Thursday, December 9, 2010

A rant on consumer fascism

Please, renew my faith in capitalism! Nothing frustrates me more than feeling powerless with my money. I worry that it is only going to get worse, as huge companies consolidate and monopolize while gaining influence over American politics and culture. I feel like I should be able to do business only with companies that seem to WANT my money, give me generally positive experiences, and whose business and social practices don't make me want to vomit. I haven't figured out how to make my idealistic fantasy a reality, however and am constantly infuriated by feeling forced to buy from companies that treat me like shit. This week has been really bad in terms of this powerless consumer feeling. It may be the holidays, or maybe I am just in a bad mood in general, but I pretty much want to scream about every buying experience I have had this week!

I pretty much bit the head off the Best Buy cashier at lunch today. I was waiting at the front of the line for several minutes. There was maybe one person behind me in line, and one other cashier working. I thought the cashier I chewed out was helping someone, because I saw her talking and she sure seemed busy. After a while I looked around and saw that she was just flirting with the security guy. Yay. I stormed up and told her that I had been standing there for a while and didn't appreciated being ignored. Maybe I said it a little less pleasantly than that. She said something along the lines of "I, like, didn't see you!" and I pointed out that if she had turned around for a second to see the line forming she would have. I was buying a $200 Christmas present. I definitely should have bought it somewhere else.

Seriously, customer service is not that hard. I did it for a few years and I was really good at it. It's not that hard to be interested, nice and helpful! Sure, you have problem customers (like me, I'm sure) but it isn't that hard to do your freakin job and treat customers like you actually want their money. It's a lost art, apparently.

When I was in Idaho for Thanksgiving we went to the Northface store where I was vaguely considering buying a new coat. We were immediately helped by an amazing salesperson who was knowledgeable, helpful, and encouraging. She even gave helpful opinions and helped talk me into the right jacket and boots. I wish every store had salespeople like her, and I told her so. I doubt it made an impact, but seriously. In this economy you would think that even those in retail would appreciate having a job enough to do it right. There is no reason stores can't do it right.

I hate feeling forced into buying from companies that I dislike. Recently, paypal, Visa and Mastercard have made some very political moves that I frantically disagree with. But how do you stop supporting companies like that? I couldn't use Etsy if I boycotted paypal. I couldn't feasibly boycott Visa and Mastercard. These companies have too much power if they exist with no viable alternatives and are basically mandatory for important activities like selling online and, I don't know, existing in America.

Likewise, Amazon. They have all kinds of business practices that I hate. I think there is a real risk that they (or someone like them) will get a monopoly on ebooks or even the future of reading in general. At best, I think we can look forward a powerful oligopoly of like-minded companies controlling what we read. (Is it censorship if companies refuse to sell what they disagree politically or morally with? What if such companies are the only place to realistically buy books?) I can't support such a company in good conscious. I hear constantly that people don't necessarily approve of Amazon, but they feel they have to use it because it is the best way to buy X, Y or Z. I was essentially forced to buy from Amazon recently because it was the only place possible to buy a book I had to get for my work. It becomes increasingly hard to buy in accordance with my so-called principles.

So many businesses are powerful enough to essentially lock in customers with complicated pricing structures. Recently I have been frustrated by this in phone companies and my gym. I would lose a ton of money if I needed to switch cell phone companies. I think most people are in that boat. We are essentially trapped within a company, and they can basically treat us and charge us how they want without much fear of customers leaving. I think such companies invest more in marketing than customer service. Why bother with a few people who have the means and motivation to actually leave for reasons related to service when they can attract many new customers through advertising?

Any situation where I feel like I can&'t get up and take my business elsewhere makes me very, very uncomfortable. I hesitate to compare
this type of market power to fascism, but it seems related. I think the American (maybe world, I don't know) economy is lending itself to greater monopolies, extensive corporate power, and less consumer freedom. What are we to do when we get into monopoly situations where companies can tell us what to buy, charge us what they want and treat us how they want for goods or services we absolutely require? At that point, we have no choice but to bend over and mourn the loss of our economic freedom.

I feel intensely frustrated by all of this, but I honestly don't know what I can do about it, other than complain on my little soapboxes. To enjoy complete economic freedom I think one would have to be willing to basically leave the economy. Take credit cards. If I really wanted to take a stand against Visa and Mastercard I imagine I could switch to American Express. I would have to switch banks, and many retailers don't take AE. Likewise, smaller credit card companies would be difficult to use. In reality these companies probably employ business practices similar to those I oppose in Visa and Mastercard. So to really stick to my guns I would have to be willing to forgo credit cards. I don't see that as remotely possible in my life, I would have to drastically change the way I live. So are my options to reduce the standards to which I would hold companies or to escape this economy? Neither of those really work for me.

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