When Quality is an Illusion

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There are definitely times when it pays to buy quality.

I used to really like BiWay (a chain of el-cheapo Canadian discount apparel and general goods stores – think half-way between K-mart and a dollar store).  I used to proudly tell my friends “BiWay is *my* way!”  Surprisingly I’ve never gotten a job offer from any advertising agencies…

I gave up on them when I bought a pair of hiking boots and they had a gaping hole within 2 weeks of purchase.  A $120 pair of hiking boots that lasts a few years is a much better deal than a $25 pair that lasts two weeks.

I think people go too far with this and buy things that they *THINK* are higher quality, but actually just cost more.

Consumer Reports has done studies on wrinkle creams and found that the cheap ones work better than products that cost more than 10 times as much.  Apparently a number of ground coffees, pops (soda for Americans or “Cokes” for Texans), and potato chips available on the market are the same, except for the packaging and price.

I keep wanting to set up a taste test for friends and see if they can actually tell the difference between store brand cola and Coke or Pepsi.

One of my aunts claims that when she first started buying household products she experimented with what was available, found the products that work the best, and has been loyal to them ever since.  I’m not 100% sure I believe that she was extensive as she claims, but if she was that’s a good way to actually find things that work for you – certainly much better than assuming “higher price = better product”.

In “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” (an excellent book by Robert B. Cialdini), he relates the amusing anecdote of a friend who runs a store and was having trouble selling some gemstones.  Going on vacation, she got frustrated and told an employee to cut the price in half.  She was delighted to come back and find they’d sold out, but the employee had misunderstood and doubled the price.  She couldn’t figure out why customers wouldn’t buy them at one price, then grabbed them up at double that price.  The author explains that the customers were using the price as a shorthand for the quality, and figured they must be valuable gemstones if they were being sold at such a high price.

Knowing when quality matters and justifies a higher price, and when we’re just being fooled by a meaningless brand name seems to be one of the most valuable distinction for shoppers.  The most irritating part of the whole process is there is a limit to the value of time spent investigating the difference.  If it takes you 10 hours of time to figure out that a product that’s $0.25 cheaper is just as good, its going to take you a long time to recoup your time investment.

What products have you found that quality matters and which is it meaningless for?

34 replies on “When Quality is an Illusion”

I have found that a few of the things that more money was spent on are actually worth it. I think my Dyson vacuum was worth it, especially with 2 dogs. A few of my kitchen gadgets have proven that getting heavier duty for a bit more money is worth it so I don’t have to buy 2 or more of cheapo ones that don’t last. Definitely shoes. Bad shoes kill my feet and that costs in more ways than just the price of the shoes. I also try to find deals on quality clothes so that I can have clothes that last but not pay the high price for them.

Some things that aren’t worth higher price tags? expensive haircuts, chocolate, and almost anything for a child under the age of 5. Can’t tell you how many things I bought thinking my kids would love them and they never got used or worn. Thrift shopping only for the kids!

Good point – I used to think that price = quality but over time I’ve learned that is not the case. The problem of course is to figure out when the price does or does not have some bearing on the quality.

I think that when buying things for the house (like for the water heater we recently replaced), going for the higher end item that costs more is a good thing. Items like that have a significant cost for the installaiton, so buying higher quality makes a difference by increasing the time between replacements — which saves a lot of hassles in addition to actually saving money.

Some things, though, are not worth the difference in price — scholl supplies (papers, pens, etc.) are basically the same no matter the price you pay for them. I avoid brand-name clothing for the most part — a pair of jeans is a pair of jeans, after all.

For shoes I am more on the fence. On one hand, for the office quality shoes are a good thing (if only for appearance’s sake — I work in consulting). On the other hand, for casual wear I’ve found that no matter the price I paid for them, most shoes won’t last me more than a year. Something to do with the way I walk (or hop, I’m a frog after all) — I simply wear out a specific part of the sole.

I don’t think it matters how expensive a toaster is. It’s pretty simple technology. Yet, somehow you can buy $150 toasters.

Kleenex and dental floss I will pay extra for. Toilet paper I could care less.

Shoes are a good example of paying more and getting better quality. Cars are a bad example.

Most basic cleaning products are identical (think mr. clean, vim, windex, etc) and getting the name brand one just ends up costing you more.

Great examples, thanks everyone!

Emily: Good to know about the Dyson, I may need a new vacuum cleaner soon…

MDG: We’ve started sneaking peaks at your queue to get post ideas. Sorry!

Preet: Surprisingly no… Women are a mystery.

Frog: You make an excellent point about installed items. I went for a higher end, brand name faucet when I was replacing the one in the kitchen at my condo. The faucet cost less than the installation, so it seemed silly to try to go cheap on the faucet (and have to pay for another expensive installation soon).

Nobleea: I’ve never been brand loyal to cleaning products. Good to hear that they’re all the same!

Striking the balance is never easy, and differs from one to another.

For our recent AC installation, I went for York with higher price tags because I want the quality. Same goes for our appliances, aiming for Bosch and Whirlpool.

But being a cheap person, I usually go if not for the cheapest, then 2nd cheapest would usually do. e.g. you’ll be shocked by the price differences on supplement/drugs/vitamins between name brands and store brands

FYI: I did a tasting test with friends back in University (UW) days, yes, it’s easy to tell Pepsi vs. Coke vs. store brands Cola (PCF, etc…)

Have you heard of the “third shift” syndrome? Accordingly to urban legend, Chinese factories have three shifts- the first two are for the “brand” names and then the third shift is the grey market- exactly the same product but for a different market at a lower price point.

Jerry: Your “cola palate” must be far superior to mine. Can you tell the difference between the various store brands (e.g. Life vs. PC)?

TMW: I hadn’t actually heard it called that, but a buddy of mine in Taiwan told me he could put me in touch with people to buy knock offs of any electronics you wanted (as you say, directly off of the same factory line).

You had to buy big quantities and I didn’t want to be a pirate/counterfeiter/smuggler (I saw what happened to Han Solo), but I think its true.

The knive set in the kitchen is probably the most expensive thing there (apart from appliances). They get sharpened when needed (free by the seller) and should last a few generations if used properly. One of the best investment I’ve made.

I’m totally splashing out on a Sheraton “sweet sleeper” mattress next time we replace the current one. Or sooner if I can persuade himself (maybe I just need to offer to spend more time in bed). I don’t know why it’s taken me 30 years to figure out that cheaping out on something you sleep on is insanity. Although I was less creaky a decade ago, in my bartending days.

I’ve had an Obus Forme daypack for dragging on flights and to work sometimes for a while now and it was worth every penny. Comfy, light, just the right number and location of storage pockets. So I’d suggest adding that brand to your list too.

Dental floss is a good one. Cheap floss is horrific. And I’ve noticed the best ones are made in Ireland, too … bonus!

Umbrellas is a pet peeve of mine – the cheaper the better. They end up lost, broken, blown out anyway. I get upset when I’m stuck and get forced to buy one for ten bucks.

Guinness: I just watched Penn & Teller’s Bullshit episode about sleep (season 6, episode 5 if you want to track it down). They claim that the super expensive mattresses are a scam, and that you should just find something that feels comfortable instead of assuming higher price = better sleep. They interview a guy who writes for Sleep magazine, and he sleeps on an inflatable mattress from Walmart (go figure!)

Nobleea: I don’t know. That pose he was frozen in looked pretty painful! And, if Robot Chicken is to be believed, having Boba Fett mock you and cuddle with you on the flight to Jabba wouldn’t be much fun either…

I can tell the difference in cola brands, but don’t find the brand name stuff is any better. It’s all pretty trashy. 🙂

Shoes and clothes are variable for me – it really depends on frequency of use. BUT – high end jeans FIT better, which then looks better.

Chocolate – there is most definitely a difference in taste and quality, and I think it is worth it. Hershey’s, etc, is pure crap. Give me Divine anyday. I’ll pay extra.

Sunglasses – nicer ones really are nicer, but I break/lose them, so I have to go cheap.

Cleaning supplies are all the same, no?

I do spend more on personal care – soap, shampoo, etc. I just don’t like all the extra chemicals. Too sensitive…

deepali: A buddy of mine is a chocolate snob too, and he likes to buy the higher end stuff too.

One of my former landlords became a distributer for mid-range (~$30) sunglasses and gave me a pair. I passed them along to my father who gushes about them (and he’s still wearing them when he cycles years later).

We’ve road tested the Sheraton beds a lot (dedicated SPG credit cardholders for almost 10 years now!) and maybe it’s all in the mind but that’s okay as long as the bubble isn’t burst at home. You will not dissuade me! Finding someone to put a chocolate on the pillow though ….

Guinness: Thanks so much for the link to the link of the Dallas Food article. The author is my new hero! In part 10 he sums it up pretty well: “sell to that segment of the population who fallaciously believe that price is necessarily commensurate with value”.

I have to disagree with Deepali about the sunglasses – they are all the same. I remember paying $100 back in high school for a pair – what a waste! Now I won’t pay more than $15/$20 max.

@ 4 pillars – nicer ones aren’t nicer? well, then i don’t feel bad about buying cheap then. 🙂

as for chocolates – i take it back. expensive chocolate isn’t necessarily better, lol. but divine chocolates really are better than hershey’s.
the price is only worth it when you know what the price means!

one other thing i’ve noticed – i’ve always assumed that storebrand contact lens solution was made by the brand name company. but my contacts last longer with the store brand…

Wine would probably be a good candidate for this. I bet there are a handful of people in your city that could tell the difference between a $40 bottle of wine and a $450 bottle.

Mind you, probably everyone could tell the difference between an $8 bottle of wine and a $40 bottle.

The big problem is that very often you’re paying the premium not for the product itself but for the perception of brand quality. When it comes to something like Ketchup for example the difference in taste is relatively minor but buying Heinz versus the no name brand can be a huge difference (3.99 vs 1.99 that’s over 100% difference). The fine line is knowing where to draw the line at research and quality.

Personally I would prefer to buy a quality product if it will save me time and effort from having to replace the item when it breaks or wears out. Shoes are a perfect example of this: I don’t mind paying $100+ and replacing them every year vs $25 and replacing them 3 times in a year. I prefer saving my time rather than the money.


Note that a lot of the “commercial” brands of chocolate are not even called chocolate. They refer to them as candy bars or energy bars.

was recently downsized into early retirement and had to cut back due to smaller income. Had been an arrogant Microsft user, now am proud Ubuntu fanatic – no blue screen of death in over two years and no more trips to the dealer to get the hard drive speeded up! Next came my 35mm film camera, got a digital one to replace it and found that .jpgs were actually better for manipulation on the computer using the free on the net ‘Gimp’ software than film and all the printing problems that entails. Oive just north of Toronto, decided that since I had the time and an empty back yard, gardening for groceries would be next – Can feed myself and my wife easily from my previously empty back yard! I do a bit if pressure canning, pickling, and sauerkrauting as well! Tackled my beer bill by home brewing, I’ve got time on my hands so I thought that would be fun, found out that after some careful recording of practice runs and by following recipes from the web religiously I can produce a much better product at home than I can buy, and for about 16 to 24 cents a bottle! So far I have found that good brand seeds, malt, cameras and free internet software are all good. Next I think I’ll try wine!

Uncle B – if you feel like donating some (ie a lot) of your beers to our next staff meeting then we can do a review on it. 🙂

Maybe a micro-brewery would be a new business idea for you? 🙂

I?ve got time on my hands so I thought that would be fun, found out that after some careful recording of practice runs and by following recipes from the web religiously I can produce a much better product at home than I can buy, and for about 16 to 24 cents a bottle! So far I have found that good brand seeds, malt, cameras and free internet software are all good. Next I think I?ll try wine!

I always try to keep an eye on the environment as well. Lots of people these day buy dollar-store-quality (oxymoron?) items made on the other side of the planet in facilities that don’t meet our emission standards….the landfill is full of the junky stuff.

If the price makes sense, I try to buy items that will last longer for environmental reasons, but also for the ‘hassle factor’ others talk about (the time investment of going out and getting, then installing the replacement etc).

I sometimes use the length of the guarantee as indicator of how durable the manufacturer believes the product is. I have no problem spending more on a hard drive that has 5 years replacement coverage instead of the model from the same brand with just 1 year.

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