PORTLAND, ORE. — I felt a twinge of guilt back in July when Web-van filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company operated their home-delivery grocery service in a select group of cities, including mine, but I never called them. And, to be honest, I now realize that feeling guilty about not supporting Web-van is a subconscious way of trying to convince myself that the success or failure of entire companies can be affected by the behavior of a single consumer like me. This idea is, of course, a complete fantasy.
If you look at the free market as a vast war zone, I wouldn't even qualify as an average foot soldier. During the past two decades, my buying habits have become increasingly restricted, sometimes by choice and other times by financial factors. The end result is that I've become an economic scavenger, lurking around the edges of the battlefield, making occasional forays into the combat areas, trying to get some clues about who's winning and losing.
Appearances are deceptive. Webvan trucks were highly visible on my local roads, looking very much like the armored spearhead of a powerful military organization. Then, in a twinkling, they vanished. Meanwhile, other products that seem to have no visible means of support endure through repeated national cycles of boom and bust.
Take, for example, Cool Whip artificial dessert topping. Not only do I refrain from including it in my own diet, but I rarely see it in other shoppers' carts. Based on my observations, Cool Whip should be withering on the sales vine. Instead, it is thriving, and there are now several different varieties including: regular, "lite," fat-free, and extra creamy. A gigantic consumer base clearly exists, but where are they hiding?
I can only conclude that masses of Cool Whip fans operate covertly, much like the huge Chinese armies that infiltrated North Korea right under the noses of UN forces in the autumn of 1950.
Similar thoughts occur to me every time I pass a glass case filled with wristwatches. My dad gave me his old Bulova before he died 11 years ago, and it's still working fine (with occasional battery changes). And yet, lacking any help from me, the watch industry seems to be booming. Department stores and jewelry shops at the local mall have hundreds of wristwatches on display. But the market is obviously not saturated yet. I know this because I still encounter strangers who come up to me and ask for the time.
Hollywood is also doing fine without my participation. A rare visit to the local cineplex recently with my spouse, daughter, and a friend cost $28. I realize prices have gotten steep, but it confounds me that regular moviegoers can take this kind of pocketbook pummeling every weekend. When, I wonder, are the economic effects of NAFTA going to affect the film industry and give consumers relief with lower-priced imports from Canada and Mexico?
I doubt my questions will be answered anytime soon. While companies everywhere fight for the hearts and minds of prospective customers, I will remain outside the fray, a fugitive from the laws of supply and demand.