Meeting a 'market maven'

A shopping bag advertising a sale at Nordstrom

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: So by now you've probably heard that Black Friday was way more successful than most folks expected and spending jumped 15 percent this Cyber Monday as people hit the Internets for holiday deals.

I like a bargain like anyone else, especially these days when you want your dollar to go as far as possible. I won't set foot inside Bed Bath and Beyond without one of those ubiquitous 20-percent-off coupons in hand. I mean, not using them is like giving money away!

But in the wide world of bargain hunting, I'm a pipsqueak, especially compared to what reporter Daniel Estrin grew up with.


Daniel Estrin: Meet my mom.

Daniel's Mom: Turn off that tape. You're wasting the batteries.

When I was back home this summer, I needed to stock up on some batteries for my digital recorder and my mom jumped at the chance to take me shopping. She's not a shopaholic, but she does consider herself an expert on the price of things.

Daniel's Mom: Batteries can be very expensive. You gotta know what the 9 volts are running, you got to know what the C's are running, the AA's. I don't want to overpay.

She's gotta find the best deal on the market. But even more than that, she's gotta tell you about it.

Daniel's Mom: Now here's the tip of the day: I've learned there is a coupon in the paper...

That's the way it's been since I was a kid. The entire ride to the store, Mom would talk about rebates for contact lens solution, hidden credit card fees, and everything you ever wanted to know about socks. My sisters and I still joke about her obsession.

Daniel's Mom: I've heard that, "Mom's crazy; Mom's really nuts."

My whole attitude about Mom changed this summer when I picked up "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell. If you haven't read it, "The Tipping Point" is a book that explains how people with certain social skills contribute to social trends. Anyway, when I got to page 60, it hit me.

Gladwell introduces the prototype of what economists call the "Market Maven." It's also known as the "Price Vigilante". Here are some lines from the book:

"A Maven is a person who has information on a lot of different products or prices or places."

Daniel's Mom: OK, I'm at CostCo. They have this great buy. They have an 8 GB thumb drive with $10 coupon.

"This is the person who connects people to the marketplace."

Daniel's Mom: It's a hell of a deal. Know anybody that needs one?

"They distribute coupons."

Daniel's Mom: I could tell you about some wonderful rebates out there.

"They like to be helpers in the marketplace."

Daniel's Mom: Anyway, I'll help you with that.

Bingo. My mom's not crazy. She's a sociological phenomenon studied by economists! And once I started thinking about it that way, her peculiar behaviors started to make more sense. Like with gas prices.

Daniel's Mom: Shell, Phillips, Mobile, they're all $3.86 a gallon. Sams is $3.81. The bottom of the hill is $3.89. That's BP. Once the bottom of the hill goes up, you can bet your bottom dollar that Olive Street Road is going to go up. So you just have to know the territory.

Like any good Market Maven, Mom wrote all of that up in an email to her friend Sue, who then printed it out and propped it up on the car dashboard for reference. Here's Sue:

Sue: Well, if we say Estrin economics in our household, everybody knows what that means. She has told us about airline tickets, home insurance, how to buy college textbooks online. Jean knows!

About a year ago -- without consulting my mother -- I bought a USB memory stick and got an extended warranty for 15 bucks more. I thought it was a good deal. My mom didn't.

Daniel's Mom: And then you bought an extended warranty and I thought, "Oh my God, have I failed? Failed as a mother?" You didn't pick up the phone to ask.

Estrin: What's the matter with buying a warranty?

Daniel's Mom: Oh Daniel, you don't need a warranty for those things! Read Consumer Reports!

The Tipping Point, page 65. Quote: "Mavens are the kinds of people who are avid readers of Consumer Reports."

Daniel's Mom: Well, you don't have to make me look like such a maven.

I've come to realize that I, for one, am not a Market Maven. And not everyone is. But you should always have one at your disposal so you don't get bamboozled on your next purchase.

Estrin: Lesson over for the day?

Daniel's Mom: Oh no, there's so much more to learn!

From St. Louis, I'm Daniel Estrin for Marketplace Money.

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