The Other Reason Consumers Have Stopped Spending

There's not much stuff worth buying

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Like many Americans, I’ve cut back on spending. I thought this would be hard. It hasn't been. In fact, I feel a kind of relief, the way you do when an unwelcome guest finally departs.

Obviously I still buy everyday stuff like food, gasoline, music downloads, clothes and school supplies for my kids. If something breaks, I fix or replace it. Occasionally there's a nice bottle of wine or other treat.

But gadgets, novelties, upgrades, and try-me items are out of the budget. I'm happy to save a few bucks, but I've also discovered that there's not much new stuff I actually need. Even more revealing: Many products today simply aren’t worth buying.

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Paging through the Best Buy or Target circular isn't alluring anymore. It's boring. The thrill of contemplating a new big-screen TV or digital food processor or luxuriant set of sheets is gone. Sure, I could get a little more bass on my surround-sound, another 4 or 5 setting on my blender, or another 100 threads woven into my linens. But why? Would I even notice the difference? After years of serial upgrades, it turns out I can take a breather with no material impact on my quality of life.

Besides, as an experienced consumer, I know that the joy of the purchase will quickly be supplanted by the tedium of installation, troubleshooting, and remote "customer support." On the last laptop I purchased, for instance, I sprung for the integrated Webcam. Didn't need it, just thought it might be fun for me and my kids to play with. Camera fine, software didn’t work. Did online chat with Dell helper for 60 minutes. His conclusion: Send the machine back to Dell. Got it back two weeks later. Problem still not solved. Etc. Dell eventually fixed it, with no charge to me, but the ordeal sucked the fun out of a purchase I made for pleasure.

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I’ve had similar experiences lately with my cell phone, my camera, my kids’ MP3 players, and that digital whatchamacallit. Worst are the chargers, which seem like a secret Chinese plot to tie America and its electrical grid up in knots. Every gizmo has its own charger, incompatible with all others. There are charger orgies all around my electrical outlets and USB ports, and I’ll probably have to hire an electrician soon to expand my charger capacity. When we go away for a weekend, chargers and their illicit offspring take up more luggage space than clothes and toiletries. Once I bought an expensive “universal charger,” to reclaim control of my appliances, but it came with a bunch of tiny adapters that all got lost within a week. Part of the conspiracy, no doubt.

You might think I live under an especially dark cloud. Not so – virtually everybody I know has a drawerful of recent purchases that are inoperable due to perpetually dead batteries, inadequate household infrastructure or owner ignorance.Maybe I’m a dinosaur, dependent upon ancient software. Perhaps. That’s why I recently ordered Microsoft Office 2007, which is such a great deal that it comes with 8 hours of online training. Free! I don’t even have to pay for the privilege of learning how to use a product I just spent a hundred bucks for! So the next time I have 8 hours free, I’m going to join the 21st century. Like maybe when I retire. Or get laid off.

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This is the price of high-tech living, right? Well it’s also the price of low-tech living. I needed to replace two light bulbs in a cabinet fixture. To avoid Home Depot, where they have every manufactured product on earth except the one you’re looking for, I went to my local hardware store. They had about 80 kinds of bulbs, but not the kind I needed. I went to another hardware store, and found it closed on a Sunday afternoon, since that’s obviously a slow time for weekend home-improvement projects. I went home and looked for the tiny bulbs online. They were there, for about $4 apiece. But shipping cost $12, and I wasn’t desperate enough to consent to a ripoff.

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So I got back in the car and shambled over to Home Depot, where I only had to ask two associates and walk about half a mile before I found my light bulbs. Then to my surprise, the checkout line was only one person deep, and there was actually a cashier to rescue me from the despair of the self-checkout station.

At that point, it dawned on me: There’s a recession. Shoppers are staying home. It might actually be a great time to shop. Once I can figure out what else I need, I’m rushing straight out and buying it.