We are, according to an informal survey, the only family within our realm of acquaintance that does not possess a video cassette recorder. The idea germinated some weeks ago that this might be a perfect family Christmas gift, something everyone could enjoy and something that might reduce the squabbles over what to watch on television by, optimistically, 10 percent. A luxury suddenly started looking like a bargain.
Shortly after the idea arrived, the seasonal deluge of Christmas catalogues arrived. Various discount stores have gotten into the game, along with the regular department stores, so before long there were piles of catalogues all around the house featuring no end of bargains. VCRs that listed for $700, for example, had been cut to $500 and then cut again for Christmas to $429. Some featured four heads, which I thought was a mysterious feature, indeed. Others could be programmed for one event, seven days ahead, others for four events, 14 days ahead, and still others had stereo and Dolby sound.
Some were "cable-ready" and others were "cable-compatible," and still others didn't mention anything about cable at all. Some had wireless remote, some merely had remote, and on some of them the remotes could do five things, and on others the remotes could do 10 things, and there were some where the remotes could do 15 things -- and I was beginning to hope that settling arguments about television viewing might be one of them.
Imagine how nice it would be to be able to sit on your sofa and push a button and have a voice come out of the TV saying, "Sorry, you watched your show last night, it's your brother's turn tonight." With the volume control on your remote, you could raise or lower the voice, depending on the circumstances, without your own blood pressure changing a digit.
Fantasies about raising children by remote control aside, I realized early on in my VCR explorations that the electronics industry had come up with a mind-boggling assortment of permutations on the basic equipment and that getting the best deal was going to require a major reportorial effort. I consulted friends. I read the descriptions in the ads with the zeal of a physician reading the stock listings. I cross-referenced to find out what store was offering the best price on the basic equipment, only to discover that nobody seemed to be offering the same thing so it was impossible to compare.
The weekend mail and newspapers brought the usual assortment of advertisements and on Sunday morning I sat down to launch yet another search for the best deal in town.
Halfway through my second cup of coffee, I found it. A store was offering a VCR that seemed to do everything I wanted for under $250. This was my kind of VCR, indeed. I set out for the store with renewed confidence in the American competitive spirit and the free market that was producing bargains for careful consumers -- even though this particular bargain had an Oriental name.
The VCRs at the front of the store bore no relation to under $250.
I was busy hunting for the bargain model when a salesman, spotting a sure mark, zeroed in. I told him the name of the VCR I wanted to look at. "It's over here," he said, "if that's the one you really want to get." He could have been talking about AIDS.
"What's the matter with it?"
"It doesn't do much. What did you want to pay?" Well, what I really wanted to pay was under $250, but by that time the impression had been conveyed that this was not a good bargain. I upped the limit to $300 and we were soon peering at a Japanese set. Its main drawback was a remote that wasn't wireless. That could be cured by throwing another 50 bucks or so into the pot with another set. We were now close to $330.
Another customer came in, and while I was pondering the $330 set my salesman turned to help her. Before long, she had decided and the salesman went off to fetch her VCR.
"These are absolutely the best prices in town," she announced. "I've been everywhere."
Another customer came in and inquired after the same bargain VCR that I had wanted. "You don't want to buy that," the salesman said bluntly.
"Why not?" said the customer.
"They break down a lot."
By then I concluded I'd walked right into a come-on. You get what you pay for, of course, and that's all part of the free enterprise system. But far from getting the perfect bargain VCR, I felt like I'd been had. I'd simply wasted my time. No matter how good a bargain the other VCRs might have been, I certainly wasn't going to buy ours there.
There are some things more important than bargains.