There’s Probably No Hope for Consumers Who Aren’t Filthy Rich

My recent interactions with my former bank have prompted me to think about the feedback loop between consumers and the companies that squeeze profit from serve them. We like to think that when companies do something stupid or abusive, market competition will allow us to express our ire by taking our hard-earned dollars somewhere else. But what happens when that just doesn’t work? (Spoiler: it mostly never works. We just get screwed and keep coming back for more.)

As one commenter on my bank travails pointed out, “The sad fact is that for big banks, retail customers like you just aren’t worth the time and money. Even if you regularly kept a large balance and used the account daily, you’re just not who they want to do business with.” (In other words, staying with the break-up metaphor, ‘she’s just not that into you.’) I got that message loud and clear when the bank refused to pay me back the $35 bounced check fee I had to pay on account of the bank’s error, and didn’t even beg me to stay when I said I was taking my business elsewhere.

Something similar seems to be happening in the airline industry, if a recent New Yorker article on the design of first-class seats is to be believed:

Premium cabins contribute disproportionately to an airline’s economic performance—both directly, through higher ticket prices, and indirectly, by solidifying relationships with big-budget customers who fly all the time. Business class is especially valuable; first class can be problematic, because first-class ticket holders require extra pampering and won’t tolerate overbooking. Web sites like SeatGuru enable picky fliers to compare seats on many routes, and keeping such fliers loyal is expensive: new first-class seating units can cost more than half a million dollars each. Jami Counter, a senior director at TripAdvisor, which owns SeatGuru, told me, “The true international first-class cabin actually keeps shrinking, because the international business-class cabin has become such a great product, to the point where you’re differentiating more on things like food and service.” Because costs are high, passenger density is extremely important, especially outside first class.

In other words, fancy first-class seats are so profitable that airlines will keep packing the unwashed masses tighter and tighter in steerage economy class to add extra centimeters of Corinthian leather-upholstered luxury for the one percent. (Oh, and they’ll let boarding be slow and inefficient for the plebes so as to sell them preferential boarding privileges.)

In addition to the profit-motivated bad feedback loops, I’ve noticed another kind, which irritate me way more than they should: the situations where companies offer an inferior product or service, but the effect is so marginal and competition is so limited that consumers can’t or don’t bother to change their spending and the companies never get any feedback at all.

My favorite example of this is the resealable closures on consumer packaging. (I’m obsessed with this. It’s not healthy.) A few years ago, I noticed that suddenly, every bit of disposable packaging came with a built-in ziploc closure. You’ve surely seen this: it’s a plastic bag with a perforated strip, and when you take off the strip, there’s a zipper-type closure so that you can, theoretically, use some of the product and keep the rest fresh. I assume there was some industry-wide manufacturing innovation that made this kind of packaging much cheaper than it used to be, because it’s on lots of things that don’t even need to stay fresh, like coffee filters. And it’s not a bad idea! Recloseable packages are convenient. The problem is that the zipper closures are often too strong for the quality of the surrounding plastic, so when you try to open them again, the plastic rips, rendering the air-tight closure useless.

This irritates me, and because I am fundamentally a stubborn pain in the ass, I would like very much to use my principled consumer dollars to send a message (even a small one) to the companies that do it. I assume that switching to the useless recloseable packaging occasioned some marginal increase in cost to the consumer, and I want them to fix it so I can save one cent per purchase or whatever. But the grocery store near my house has exactly one brand of #4 cone-style coffee filters. (Actually, the grocery store nearest my house has zero brands of #4 cone-style filters. Also, they don’t have butter. But even the store that is relatively close and has butter only carries one brand of #4 cone-style filters.) So how can I convey my displeasure? Give up coffee? ARE YOU CRAZY?

And then there’s Amtrak. Let us put aside how Amtrak is losing lots of money every year, and take note only of how they do other stuff that just makes no sense. Matthew Yglesias has detailed how their boarding procedures are even more nonsensical than what the airlines do. But even the way they take your ticket is needlessly inefficient: you buy a ticket with your debit or credit card from an automated kiosk. You get on the train. The conductor tells you you have to sign the ticket in order for her to take it from you. Does the conductor have a pen? No she does not. Why do you have to sign a ticket that you bought with a debit card (which doesn’t require a signature)? I don’t know. No one knows (I have asked). It’s stupid. You don’t like it? Take your business to the competing intercity train company. Oh, right.

All of which is to say, there’s probably no hope for those of us who aren’t super rich. This is not news.

(Please enjoy Tennessee Ernie Ford’s great ode to the futility of working class existence while you use the comments section to share your favorite examples of irremediable commercial stupidity.)


Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.

Photo: Richard Moross


30 Comments / Post A Comment

Allison (#4,509)

Or when the “pull here” to open the package the first time rips down below the resealer thing on say, a bag of quinoa that really does need to be closed. So you end up putting the whole thing in an ACTUAL ziplock bag.

erinep (#4,236)

@Allison every. damn. time.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

Comcast is my favorite example of irremediable commercial stupidity. They are horrible! My internet is inconsistent and often SIGNIFICANTLY slower than the speed I pay for, yet they literally do nothing to fix it. When I call them, I spend hours in phone tree hell. Last time I visited one of their store locations in person, the representative I spoke with basically said “Yes, Comcast is the worst, but it’s not like you have a choice.”

And I don’t – not really – because there is no competition. I often have to host/participate in online meetings from home for work and grad school, and no one else offers internet in our area with the speeds I need to do that.

@MissMushkila Oh Comcast. My beef with them is their online auto pay setting doesn’t work, i.e. no payment is automatically pulled from my account. I have called a half dozen or so times over the last three years, they say they’ll “reset it,” part of my job is tech support so I know they’re bullshitting me, and nothing changes. I have to manually give them too much money every month for their mediocre service. Grrrr…

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

You do not carry a pen with you at all times? And granola bars? And tissues? And bobby pins? And a small hairbrush? And lip gloss? And lipstick? And a tiny sunscreen bottle? And earplugs? And earplugs for all your friends, since if you’re going to be at a concert together they’ll probably want some too? And a folded up pashmina (so many uses)? And a folded up reusable grocery sack? And an umbrella? And an aluminum water bottle?

I don’t think Amtrak is the problem here. ;)

bgprincipessa (#699)

@HelloTheFuture I have a gifted pashmina that’s been sitting on a chair in my kitchen for weeks. Please share with me your wisdom on what I should be using it for.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@bgprincipessa Here we go:

Scarf (to keep warm)
Scarf (as fashion accessory, go watch 25 Ways to Tie a Scarf for inspiration)
Pillow (wadded up)
Blanket (unfurled)
Picnic blanket (unfurled, with people sitting on it)
Cover up (for arms/shoulders)
Cover up (for swimsuits)
Cover up (for legs when wearing a dress and sitting at a restaurant patio at night)
Protection against rain (better than nothing)
Something to put down on uncomfortable or dirty chairs/bus seats/etc. before sitting
Conversation piece (yeah, I got this in Bangkok… I got this at TJ Maxx…)


sayevet (#6,237)

@HelloTheFuture So many great ideas! I am the consumer that needs to see a photo of the product in action so I know what can be done with it. Lists are also helpful :)

@HelloTheFuture The really terrible thing is that I always travel with a bag full of important items such as what you have listed, and on this one occasion, for heaven knows what reason, I had given away a pen to someone at the station, not realizing that somehow it was MY LAST PEN. There’s a whole separate post (probably not for this website but for some site specializing in firsthand stories of nerd agony) about the terrible feeling of being a Person Who Always Has A Pen and then realizing you’re penless.

Relatedly (barely), I once went out with a friend in DC, and after last call in Adams Morgan, everyone went to this pizza joint that had grotesquely large slices. My friend and I were standing on the sidewalk in the warm spring evening, wrestling with our cartoonishly large pizza, and watching as one man after another tried and failed to chat up a very attractive woman who was standing with two other women near us. One guy came up talking a mile a minute about how beautiful she was and how she caught his eye from across the street, and could he please get her number? She said, “Why don’t you give me your number?” which totally threw him, and after stammering for a second, he said, “I would, but I don’t have a pen.” She said, “How you gonna player when you don’t have no pen?!” and he didn’t even answer, he just hung his head and walked away in defeat.

Pens are important.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@HelloTheFuture You’ve convinced me, it’s going in the tote! Also it’s pretty small and light, so it’s not inconvenient to carry in case any of these wonderful reasons pop up.

One of my great triumphs in the last year or so involved getting Best Buy to cough up money it owed me, after a manager blatantly refused to honor the store’s posted return policy. I am cranky with free time and an internet connection: don’t mess with me!

In New York state, at least, the Department of Consumer Affairs can be super helpful. My Best Buy receipt even had the store’s DCA ID number right on it, and I could easily file a complaint online. The DCA followed up in a timely matter, resolved the issue (a refund to my original form of payment, which is all I ever wanted), and I think Best Buy got fined as an added bonus.

Also, for airlines, one pearl of Flyertalk wisdom involves complaining to the DOT when you are not properly compensated for delays or other irritations.

@angry little raincloud WELL DONE. In one of the major triumphs of my life, I got NYU to back down once about tuition they wanted me to pay for a grad school program I didn’t enroll in. That feeling of success lasted me months.

@Ester Bloom I bow down to you!

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

what is this about amtrak? I buy my tickets online and let them scan the barcode on my phone… is this not the way that most people do train tickets?

emmabee (#2,008)

@wrappedupinbooks This works until you suddenly have service issues in Penn Station and the person who checks your tickets at the top of the escalator absolutely will not let you pass and so you have to go to the kiosk anyway and then you miss your train and have to pay a zillion dollars for the Acela. Never again.

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

@wrappedupinbooks also i would imagine the reason that amtrak has queues in its busy stations is that city-dwellers are rabid monsters that would storm the train and overwhelm it trying to get on first if no one placated them by lining them up and letting them in at a controlled rate. (see how people act on the subway)

as for security, usually it takes them at least half an hour to check all the tickets after leaving a busy station. if someone slipped on without one, the train could be up to the hudson before it was discovered.

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

@emmabee the easy fix is to screenshot it beforehand so you don’t need the internet to access it

jwhittz (#6,602)

@wrappedupinbooks yeah, screenshot or download the .pdf and use adobe/some other free .pdf reader is what I do, too.

chevyvan (#2,956)

@wrappedupinbooks Yeah, this signing your ticket thing has never happened to me. I either print out the paper version at the kiosk, or they scan the barcode on my phone. Also, I live in Chicago, which has to be one of the busiest stations in the country. That is seriously what we do – storm the train in an every man/woman/child for themselves free-for-all. I have not witnessed any injuries yet, and everyone seems ok with the system.

Also, how can a grocery store not have butter? Do you live in Soviet Russia? (I actually suspect maybe near a Key Foods in Brooklyn, which is close to the same thing.)

Nibbler (#5,331)

@angry little raincloud I love my Brooklyn Key Foods because it’s unusually large (it has a parking lot!) but they don’t carry Buttermilk, and no one who works there seems to have ever heard of it.

@angry little raincloud It’s a weird market – it has a full butcher counter and a lot of produce, and, perhaps most importantly, a vast array of country-specific items for many many Latin American countries – sometimes, it’s just the same exact thing, but packaged in the way that natives of various lands will find comfortingly familiar. (Also, in the Argentinian section, they have a thermos with a picture of Pope Francis with Argentinian colors behind him, and the words (in Spanish) “The first Latino Pope.” There’s also, inexplicably, a branded thermos for Independiente, which is a soccer team in suburban Buenos Aires, but not nearly the most popular one in Argentina. It’s like if there were an American culture section in a grocery store in Norway and they had only Orioles hats.) I don’t know why they don’t have butter, but they don’t. One time I asked, and an employee showed me margarine, and I was like (in Spanish), “Yeah, I saw that, but that’s margarine. Do you have butter?” And he said, “Oh, right. No. We don’t carry that anymore,” as though butter were some sort of obscure specialty item, the dairy equivalent of an Independiente thermos.

@Josh Michtom@facebook Huh. Is there a broader Argentinian or Latin American aversion to butter?

It’s fascinating to me how much the stock in supermarkets vary, even within the same chain in the same city from store to store. The store in Harlem where I used to shop had Mexican coke ($1/bottle!), but the branch in my new neighborhood in New York doesn’t. The supermarket (the same chain) in Spanish Harlem didn’t have couscous.

Also, I’d take either of those thermoses.

@angry little raincloud What you say is true. I often wonder how much of that sort of variation is careful market metrics and how much is “people will always come here because they want their Nicaraguan cheese and their Peruvian cookies; let’s just pass on the butter.” And on the basis of having lived in Argentina in the past and living with an Argentinian now, I can confidently say that there is definitely NOT an Argentinian aversion to butter.

jwhittz (#6,602)

Wait, what are you doing printing out a paper Amtrak ticket anyways? I travel on Amtrak often, and have been using the digital ticket (which they email you) on my smartphone for two years. It’s easy, efficient and saves 1/1,000,000th of a tree or something like that.

But yes, the ziploc closures on all plastic bags are always either too strong for the surrounding plastic or never actually seal. Useless.

guenna77 (#856)

“So how can I convey my displeasure?” go to the offending company’s website and complain to them through their contact form. did that last month, got coupons and the added bonus of knowing that *someone* had to read my complaint and process it. that’s probably the best you’ll get. a refund or a coupon, depending on the product.

milena (#3,288)

Re: “In other words, fancy first-class seats are so profitable that airlines will keep packing the unwashed masses tighter and tighter in steerage economy class to add extra centimeters of Corinthian leather-upholstered luxury for the one percent.”

This is not how I interpreted the first class v. business class v. economy. I think what they meant is that international business class is becoming a more profitable space for them in the plane, because they can charge high rates but customers don’t expect as much (space, food, beverage, general pampering) as first class does (so more seats means more money in biz class). The benefit-cost equation is increasingly in favor of business class and less so for first class.

Although you are right that they will squeeze economy seats till the end of time, but not the economy cabin in terms of total space — just cram more seats in there! But I think we are more likely to see first class disappear in favor of converting it into the more profitable business class.

I hope that makes sense — major 4 PM syndrome over here.

@milena Apparently, premium economy cabins are the most profitable. (Not the economy plus type things like on UA or AA now, but the actual separate cabins like on BA or AF.) More space, but not a full flatbed like in business class, a few more amenities, but not crazy unlimited champagne or chauffeur-driven cars or lounge access. It’s a bit more like what flying coach used to be like way, way back when.

Union contracts (like SAG) also help keep first class cabins on some routes, like NYC-LAX. That’s also why, supposedly, a lot of Hollywood types fly Air New Zealand or Virgin Atlantic from LAX to London: their contracts stipulate highest cabin of service, but those airlines don’t have a real first class, so studios can get away with it. I’m mildly embarrassed my brain has absorbed this useless knowledge.

therealjaygatsby (#4,053)

The Amtrak thing happened to me. I thought it was just my train, but is it Amtrak’s policy not to let people borrow pens for a hot second? Luckily someone sitting near me had a pen — the ticket checker was so angry that I didn’t come prepared :(

raptoresq (#6,612)

I assume that signing the ticket indicates your assent to Amtrak’s contract of carriage.

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