Mobile phones, consumerism and Frank Navatsky

Walter Kirn seems far too young (43) to be truly anti-technology. Instead, I have to believe he has jumped upon the promise of mobile phone technology to make a point about the apparent disconnect between human desires and online shopping applications. Kirn offers the example of a mobile phone, powered by pricing engines, product comparison services and extensive databases, that will eventually drive competition and force an equal price among retailers and manufacturers. Facing a market with perfect information, the consumer should be able to demand the cheapest price - arguably ruining the shopping experience in the process.

    "Despite the cost-controlled monolithic gloom of the Wal-Marts and Costcos of the land, human beings, deep down, are still creatures of the bazaar, with a restless desire to haggle and finagle that cuts across cultures and the centuries. ...

    A penny saved is a nickel earned, to my mind, and though everyone paying the same amount for everything no matter where or when he goes to buy it may seem to some like a consumerist paradise, to me it sounds almost as stifling as Soviet socialism but without the vibrant black market that made it bearable."(NYT magazine)

How evocative, drawing deep into our subconcious to draw parallels with historic shopping practices. You know what his prose reminds me of? Frank Navasky, the idealistic columnist played by Greg Kinnear in "You've Got Mail":

    Frank Navasky: Kathleen. YOU, are a lone reed. You are a lone reed, standing tall, waving boldly in the corrupt sands of commerce.

    Kathleen Kelly: I am a lone reed.

The economic underpinnings of Kirn's argument, however, are far too general:

    "The best price for something, in theory, will be the only price, everywhere and absolutely, and bargain hunting will be a hunt no more but something akin to a point-blank execution."

He overlooks - maybe for dramatic effect - that consumers are individuals with individual tastes. Some of us like different colours. Some of us have a hate-on for a particular store or salesman, no matter what the price. And some of us live 800 miles away from the retailer. And some of us never, ever, buy retail.

Each of these points of differentiation may also lead to price differentiation. A truly comprehensive price database may help a consumer identify the cheapest price, but Kirn's argument will eventually win or lose on an equitable distribution of goods: if my local retailer doesn't have my widget in blue, I won't buy it. And if my closest retailer is 800 miles away, shipping charges will factor into my purchasing decision.

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