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New ways to milk customers

April 30, 2021 - 10:19am
David Surdam
Piggy Bank

There’s a new way marketers are getting young people to fork over their money. The new tactic revolves around consumers making four payments of one-quarter the retail price of an item (Amanda Mull, “Jeans Now, Pay Later,” Atlantic, January/February 2021, 18-20). This is just the old come-on--“Buy now, pay later”—in a new guise.

I know, it is hard not to buy stuff you like and want. I’ve been there, done that (stereo equipment was my passion; on the other hand I still have the amplifier and speakers from 1981). You might think the new marketing tactic represents interest-free money for a few months…and it does, if you meet the payment schedule.

Financial literacy is pretty low among Americans in general and young people in particular. Some people were so worried about other people’s spending habits that they got governments, ranging from local to federal, to reduce credit card companies’ blandishments to college students. These efforts had unintended consequences, as students started used debit cards more often. Getting overdrawn on a debit card can be pretty expensive.

Consumer advocates want to protect you from yourself. For some people these deals are useful and attractive. For other people, the payments will become a snare (and I don’t mean drum).

I am pretty confident that consumer advocates will bemoan these new tactics. There are certainly some naïve consumers of college age. On the other hand, regulations seem to infantilize college-age students. Ask yourself this, do you personally really need or want protection?

Such activism raises some serious questions for societies. At what age are young people competent? I presume that an astute answer is that such an age varies among individuals. Any “one-size fits all” solution is bound to be ill fitting (but enacting laws that try to discern maturity on a person-by-person basis is not feasible in a large, impersonal society). Since females mature faster than males on averge, there might calls for separate ages of legal maturity based upon gender.

Perhaps a consumer’s best defense is to acknowledge his or her susceptibility to potentially deleterious lending practices. Being aware of your naivete is probably a good tactic at any age (witness the number of older Americans, many well educated, getting scammed).

There is, of course, nothing inherently unethical about this new offer. As long as the terms of the transaction are clearly understandable and publicized (one should always read the “fine print”), the buyer should be presumed competent enough to enter the transaction until proven otherwise.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.

Author

David Surdam

David Surdam

David Surdam received his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago. His dissertation, "Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War," was supervised by Nobel-Prize Winner, Robert Fogel. Professor Surdam has taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Loyola University of Chicago, and the University of Oregon.

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