Monday, June 15, 1998

The Price Is Wrong

I will never be a contestant on "The Price Is Right." I am clueless about money. Not about how to make it, or what it's worth, but about how much some things cost.

Don't get me wrong. I know that the pizza lunch buffet at Joe's is four bucks and is a helluva bargain when a big guy like me sits down. Unlike every presidential candidate, I have a pretty good idea what a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk costs, what they'll charge me to dry clean my shirts, and how much I'll have to lay out for an oil change.

I've always been good at math, so I can figure out how many cans of Turtle Wax and Rice-A- Roni to buy so that I can qualify for a robust round of Plinko, but I'm lost when it comes time to price the items I've never even thought about before. Look, there's a 13-piece living room set and it comes with Karistan floor covering, whatever that is! Hey, there's the combination billiards table and outdoor meat smokehouse! Wow, there's a model who looks like a hooker (no, I have no idea, don't even ask) and she's pointing to a seven ounce bottle of some kind of jewelry cleaner! I can't help but wonder how many times Rod Roddy has to pre-read his copy, because he's never seen any of this crap before, either.

And forget about the price of items you see in print, particularly if it's on glossy paper. How many times have you seen an ad for a store you've never heard of, featuring an attractive woman wearing a dress with a rather simple print pattern, and then been surprised to see that the price has a comma in it?

There, on the back page of a magazine, was an ad for Crate & Barrel. The picture showed four wooden chairs, identical except for their colors. They looked pretty simple to me, and I figured they'd go for about fifty bucks apiece. I was downright shocked when the small lettering below said that each "Handcrafted Village Chair" cost $199.

Huh? Each? These aren't nice dining room chairs we're talking about. They're the kind you'd find behind every public school teacher's classroom desk. They look like your pal Lenny bought them at the Unfinished Furniture store, brought them home to the garage, and went to work on them with a can of spray paint. In the photo, I swear I can see where Lenny missed a couple of spots.

I held up the magazine and asked my wife how much she thought one of these chairs cost. She glanced casually over at the page and answered, "Two hundred dollars." Bingo!

"How do you know that?," I wondered. She knocked me over with her reply: "That's how much chairs cost." They do? Really? Well, call me Alicia Silverstone!

I was at the auto dealership last week finalizing my purchase of a new car. I had done all the research online, had all the figures, and had bargained my way into a damn good price on exactly the car I wanted. Even had the salesman show me what the invoice price was on all the available options, and that's when that "I had no idea" light went on over my head again.

There, on the price list, were two items I didn't expect to see: Floor Mats and Heated Side Mirrors. Okay, so my brain quickly figures that the mats have gotta cost next-to-nothing, because I can pick those up myself at any auto parts place and plop them down without a cent of labor cost. Aren't they standard? The dealer probably throws those in if you ask nicely enough. But the mirrors? Well, that's gotta run you a pretty penny. After all, they gotta run the heating thing somehow from wherever it starts inside the car up and around to the outside of the car, and that sounds like factory work, and you gotta have two union guys handle that, minimum, and before long your parts and labor are, what, a couple hundred bucks?

Wrong! The Heated Side Mirrors cost a grand total of $24. Those oh-so-easy Floor Mats are going to run you $80!

Maybe this was a supply and demand thing. Everyone wants the Floor Mats, because even when you know as little about cars as I do, you at least know this is the one part of the car you can maintain yourself without breaking it, thanks to that super-sucker seventy-five cent vacuum at the car wash. On the other hand, very few people must want the Heated Side Mirrors. It just seems wrong that in the dead of winter when we're freezing our butts off on the inside, those mirrors are sitting there nice and toasty on the outside.

So you can see why I'm never going to get a shot at Bob Barker's Showcase Showdown. But I have an idea. We should get Bob to make the prices a little more right for those of us in the real world. Ask me which gas station takes six cents off on Wacky Wednesday, what internet access runs, and the basic amount I'll need on a farecard when I take Metro downtown. Ask me how much you should raise when you're holding a full house of kings and tens and no one at the table is even showing a pair. I'll show you what a showdown is all about! Now we're talking money!

Oh, well. Maybe I can be on that other show, "Win Ben Stein's Chairs."