak that they can fly in and smack us upside the head without our even knowing what hit us.

Like this week, when Kellogg’s started shipping some of its cereals in smaller boxes. And the price remained the same. Fourteen different cereal variations are now in packages that average 2.4 ounces less than before.

KelloggsI cannot help but think of the boiling frog metaphor. Stick a frog in a pot of water, and slowly raise the temperature. He won’t even notice as he goes from hot tub spa to boiled amphibian. Of course, the metaphor is more urban legend than truth, but that doesn’t alter the fact that I resent being treated like a frog. And now I’m boiling mad.

I don’t have a problem with companies having to raise prices. It is an economic fact of life. Whenever the costs of production and doing business increase, it must be passed along. Between expensive fuel and a waterlogged midwest corn crop, food costs are going to continue to increase.

But please do not try to pull the shredded wheat over my eyes. I am not so dense as to be oblivious to what you are doing.

The Sage of the Shrinking Package is certainly no new tale. Coffee marketers have done this for years. You can still find the familiar one-pound and three-pound cans, only this time a “pound” is 12 ounces. And the prices are enough to buy Juan Valdez a new sombrero.

At the least the gas stations, God bless them, haven’t started doing this…offering us a “gallon” of gas for $4 that is really only 100 ounces. The Weights and Measures Police would put them out of business in a heartbeat.

And all other marketers should be treated likewise, for to resort to such trickery is shameless, underhanded, and disingenuous.

Dr “Not Cuckoo For This!” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Segway Segue

(This is one of those rare instances in which I can have some fun with homonyms in the title.)

They say that perception is everything. If you perceive it, then it must be real. At least real in your head.

Funny thing is, perceptions can suddenly make an about-face, and what was once the epitome of geek can become sleek and chic.

SegwayAnd what better opportunity, I say, than to segue into the Segway…the nerdiest of all human transport devices that is now all the gas-saving rage. Once the domain of urban cops, mall and airport security, and people with pocket protectors, the Segway is seen as hip and cool. Especially as its users go zipping right by the gas station on their way to work.

My, what a difference a year makes.

And isn’t it also bizarre that folks would be willing to spend $5000 or more on a device that is only suited for very short distances? Um…distances that could be walked?

Sure, we all might save some gas money for those short trips. But unless your city’s sidewalks are ADA-compliant with ramps at every corner, you will be forced out into the street with cars, trucks, and me on my bike. And even if you have compliant sidewalks, I bet the pedestrians you buzz along the way won’t be too happy with you. After all, you would effectively be a vehicle operator on the sidewalk. Not a good match.

As much as I love techno-gadgets, I cannot help but loathe the Segway. It is the ultimate statement of laziness. Heck, you would get more exercise driving to work and then walking from the parking lot to your building.

At a time when anyone with a product that offers a nickel’s worth of gas savings is suddenly a new messiah, my perception of the Segway is still lukewarm at best. What next? A personal levitation machine so I don’t have to make that l-o-o-ng trek from the bedroom to the bathroom each morning?

“Hey honey, you forgot to recharge this thing!”

Segway? No way.

Dr “Save Your Money” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Crowd Surfing

It’s amazing how many of our cues we take from other people. We see a line forming, and we get in it (and we have no idea why). Traffic is stacked up for miles, and we see the other lane start to move…so we try to cut in. A new restaurant comes to town (Rudy’s comes to mind), and everyone needs to try it…right now.

Ah yes, the wisdom of crowds. We need not even know these people. But their wisdom is profound and enticing, begging us to get in their lane to see what all the excitement is about.

It may be an over-used (and misappropriated) metaphor, but I cannot get the picture of lemmings out of my head.

CrowdI suppose there really is safety in numbers. It allows us to spread the blame if decisions don’t turn out quite right, and it allows us to likewise spread the risk. Human nature being what it is, our pack behavior reveals that we are not that far removed from the critters with whom we share this planet.

So what’s a marketer to do? Try to build crowds, that’s what. Crowds buy things, and when we see others doing it, we begin to lose our inhibitions. And open up our pocketbook.

You see, these crowds help determine what is cool, and what is not. And when something becomes cool, watch out, because the growth curve can go exponential before your very eyes. The iPhone took three months to hit the 1 million sales mark, but now Steve Jobs has his sites on 10 million…and will probably hit the target quite handily. Before the iPhone, though, the the real success story was the Motorola Razr, which now has sold over 100 million units. When it debuted, its price was the same as the first 8gb iPhone: $600.

From my lofty perch in the ivory towers of academe, I find it quite intriguing to watch the crowd scenes play out. It’s a lot like standing atop the Sears Tower in Chicago and viewing all the ant-like people below scurrying about. But since I am also one of them when I descend from my perch, I often act like everyone else. I take my cues from other people, especially fellow tribe members.

Because it sure beats getting stuck in traffic and watching the other lane move.

Dr “Can I Cut In?” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Know Da Verbs

The ultimate price of success in American business is when your brand name becomes generic. Courts have sometimes ruled against companies whose products became such household names that the original product category word is replace with the brand name. Examples abound of these successes, with common names like Kleenex, Band-Aid, Jello, and Vaseline always living in fear they could one day lose their trademark status.

It is an even greater feat, though, when a brand name becomes a verb, for this signifies more than a thing. It is an action. For many years we have been Xeroxing, when in fact all we were doing was making copies. The act of sending an overnight document is now FedExing.

GoogleAnd in the internet era, the name that comes to mind the most is Google. Everyone Googles. Google is synonymous with both search engines and searching. At $552 per share last week, who could argue the importance (social,financial, and otherwise) of this company?

But, alas, the lead story in the July/August issue of Atlantic Monthly posits that Google might be making us Stoopid (sic). That’s a pretty heady remark for something as ubiquitous as Google, a tool used every day by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

So let us consider the claim. There is no doubt that Google is used to help us find anything and everything, be it obscure facts or information to help us shop. The author, Nicholas Carr, alleges that Google is causing him to no longer seek information the way he once did. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sear of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr contends that we want information in clips just like we watch video snippets on YouTube. In the process, he argues, we are losing the ability to process large amounts of information in their entirety and within their context.

While Carr may moan the loss of yester-year search techniques, he needs to awaken from his snooze. This is no Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Our lives demand instant searchability; no longer do we have time for War and Peace. We no longer want or need the orange; we only need its essence. While I do not doubt that some great literature may be lost on present and future generations, it will still be there if we have the time and desire to read it. Until then, though, we need to be able to plow through the warehouse of cataloged knowledge to find only what we need…and in a hurry.

And if Carr is really serious about his neo-Luddite quest, he should be certain to not pick up a smart phone that can search Google or its mapping service, because that would make things all too easy while out of the office. He needs to savor the joys of looking through phone books and atlases, and lugging them along in his car.

But I doubt he would actually use a cell phone anyway. That would be plain stoopid when you could just drive over to someone’s house to talk to them.

Dr “Google This” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

(Re)Generation

What a difference a generation can make in worldview.

I am a Baby Boomer, one among 78 million people born in the USA between 1946 and 1964. My parents are part of the Builder Generation, having survived the Great Depression and World War II. And most of my students these days (the “traditional” ones, that is) are the offspring of Boomers, known as Generation-Y or The Millennials.

And about the only thing we can all say we have in common is that we are Americans.

PopulationThe Depression and the war shaped my parents in ways that most of us now find unimaginable. Frugality was not just fashionable, it was a necessity, and it was as much a national endeavor as it was a personal one. The war effort required redirection of resources of the natural and human kind, with copper pennies put on hiatus and Rosie the Riveter filling jobs normally filled by men.

It was that bootstrapping mindset that caused my parents’s generation to eventually prosper. They are now living out their golden years on the proceeds of the hard-earned savings.

The Boomers, though, have been an entirely different group. Bouyed by unprecedented national and family wealth during their early years, the Boomers have never gone without. The economic Shangri-La in which my cohort was raised has caused us to never settle for less than the most or the best, even if it means going into debt to do so. Living large has been the mantra of my generation, the embodiment of every marketer’s wildest fantasies. It was during those post-WWII years that Americans reproduced quite prolifically, with 4 million live births each year the norm.

Contrast that now with Gen-Y, and the world has once again turned. It was not until the late-1980s that we reached the 4 million mark again. Perhaps it was better birth control, the availability of abortion services, or just a new view on children, but my generation simply did not produce as many kids. And even though we did hit 4 million birth for a while there, the statistical significance of it was far less, and continues to decrease as our total population increases. For example, 4 million babies in a population of 150 million is twice the impact when the population is slightly over 300 million (as it is now).

And Gen-Y has a very different worldview from that of my generation. While unpopular wars may be a common thread between the two, I suspect Gen-Ys are tiring of their Boomer parents and their profligate ways. They are weary of corporate imperialism and ethical breaches. Increasingly cynical of the world in which they live, Gen-Ys are typified by a more short-term orientation and better-grab-it-while-you-still-can attitude.

As for my parents, they now live in one of those nice gated communities in central Florida, safe from the perils of the outside world, and everyone with the same type of grass, roof, shutters, and shrubbery. Seinfeld’s parents would have fit in nicely there.

My generation is starting to get old. We have become the parents we loathed a few decades ago, and are finally starting to think about saving a few bucks for retirement (which we may not be able to take). We swallow pills by the handful to try to restore our waning youthful traits after watching advertisements of smiling AARP members skipping dinner and heading straight for the boudoir cheesecake.

And while I cannot lay claim to knowing much about Gen-Y other than what I read or hear from my students, I suspect many are worried they may never achieve the same American Dream my Boomer friends and I did. They are probably even a little bit angry, blaming our consuming desires for using it all up and saving little for them.

But I always tell my students to look on the bright side. There’s 78 million of us who are going to need medicine, assisted living, and probably even Depends. Your chance is coming to stick it back to us, taking our money before we try to leave with it.

Just don’t lock me up in one of those gated communities.

Dr “Hard Pill To Swallow” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Tossed Metaphors

A hundred years ago, the majority of immigrants to the US came through New York City. Ellis Island was the main point of entry for these noble newcomers, and from thence they stayed either in The Big Apple or migrated to points inland.

And the moral imperative placed upon all immigrants was that they would quickly blend into America, melted into the pot of local culture. It was an apt metaphor, and captured the spirit of the day. At the time of the Industrial Revolution, it was probably more out of necessity than convenience that everyone come together as a unified whole.

Tossed SaladToday, though, immigration is vastly different. The flow from Europe has reduced to a trickle, with most immigrants now coming either from the south (Mexico, and Central and South America) or the west (Asia). Ellis Island is but a fond memory of a bygone era, because our culture is no longer an amalgam of inputs, but rather a zesty salad bowl that tastes good together, yet with each ingredient retaining its own unique flavor.

The US has always been a mutt nation, and to its great strength. The pooling of genes and cultures has created a veritable smorgasbord of tasty influences. Thatïs not to say one cannot find similar variety elsewhere around the world (I am convinced there is no town on the planet without a Chinese restaurant). But when you consider that the US has always been an immigrant magnet, it is easy to see that the Mall of America is but a metaphor for our cultural diversity.

It is the shift in metaphors, though, from melting pot to salad bowl, that causes discomfort for some folks. There is often an implicit expectation that all newcomers hurry up and “get with the program,” trading their old colors for the familiar red, white, and blue. And this is just as true for international immigrants as it is for those migrating within the country.

You see, it is just as strange for a Brit to embrace American football or a Lao to like meatloaf as it is for a Yankee to don cowboy boots and start saying “y’all” when they move to Texas. It’s OK to do these things, but there is no cultural imperative to suddenly blend into the surroundings.

I’ll take the salad bowl any day over the melting pot. It’s what allows us to retain our identities while at the same time becoming part of the greater whole. And it lets us to dine at the global buffet of diversity.

Dr “Pass The Dressing, Please” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Subculture Clubs

They say there is no better way to cause a spontaneous fight than to bring up religion or politics at a party. I suppose the same could be said of the classroom, but I am willing to take that risk and try to cross at that tricky intersection.

When it comes to religion, I am a mixed breed. Based on my parents’ separate lineages as well as my own progression, let’s just say I am a BaptiNazaCathomatic. So now when we go to church, I am usually in shorts, t-shirt, a sandals, yet not so far removed from my paternal German heritage that I wouldn’t think twice about having a beer with my dinner afterward.

ReligionAs for politics, I am a fiscal conservative yet a moderate social liberal. Milton Friedman was my idol in school, but I don’t buy the idea of trying to impose my beliefs on others. I guess that puts me squarely in the McCain camp.

So what does this have to do with anything? Plenty. You see, our religious and political persuasions can have significant effects on our consumption behaviors. If you don’t believe me, just look a few hundred miles south of here to Eldorado and the FLDS sect compound.

Through the years I have met many people whose consumption was shaped heavily by their beliefs. I have known people who boycotted products and restaurants because of ideologies espoused by their corporate owners (e.g., supporting Planned Parenthood). I recall the Baptists boycotting Disney a few years ago because it (Disney, not the Baptists) supports gay unions and even has a gay pride weekend event. I have traveled through Utah in search of caffeinated beverages.

And I will confess to laughing out loud in the Salt Lake City airport a few years ago when I saw they were serving Polygamy Ale at the brewpub. I suppose being a non-believer can influence one the other way.

As a non-native Texan, though, I still scratch my head at the goings on in the Amarillo area. In case you haven’t noticed, this area is…um…kind of conservative, to the point that saying you are Republican almost means you are too liberal. I am befuddled by a community that staunchly supports a business owner’s privilege to allow smoking, yet doesn’t have a problem with keeping citizens from being able to buy a six-pack or a bottle of wine.

Lubbock is no better, with their keep-em-out-of-town view of package stores. Let the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) prevail, and let’s make it simple for the delivery truck drivers. Having everything concentrated along one mile on the edge of town makes for an easy day.

But lest you think this is merely a rant (OK, maybe some of it is…having grown up in the home of Al Capone, we were pretty much immune to these social issues), consider that the long arm of Religion Road can run all the way from our cupboard to the intersection with Politics Lane. And even run the red light cameras.

As for me, I’ll keep my spiritual beliefs in my cupboard, and let you decide what’s right for you.

Dr “What’s On Your Shelf?” Gerlich

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