Why Do We Keep Buying from Bad Businesses?

There’s an Italian grocery store in the town I live in. In fact, there are two. Most of our family, including my wife, shops at the one. They very seldom go to the other. Yet, I constantly hear how bad the service is at the store they frequent. I’ve heard hair raising stories (I’m not sure how true they are because I don’t personally shop there) of repackaging outdated products so the best before date didn’t show, rancid cheeses, repackaging produce so the rotten ones were out of sight at the bottom of the package and the owner cruising other grocery stores, buying outdated products from them and then selling them in his own store. And if you happen to take something back and complain, you’re immediately questioned as someone who is trying to scam the store. At best, the store takes a “you should know better, buyer beware” attitude. Now, it’s a generational thing as well. The owner ascribes to the “whatever it takes to get ahead” school of business, where his children, who are gradually getting more involved, seem to be a little less clueless about the importance of happy customers and are trying to change things.

But my wife keeps buying there. Why?

The competition doesn’t seem to have the same problems, or at least, not to the same extent. My wife never shops there. Again, I ask, why?

Well, according to my wife and the few other family members I asked, it comes down to three things. Convenience, price and some twisted sense of obligation to the family that runs the offending store. I suspect the last one has a lot to do with Italian culture, so may not be applicable in all circumstances. (Incidentally, they used to know the family that ran the other store but stopped patronizing it when they sold to store to owners they didn’t know).  But the other two, price and convenience, are, I suspect, more universal motivations.

I’ve seen it myself. I hate shopping at Walmart. Most people I know hate shopping at Walmart. It’s too big, too messy, too loud and the service generally sucks. But I shop there. Why? Because of price and convenience. It saves me a stop somewhere else, because it has a little of everything. And the prices are generally lower than the competition’s.

Seth Godin himself, the king of the Purple Cow and remarkable products, regularly blogs about bad experiences he’s had with businesses he’d rather not frequent. Bad airlines, bad theme parks, bad hotels. And I use Seth as an example purposefully. There’s probably no one on the planet more active in exposing bad business, but even he’s still giving them his money, and then bitching about it after. Why? I suspect convenience and price are the culprits.

Now, sometimes, there’s literally no alternative. One of the worst airline experiences I ever had was on United. Try as I might, I just couldn’t find another flight from Chicago to Toronto that got me there anywhere close to the times I needed, so I had to suck it up and fly United. And sure enough, United delivered the experience I was expecting. In fact, they exceeded my expectations, but not in a good way.

We keep crowing about the new control consumers wield. But with that control comes responsibility. We complain about bad advertising and bad businesses, but we continue to patronize them. We absolve ourselves of any blame for the twisted, greedy, profit crazed culture we’ve spawned over the past century. But it wouldn’t be this way if we simply stopped buying from bad businesses. Ultimately, we’re to blame. We might have to pony up 10% more on occasion, or go a little out of our way so we don’t have to worry about getting two rotten tomatoes at the bottom of the package or a bag of rancid pasta. One of the beautiful things about our free market economy is that if people stop buying, companies go out of business. If you’re bitching about a business, remember, it’s you that’s keeping them in business.

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