The cost of cool

Michelle Singletary
Columnist August 31, 2012

It can be expensive to be cool.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

When I was growing up, you weren’t in the “it” club unless you had Jack Purcell Converse sneakers. I was never in the “it” group. I was never cool.

My grandmother, Big Mama, raised me, and on her salary as a nursing assistant she couldn’t afford to outfit me or my two brothers and two sisters in any brand-name shoes or clothes.

But feeling like an outcast simply because I couldn’t afford the “right” things only made me stronger. It made me frugal, and it makes me feel sorry for the parents who can’t afford such items but nonetheless pay handsomely for their children to have whatever the “it” item happens to be.

This summer the “it” thing is the LeBron X Nike Plus, named after star basketball player LeBron James. The shoe will likely retail for just under $300, reports ESPN.

Nike says the shoe’s technology helps push the cost so high – apparently, the shoe can measure how high you jump, reports Shelly Banjo for the Wall Street Journal.

Stephen Crockett, a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s The Root DC, says Nike isn’t just hustling sneakers, “it trades in cool.”

“You see, trading in cool comes at a cost,” Crockett writes. “The price is the financial well-being of those who line Nike’s soles and those who keep Nike paid and those who are willing to rob and steal just to be the king. The economy continues to fall apart, unemployment rates are through the roof and Nike knows that the kids are strung out. So they just keep mass marketing high-priced cool to those who can’t afford it.”

Crockett points out that kids have been beaten and robbed for their high-priced cool sneakers.

Two teenagers were arrested this week after cutting a hole in the roof of a mall in Houston to steal Nike Air Jordan sneakers, ABC News reported.

Limited editions of Nike sneakers, such as the LeBron X Nike Plus, are often bought and resold for as much as $1,000, the report said. Stores have faced incidents of violence and long lines as fans wait hours for a limited number of the coveted sneakers.

Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, also has weighed in on the issue. “To release such an outrageously overpriced product while the nation is struggling to overcome an unemployment crisis is insensitive at best,” Morial said. “It represents twisted priorities and confused values.”

Morial urged parents and the company to “Just don’t do it,” playing on Nike’s famous “Just do it” ad slogan.

On the other hand, should we blame a retailer for pushing expensive stuff on consumers?

Nope, according to Deron Snyder, whose Loose Ball column appears regularly on The Root.

“Some folks behind the steering wheels of luxury sedans can barely keep food on the table,” Snyder says in another Root opinion piece. “Some folks who live in gorgeous mini-mansions can barely pay their other bills. Some folks who regularly buy expensive clothes, make expensive hair-care appointments and drink expensive cups of coffee can barely make ends meet. Is that the fault of the automakers, builders, designers, stylists and baristas? Of course not. Likewise, no one should blame Nike and LeBron James if their exorbitantly priced sneakers land on the feet of people who really can’t afford them.”

Snyder adds: “Marketers are in the business of tricking consumers into believing that ‘things’ lead to happiness. If $300 sneakers are a huge success, that’s the market speaking. Don’t blame Nike and James for listening.”

What do you think? For this week’s Color of Money question: Should we blame retailers for pushing expensive products? Send your responses to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Be sure to include your full name, city and state and write “The Cost of Cool” in the subject line.

Eat Your Food!

A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that

Americans waste up to 40 percent of their food each year, reports The Post’s Dina ElBoghdady.

That comes to $165 billion worth of food being tossed in the trash, Dana Gunders, the NRDC scientist who authored the study, finds. We’re essentially tossing every other piece of food that crosses our path, Gunders says.

When it comes to a family of four, the NRDC reports that they throw away $2,275 in food each year, or 20 pounds per person per month.

Here are some of the reasons why we waste so much food, according to o the NRDC:

-- Store promotions and bulk purchases or purchases of unusual products often result in consumers buying foods outside their typical meal planning, which then gets discarded.

-- The lack of meal planning and shopping lists, inaccurate estimates of meal preparation, and impromptu restaurant meals can lead to purchased food spoiling before being used.

-- Food spoils in homes due to improper or suboptimal storage, poor visibility in refrigerators, partially used ingredients, and misjudged food needs.

Talk to Me

And since we are on the topic of wastefulness, a recent survey by TrackVia, a Denver-based software company, found that employees waste more time at work talking to their colleagues instead of performing their tasks.

The survey found that 14 percent of workers spend most of their workday running their mouths, followed by attending meetings and dealing with computer problems, which rounds out the top three distractions at work, reports Today.com.

“A lot of people feel like they spend their entire day in meetings,” says Laura Stack, a productivity expert.

Drop Your Cellphone, Get a Discount: Readers Respond

Patrons at Eva Restaurant in Los Angeles are offered a 5 percent discount if they ditch their cellphones while dining.

Using a different method to stop the cell chatter, a Vermont deli charges customers an extra $3 if they don’t get off their phones while ordering at the counter.

For last week’s Color of Money question, I asked: “What do you think of efforts to discourage cellphone use in public places?”

“I just spent three weeks in Northern Europe and it was refreshing to not see a cell phone pasted to everyone’s ear,” says Ronald Bell of Vienna, Va. “I agree wholeheartedly with efforts to reduce annoying cell phone behavior in business establishments. Most of the cashiers, servers, etc. are low paid and overworked; to put them second to a cell phone conversation is just plain rude and offensive.”

J. Robinson of Plano, Tex., says: “I love it! Way overdue. But it’s unfortunate that some people in our society is so self-absorbed that they don’t consider other people.”

Erica Pearson of New York says she would gladly hand over her phone at a restaurant for a discount.

Pearson adds, “I would also gladly applaud any restaurant or establishment that will kick someone out for being so rude and inconsiderate as to have a conversation or even send or read a text message when ordering, paying or even waiting for a service to be rendered. No person is that important!”

“I am all for discouraging cellphones in public spaces,” writes Matthew Tracy of Vandalia, Ohio. “I think Eva Restaurant is too soft in that the 50 percent that don’t participate will annoy those that do. Provide a cell free zone for the people wanting the discount. I would go to restaurants (and other merchants) that took a stand against rude cell phone usage.”

The Bratty Bunch: Readers Respond

There’s been much discussion and there’ve been many surveys maligning Generation Y, or the Millennials -- defined as those born between 1982 and 1999 – for being too spoiled, too reluctant to leave the nest or too self-confident.

A survey by MTV, called “No Collar Workers,” found that many Millennials like things their way.

According to the findings,

-- 81 percent said they should be able to work their own hours.

--70 percent said they need “me time” on the job

--90 percent thinks they deserve their “dream job.”

So, I asked what you thought. Here are some of your responses:

“I am just barely considered a Millennial, born in 1982, but I find it funny when people speak of Millennials or younger people in general, and say how the younger generation is making things worse, but the generation in power has led us, especially economically, to where we are today,” writes Sean Maloney of Sandwich, Ill. “I don’t see how much worse Millennials could do then the generation that has led us to these times. That could be every grandparent or parent speaking of how they used to walk both ways uphill to school but going on to invent or improve on the cars that cause the traffic that they now sit in everyday.”

Katy Wood of Pickerington, Ohio, says, “As a Gen X-er squashed between the Boomers and Gen Y, I have to agree that what Gen Y wants and asks for is, for the most part, what I want in the workplace as well. They will most likely succeed because of the buffer Gen X provides. I’ve worked for Baby Boomers all my life and have found them to be the most dedicated bunch of people at what they do. Work and personal time, for my generation, is a mixture that completes us. Do we deserve ‘me time’ and the ‘dream job?’ We may not think in terms of ‘deserving,’ but we’d sure appreciate those choices at work.”

Tia Lewis contributed to this report.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

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