Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Incentives

Now that my shopping is limited to whichever supermarkets the shuttle goes to, I go back and forth between preferring Wegman's and Whole Foods. Contrary to popular opinion, or at least given the things I buy, price doesn't end up being the main difference. And the quality is probably better at Whole Foods. But the sanctimony - the atmosphere devoted to promoting smugness among the customers, to pretending that with each choice you make as a consumer, beginning but for sure not ending with the choice to enter their store, you can save the world, save your loved ones from your own untimely death-by-Cheetos, etc. I don't want to make a lifestyle statement, I just want bulk legumes and a week's worth of produce and cheese, to liven up the dry pasta from the regular supermarket.


The latest thing there (make that here - the shuttle drops us off for two hours) is a version of where they ask you, at checkout, if you want to make a donation to whichever charity you of course have never heard of but you're probably a bad person for being so skeptical. In this version, however, what makes it different is, they ask you not merely if you want to donate, but if you want to donate your bag refund - the five cents per bag you get if you bring your own bags. It would seem - am I missing something? - that the point of this program is to get people to bring their own bags. It's a bit like - to return to an earlier discussion - if there were a campaign urging people to trade driving for biking, citing the relative cost, that also urged bikers to donate what they would have spent on gas. 

But it kind of makes sense - why not target the contingent already convinced that little things add up? It also would seem to defeat the purpose of the bag refund. If you opt to bring your own bags because of the refund, only to find you've been shamed for being so petty as to care about twenty cents or whatever it amounts to, what's the point? The refund is there because people do care about saving these tiny amounts, bringing them back into the personal or household pot, and then deciding what to do with them - save, spend, get out of debt, or, say, donate to a charity that you actually know something about.

3 comments:

kei said...

I've thought about writing comments about this on "How are we doing?" questionnaires I think I've seen before. My main problem with this is particular--I've heard of specific cases where the cashiers act in a self-righteous way towards people who want to keep their refund, and I've had a case where a cashier asked me the question in a weird way that caught me off guard and I had to say "I want the refund" to be clear, which made me angry at least until I got to my car (sorry, don't mean to rub the car in, just want to try to demonstrate that I didn't or couldn't immediately brush it off). I also don't appreciate it when cashiers forget the refund, because who says "Um can I get my 10 cents?" This is why I try to do most of my groceries at my local supermarket,, where my favorite cashier (I think) recognizes me, charges me less for random produce, and gives me multiple bag refunds for bags I didn't bring.

Phoebe said...

Oh, there was a cashier incident here as well - I was telling my husband that I thought this defeated the purpose of the bag refund, and the cashier heard me and said, angrily, "It's for the poor." This particular cashier seems a bit nuts, from past interactions, and indeed the only reason we'd picked that line was that she was actually shepherding people towards hers, away from the other lines. I guess maybe this is known?

But it was still embarrassing, having to insist on the 25 cents, when obviously this was a drop in the bucket compared with the $80 or so we'd just spent on a week's worth of groceries. In these situations, it's neither practical nor appropriate to explain where your produce-shopping fits into your budget more broadly. That to be able to "afford" to shop at Whole Foods means different things depending what and how much you're buying there, and that even if you're positively dripping with cash (not quite the situation of a grad student and postdoc couple), you might not want your supermarket dictating your charitable contributions. The only answer is to avoid that checkout line in the future.

Of course, these are two separate issues, the sometimes-bullying demand for a donation, and the choice to associate that donation with the bag refund. The latter seems more obviously flawed. The former... is probably kind of effective, if only because there's a culture of tipping in this country, as well as a custom of only adding tax at the end. People - esp. in yuppie enclaves - are used to the idea that a sticker price is more like a base price, and you will likely end up paying more.

I guess my overall thoughts on this, though, are that I don't think it's a great idea to start shaming people for penny-pinching. Most of us aren't billionaires hoarding wealth unnecessarily, and charity ought to come out of a disposable-income part of one's budget, not the grocery bill.

J.L. Wall said...

I've never had an issue with sanctimonious cashiers at WF -- but then again, I don't really make eye contact or pay attention to anything but whether the checkout prices add up correctly. But back when Whole Foods was the only close grocery to where I lived and, in fact, was so close that I just went and bought whatever I needed for that particular day, I took the bag refund. 50 cents a week -- sure, it adds up, just a little bit! But now that I'm there once every other week or so, I "donate" it, if only because it's the path of least resistance. And it eases my conscience about ignoring panhandlers. Which, I realize, is at least 42% of the point of the practice.

When they forget to give me a bag refund (and they do! all the time!) I sometimes think about demanding to know why they're trying to prevent me from helping the poor, but then I hear an old high school teacher reminding me, "Choose your battles..."