On being … in bulk

By Ingrid Sapona

We’ve all heard the adage: cheaper by the dozen. Before sitting down to write today’s column, I decided to look up where it comes from, figuring it’s been around for a looooong time. Apparently, it’s not that old – it comes from the name of a novel published in 1948. In contrast, the idea of 13 making up a baker’s dozen goes back to the Middle Ages when baker’s started including an extra loaf so they wouldn’t be charged with shortchanging buyers by making loaves that weighed less than legally required.* (I thought cheaper by the dozen might have a pedigree like the baker’s dozen, but it doesn’t!)

Cheaper by the dozen came up recently when I was shopping for corn at my local farmer’s market. A friend was coming for a barbeque and, though I thought it might be too early for local corn, it was worth a look. I was delighted when I found two farmers selling what they described as the season’s first.

They were still setting up when I got there, so there was no indication of the price. I went back when they were fully set up. When I got to the table, I heard a gentleman ask the price of the corn. While I expected a price difference depending on how many you bought, I was very surprised when the farmer said $5 for 6 or $7 for 12. From the look on the face of the man who asked, I think he was surprised too!

While I didn’t mind having a couple ears left over for another night, there were only two of us for dinner, so there was no way I could use a dozen. But, $5 for 6 seemed really unfair. When the gentleman who asked the price also hesitated, I asked him if he wanted to split a dozen. Though he was surprised at my suggestion – he quickly agreed. As I handed him $3.50, a farmer within earshot said, “That’s the way to do it!” and another joked, “See how the market brings people together!”

On the way home, though I was pleased at my quick deal with the stranger, I was still irritated at the price difference. The “cheaper by the dozen” phenomenon – and variations of it – come up a lot. I’ve often pondered the rationale – and I have to say, in most circumstances I don’t get it.

I can understand it if the vendor needs to move a big quantity and so they set a low bulk price encourages people to take more. But with the corn that morning, I don’t think that rationale applied. Since it was so early in the season, he didn’t have that many bushels. I doubt he’d have had trouble selling what he brought to the popular market. 

Sometimes I figure they charge more for a smaller amount because there’s added costs involved in providing an unorthodox size. For example, I understand paying more per pound for a wedge of watermelon than for a whole one. In that case, the seller spends time cutting, wrapping, and weighing the cut piece, not to mention they need to be more careful the way they display or store cut pieces because they’re more delicate.

Other times I suspect the discount offered for a large quantity is related to the marginal cost. For example, when a fast food place only charges 30¢ more for an extra large coffee instead of a medium – clearly the incremental cost of the added volume of coffee is low. In other words, the sunk costs are the same on all sizes: the cost of a cup, a lid, and labour to make a cup, etc. So the additional 30¢ only has to cover the cost of a bit of extra coffee, cream, milk, sweetener, and profit.

But there are lots of situations where a healthy price difference just seems discriminatory. The most egregious example is the so-called single supplement that’s often charged to singles joining a tour group. I get that a couple staying in a hotel might spend more on incidentals, and the marginal cost of having a second person in the room is minimal, but why should a solo traveller have to pay more to be in a room alone?

I know that for most folks, the favourable price available when buying in bulk is seen as a bonus. But for those who don’t need the added quantity (for example, because they live alone or don’t have a ton of storage space), such bonuses feel like a penalty. In the scheme of life’s irritants, this might not rank high for some, but it does irk some of us who fly solo…

I don’t know, maybe the solution is to always shop with a friend – someone willing to split the occasional dozen or multi-pack. Actually, maybe I should be looking for a Silicon Valley whiz kid to work with me on an app to bring the sharing economy to those interested in bulk buying!

© 2016 Ingrid Sapona


On being … game

By Ingrid Sapona

No, today’s column isn’t something ripped from the headlines about Nintendo’s release of Pokémon Go. As it happens, last month I started a column about enjoying old-fashioned games – you know, board games, card games, and the like, that you play with people in person. But, I scrapped the idea then because I figured such games might be passé. But, with this week’s news about Pokémon – and some of the perils encountered by those playing it – I decided that old-fashioned games deserve equal time.

The topic of games was on my mind after friends and I finally got together for a “games night” a few weeks ago. We had been talking about doing so since last fall, but we never managed to find an evening. The topic came up again when we ran into each other in May, but we agreed the odds of us finding time for a game night in the near future was unlikely, as summer weekends inevitably fill up with concerts, barbeques, sailing, and other activities.

Then we had a brilliant idea: since we’re all sailors, why not sail our boats over to a nearby club for an overnight stay and some games. So, we agreed on the date, the destination, what games we’d bring, and who’d bring what for dinner and the next day’s breakfast. 

The weather cooperated and it was great! We did have to laugh, however, when we realized on Sunday morning that we had only played one game. Feeling a bit guilty, we played one more after breakfast, before heading out for our voyages home. On my sail back I couldn’t help smiling and thinking about how the games night was, in large part, an excuse for an afternoon and evening of delicious food, drinking (no one was driving home, after all), and great conversation.

A few days later I was telling this story to another friend (I’ll call her Anne) and we got to talking about the social aspects of playing board games and card games. Growing up we didn’t play that many as a family. But, for the past 20 years or so, games have become a central feature of our family’s holiday get-togethers.

Anne commented on the fact that when her daughter was little, she realized the important socialization skills we learn by playing such games with others. She explained that because the way she and her family interacted while playing games was very different from the way her husband’s family interacted, her daughter learned how to read people and adapt to different styles.

I could totally relate to what she was saying because I know that the way our family plays word games is very different from the way others do. We play them kind of communally. Each person comes up with their own words on their turn, but once they’ve made their play (or if they’re ready to give up in frustration), we all jump in and see if we can rearrange the letters to come up with more points. If we improve the score, the points go to the person whose turn it was. I know, it may seem odd, but this way we’re all sort of invested in each play. I think it helps that we’re all only mildly competitive – so we keep score, but given the way we all contribute on each hand, the winner’s bragging rights don’t amount to much.

Anyway, with the topic of games suddenly in the news, I decided to write about the virtues of getting together for some old fashioned games. Mind you, in singing the praises of such games, I’m not impugning digital games. Heaven knows I’ve passed many an enjoyable few minutes (OK, maybe the odd hour here or there) playing them. But every time I pick up the iPad or sit at the computer and play something, I’m very aware that it’s more time spent alone, rather than in the company of others.

I know, for many folks, the alone time is part of the appeal of digital games. I also realize that there are other benefits to digital games. Some are tools for learning. Some are useful for improving physical dexterity. (Any readers old enough to remember when computer mice were introduced will remember learning to use the mouse by playing solitaire on the computer.) And, Pokémon Go has already been credited with getting folks off the couch and out into their neighborhoods as they chase the Pokémon characters who – thanks to technology called “augmented reality” – magically appear superimposed on the real world on their smart phone screen.

I guess all I really want to say in closing is that if you’re thinking that maybe you’d like to augment your reality a bit this summer – there are alternatives to high tech games. Why not augment the reality of what would otherwise be an ordinary Saturday night by inviting some (real) friends to join you at your table for some old fashioned games? Who knows what laughter,  conversation, and bonding might ensue…

© 2016 Ingrid Sapona


On being … under delivered

By Ingrid Sapona

When I worked at a big consulting firm, one of the partners had a motto that I strive to live up to in all my work situations: under promise, over deliver. I like that saying because it embodies two separate and equally important aspects of customer service: managing the customer’s expectations to make sure they are reasonable and delivering service that goes beyond what the customer is expecting.

Some businesses manage customer expectations by offering service levels at different prices. Courier companies are the prime example. Courier services quote you a rate to get a package from point A to point B within a given period. But, they also offer to deliver packages faster, for a premium.

Indeed, if you’ve used a courier company like FedEx or DHL recently, you know that many such have honed performance pricing to practically an art form, with options like: standard, two-day, overnight, and even overnight and before a specific time the next day. So, the customer decides what the delivery speed is worth to them, and both parties are clear on the expectation based on the price the customer paid. Clever – almost enviable – business model, right?

Well, earlier this week my sister wanted to send me something. She knew I was going to be at my mother’s house in Buffalo from Wednesday to Thursday afternoon, so she decided to send it to me there, rather than send it to my home here in Toronto.  She paid a premium to have the package delivered between 4 and 8 p.m. on Wednesday. When it didn’t arrive, I phoned her.

She then phoned FedEx. It turns out that the FedEx plane was delayed at her end due to circumstances beyond their control – bad weather. The FedEx plane made it to Buffalo early on Wednesday and so they said the package would be delivered on Thursday. She let FedEx know I was leaving on Thursday early afternoon and they said they’d get it to me before 1.

Well, by 2 p.m. it was not there, so I phoned FedEx. While I was on my second call to them, I saw a FedEx truck pass our house and then turn around a few doors down. The truck then pulled up in front of our house and delivered a package to the neighbor across the street before driving away. Then, five minutes later, our neighbor came over with the package addressed to me. Not only was it nearly 24 hours late, the driver didn’t even seem to care what number he was delivering it to!

I could understand when the package wasn’t delivered on Wednesday because there was a delay due to bad weather. But when they set the expectations so high by charging a hefty premium for delivery within a certain period, they should go out of their way to make sure the package is delivered within their revised promised delivery time (in this case by 1 p.m. Thursday), not to mention that it is delivered to the right address.

I had a similar problem a couple months ago when a client in Buffalo sent me something via DHL. They decided to send it via courier because a few months before that they sent something via ordinary mail and it took a week to get here. Well, despite paying for “overnight delivery”, the DHL envelope took seven days to arrive. When it didn’t show up on day four, I asked the client for the tracking number. In tracking it, I found out that the envelope went from Buffalo to Cincinnati and then to a DHL office in Northern Alberta before being sent to Toronto. Though DHL never explained why it took seven days to get an overnight delivery from Buffalo, it seems odd that they were shipping things via Northern Alberta at that time because it was in the midst of the Fort McMurray wildfires.

As a kid, I used to get my hopes up about things. And, if something I was looking forward to didn’t happen, I was bummed out. I’m sure that happened to everyone. I’m also sure that as we get older, we learn to temper our expectations a bit to avoid disappointment.  But, just because we’re adults, we shouldn’t have to settle for service that’s not what we’ve been promised.

When companies build up our expectations and charge in proportion to their promised service, we shouldn’t have to temper our expectations. Is it too much to ask that businesses – including courier services – make sure their promises are realistic and that they can deliver on them? I don’t think it is…

© 2016 Ingrid Sapona