Until the consumer really, really jumps back into the thick of things, the experts agree that this economy is doomed to sputter. Until the average American believes he has the wherewithal to go out and buy that new house, that new car, that new kitchen, unemployment will stay right where it is. Nothing’s going to happen until people start feeling good about the future.
Well, that’s one theory. But here’s another: The reason the public refuses to loosen its purse strings is that businesses keep putting the wrong things on sale. Like most Americans, I frequent stores that dispense coupons with each purchase I make. Recently, I realized that it had been about eight years since I had redeemed any of these coupons. That’s because the coupons always offer me discounts on things I don’t want and don’t need. I don’t mean that they occasionally offer me a few cents off of things I don’t want and don’t need. I mean always.
For example, I am forever being tempted with a whopping $1.50 off my next purchase of eyewash, or $1 off some off-brand deodorant, or $2 off AAA batteries. These come-ons are useless; they are bait that few fish will take. I never use eyewash. And even if I did, I probably have gallons of eyewash stored upstairs in the back of the medicine cabinet, probably left over from the days when my Uncle Q, the last person in the family to suffer from seasonal itching, occasionally used eyewash.
The thing with eyewash is, once you’ve laid in a decent supply, you’re set for life. Eyewash isn’t like NutraSweet, M&Ms, or tequila; a little dab’ll do you. A society hoping to jumpstart the economy with sales on eyewash is a society about to get a poke in the eye.
The same goes for discount deodorant and bodywash and AAA batteries. Let me come right out and admit it: I don’t even know what AAA batteries are for. I honestly don’t. I use D batteries in my flashlight and AA batteries in my portable radio, but AAA batteries are not a feature of my electronic landscape. The reason stores are always offering $2 off the next purchase of AAA batteries is that they have a massive overstock of AAA batteries, stretching back to the Eisenhower administration, and they would like to get some of the stagnant inventory off the books.
As for discounted deodorant—well, the whole problem here is self-evident. If deodorant is being heavily discounted, there must be something wrong with it. The last thing a person wants is to go into an important meeting reeking of cut-rate deodorant. If deodorant is on sale, it’s because the deodorant stinks.
The larger point is this: You can’t get consumers to shell out serious money to get this economy percolating and slash unemployment if you keep offering discounts on things they don’t want or already have. There’s only so much mouthwash any one society needs. There’s only so much bland, tasteless, low-fiber cereal any society can consume. There is a limit to the amount of heavily discounted shampoo for extra-dry hair that any one society requires. Especially a society in which so many men shave their heads.
Manufacturers and marketers and retailers need to get some perspective here. America doesn’t need a buck off the next pair of trousers it takes to the dry cleaners. It doesn’t need 50 cents off its next purchase of birdseed or 75 cents off its next purchase of clothes hangers. It needs three bucks off its next six-pack of beer. It needs $1.50 off its next bacon double cheeseburger, with extra fries and coleslaw and maybe a milkshake on the side. It needs $6 off the next trip to the ballpark, $8 off the next trip to the gas station, $12 off the next ride on Amtrak. America doesn’t need any more cents-off coupons for skin cream, nasal spray, cough lozenges, or frozen broccoli. It needs cents-off coupons for coffee, gas, Jägermeister, college tuition.
I sometimes think that the coupon industry is dominated by unscrupulous sovereign nations that are deliberately trying to keep the American economy in neutral. They’re offering discounts on products so pedestrian that they encourage people to stay home and hunker down and hold on to their cash.
It’s not just that I fail to use the coupons that are routinely dispensed to me; I actually find these coupons demoralizing. Cents-off coupons for razor models I do not own and toothpastes I will never put in my mouth actually depress me. They make me believe that I am living in a parallel universe where nothing I want to buy will ever go on sale, where I am doomed for all eternity to buy cut-rate exfoliating creams and gross, generic, house-brand dental floss and sickening, low-budget beverages that combine fruits that were never meant to be united in the same receptacle. I feel the same way about those Must-Act-Now-Never-To-Be-Repeated-Weekend-For-Two-Getaways to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Responding to offers like this is probably what got General Custer in trouble in the first place.
Meanwhile, the car of my dreams and the 67-inch 3D television I crave will never, ever go on sale.
One day, the American economy will explode, and the consumer will come on strong. But that day will not arrive until AAA batteries are mothballed, off-brand deodorants are deep-sixed, and heavily discounted eyewashes are a thing of the past. What would really help would be store coupons that read: “FIVE BUCKS OFF YOUR NEXT PURCHASE OF ANYTHING. NO, MAKE THAT 20 BUCKS. OH, HELL, BUY ONE AND GET SIX FREE.”
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.