Fooling Ourselves With Tips and Listicles

A list of tips on "how to do X" is a standard modern mass media staple. If one of these articles happens to come to you (usually via social media), it will likely have three predictable characteristics: it was SEO-optimized, it's a listicle-style article with a clickbait-y title, and it should take roughly three to four minutes to read.

It might even contain useful advice.

People process articles like these in cognitively intriguing ways. For example, one can read a list of 12 Obscenely Easy Tips to Save Money! with a skim-til-offended mindset. And as soon as you stumble onto a tip that strikes you as dumb (cut my own hair? ZOMG only a total loser would do that), you can mentally dismiss the article. Even the entire domain.

What's happening here, cognitively speaking, is the reader reacted by doubling down on her existing belief set. She was waiting, just waiting, for any tip that seemed even the slightest bit stupid. And since some money-saving tips actually are dumb, it should be unsurprising that she found one. The exercise of reading the article--with her specific mindset--reinforces all her worst suspicions about frugality.

What's also astounding is how this reader can actually say she read something "from the other side" and yet, somehow, she still finds evidence confirming her existing beliefs! (See how dumb frugality tips are? Sheesh.) This reader achieved a rare cognitive twofer: she both increased her epistemic arrogance and got slightly dumber at the same time. [Note: this never happens with politics.]

Now, let's consider another example. What if you like frugality (or whatever subject the listicle of "X Easy Tips" happens to cover) and you actually want to put the ideas to work?

Believe it or not, for you, there's an even more dangerous way to read articles like this, especially if it also involves talking about the topic with peers or friends. As much as we wish it weren't true, our brains confuse reading and talking about a domain with practicing that domain.

This deeply unfortunate phenomenon happens in all areas of personal development: losing weight, fitness, cooking at home, writing a novel, decluttering, investing, starting a business, the list goes on. We finish the article--"6 Staggering Advantages of ETFs" let's say--and then we demonstrate our rapidly growing knowledge by regurgitating it in a conversation with a friend. (I've been reading up a lot lately on investing, I'm really leaning towards ETFs rather than index funds. What about you?)

What happens next is fascinating. Our brains get a quick mini-squirt of dopamine and we achieve what psychologists call "a sense of completion." Which means we vaguely feel like we've done something to change our life situation even though we've actually done nothing and taken no action whatsoever.

Pretty soon we'll forget all about the whole thing, and we'll move on to some other listicle-friendly domain. ("8 Awesome Ways to Lose Weight That Big Food Doesn't Want You To Know About!")

It all makes me wonder sometimes whether there's an entirely inverse relationship between how much people read and talk about doing things and to what extent they actually do them.

READ NEXT: Tips Vs. Strategies
And: Epistemic Arrogance

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Four Reasons the Retail Apocalypse Hurts Frugal Consumers

In our last post we talked about how the decline of physical retailing is great for the environment. That was the good news.

But there's bad news too, unfortunately: The retail apocalypse is not great for consumers. Not at all.

And for frugal, bargain-hunting consumers, it's going to be really not great. As the retail environment evolves, we're going to get less and less value for the money we spend. Here's why:

1) Retail will become more oligopoly-like and less competitive. If you've read Casual Kitchen's recent posts on inflation and how to beat it, this will be obvious to you, but I'll say it anyway: as more and more physical retailers close down stores and exit the marketplace, the players that remain simply do not have to compete as hard to earn your purchasing dollars. This means higher prices, fewer alternatives, and less value for consumers.

2) Amazon is the mother of all "meet or beat" pricing players. As we know, meet or beat pricing results in higher prices for consumers, not lower prices. When a store claims it will beat any competitor's price, it just gives the other stores in a market an excuse to raise prices. Since consumers shopping in say, Best Buy, can quickly check their phones to compare prices, Amazon has zero incentive to cut prices--after all, they are the benchmark everyone will compare to. Worse, Best Buy has zero incentive to offer any price significantly lower than Amazon either! Neither retailer wants to start a race to the bottom that no one--except consumers--can win.

3) Fewer truly attractive sales. A less competitive retail environment will drive second-order effects: there will be far fewer retailers offering truly attractive sales and doorbuster-type opportunities. Doorbuster pricing and inventory liquidation sales can offer extraordinary value to disciplined and patient consumers--admittedly at the expense of a physical retailer that planned poorly for customer demand. In the increasingly virtual world of retailing, it's much easier to manage inventory, distribution is less complicated, and companies know a lot more about you and what you want (more on this in a moment). Truly glorious sales--the kind that result when a retailer badly misjudges demand and later needs to liquidate unwanted inventory--will be far less common in the new retailing environment.

4) Worse informational asymmetry. Amazon and all the various online information gatherers know a lot more about us than we know about them. As their share of retailing grows, the informational advantage they have over us grows too. We will know less and less about what happens behind the scenes. Worse, we can't see--and most of us are hardly even aware of--all the informational trails we leave online. Online retailers gather this information relentlessly, and use it to their advantage.

Final thoughts
There will be other pros and cons to the new retail beyond the negative impact on consumers. For one thing, there will be lots and lots of job losses. But don't forget: at one time the USA's labor force was 95+% agricultural (it's less than 1% now), and buggy whip manufacturing, whale oil refining and 35mm photography all used to be gigantic industries. Our economy has handled bigger and far more wracking transformations--we'll muddle through this one as well.

It's probably too early to really forecast the cultural impact here, although I can speculate that the Amazoning of retail will further worsen the atomization of our society. I'm sure there will be other cultural impacts that we haven't even thought about.

Finally, remember that one of my central goals here at Casual Kitchen is to help consumers become better informed and more empowered. And there's a laughably easy solution for the coming consumer-unfriendly retail environment--and it's a solution anyone can adopt: just buy less freaking stuff. We have an absurdly consumerist culture here in the USA. Would it be so bad to tone it down a little? No matter how much market share or informational advantages online retail might have, they cannot take away our power and our psychological agency. We are the ones who willingly fish our credit cards out of our pockets and click "buy"--and therefore we consumers are the ones with ultimate power here.

What do you think?

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What Could POSSIBLY Be Good About the Retail Apocalypse? Just This One Thing...

By now the phrase "retail apocalypse" has entered everyday parlance and everyone knows what it means: Amazon will destroy everything, leaving smoking holes wherever there used to be perfectly nice and harmless retailers.

It'll be just like what Walmart did twenty years ago, except Amazon will do it faster, meaner, and with more clinical detachment.

And when it's all said and done, there'll be a few Chipotles and mani-pedi shops left over--you know: service businesses Amazon hasn't yet learned how to replicate. There will be no other retail survivors.

This unmitigated disaster is the consensus scenario on what Amazon is about to do to the retailing industry. Cheery, huh?

Then again, to borrow a phrase from my old investing career: the consensus is often wrong but never in doubt. And it's generally a terrible idea to allow consensus thinkers to do all our thinking for us. So, could there be another, non-consensus perspective on the secular growth of Amazon and online retailing?

Here's one: it's an unmitigated blessing for the environment. The six bullet points below explain.

1) Stores can revert back to green space and habitat. Most stores simply don't have to be there anymore. Retail space could return to open space, and all those hideous-looking big-box stores, shopping malls and strip malls could go back to being trees, grass and the natural habitat they used to be. Or, perhaps even better, these built-over spaces could be reused for low-cost housing, public parks and playgrounds. Any of these uses would be far more societally beneficial than feeding consumerism.

2) Think about all the pavement. For every 1,000 square feet of retail space, there's another 1,200 additional square feet of paved-over parking space. This is pavement sufficient to park 3-4 cars, roughly. [1] This doesn't even count additional paved-over ground for road access, for truck loading/unloading, for firelane space, for space between parking lanes, etc. Every square foot of decommissioned retail space counts well more than double--possibly more than triple--once you consider accompanying paved areas.

3) Pavement and parking lots are disastrous for the environment. Pavement disrupts the soil's natural role in cleansing, draining and filtering our water. Parking lots and road surfaces also generate pollutant-heavy storm sewer runoff that typically goes directly into local rivers and lakes. Remember decades ago when we used to pollute our environment with industrial waste? Now we do it with pavement runoff. [2]

4) Redundant warehousing and distribution infrastructure eliminated. For every retail store you see, there's a largely invisible network of warehousing and distribution supporting it behind the scenes. This represents still more environmentally disruptive buildings, infrastructure and pavement, most of which are unnecessary. As a recent example of what I mean, consider the failed and now-liquidated retailer Sports Authority. It competed with Dick's Sporting Goods, often placing its stores in the very same malls and neighborhoods. Sports Authority had its own warehouses, storage, distribution hubs, trucks, inventory and systems--an unprofitable, unnecessary and entirely redundant national retailing infrastructure exactly copied by a nearly identical retailer. All totally unnecessary. Imagine all the other carbon-copy retailers in the innumerable subsectors of retail, and then imagine all the additional infrastructure behind the scenes that simply doesn't need to be there.

5) Redundant shipping/trucking/fossil fuel use eliminated. Merchandise doesn't magically travel to store shelves and display cases by itself. It needs to be trucked there. Worse, physical retailers also have to guess what you're going to buy, and in what unit volumes, and then ship it from the docks to warehouses and distribution nodes, and then to the stores themselves. All this inventory (assuming it isn't stolen, broken or damaged en route) is unloaded and set on display in brightly-lit, well-heated and completely wasteful indoor environments designed specifically to tempt you to buy. If the retailer is wrong about what the customers want (they often are), they pack it back up and then ship it all the way back to be dealt with yet again. This is an entire layer of shipping, distribution and display now made largely unnecessary by online/virtual storefronts.

6) Wasteful last mile customer driving reduced significantly. One of the largest single drivers (pun intended) of excess carbon footprint and energy waste occurs when customers drive to and from stores. [3] Most of this last-mile customer driving could and probably should be replaced by UPS, FedEx and the postal system, all of which already have well-scaled distribution systems in place which are far less wasteful and far more efficient than individual cars on individual shopping trips.

Concluding thoughts
Retail is entering a period of much-needed and long-overdue rationalization as we replace an old, outmoded way of selling things with a more efficient and less environmentally harmful way. We are vastly overstored in the USA, and for every unnecessary store, there's still more pavement, warehousing, distribution, trucking and redundant infrastructure behind it all.

Maybe the retail apocalypse isn't so bad after all.

Resources/for further reading:
[1] See this intriguing 1950's era parking/planning report giving standard assumptions for parking space/retail space ratios. Today, ratios probably run meaningfully higher still. Also note this gem of a quote: "We know of no existing [shopping] center that has too much parking."

[2] Scientific American on stormwater pavement runoff and its environmental impact.

[3] Intriguingly, the extraordinary wastefulness of last-mile driving is also one of the most compelling arguments against the local food movement. For more on this, see the readable and counterintuitive book The Locavore's Dilemma by Hiroko Shimizu and Pierre Desrochers.

Readers! You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

Ingredient Bragging

A long-time CK reader, Stuart at Addicted to Canning, ran a post recently about recipes with pretentious, impossible to find, or inappropriately up-market ingredients.

For example, let's say you offer your readers a recipe that includes potatoes. But instead of just writing "potatoes" in your list of ingredients, you (unnecessarily) write "organic, local potatoes."

Here are some other examples:

* Instead of writing "milk" as a recipe ingredient, write "raw milk"
* Instead of "chocolate" (say for my Mole recipe) write "fair trade, organic chocolate"
* Instead of "carrots" write "local, organic Purple Dragon carrots"
* Instead of "pork shoulder" write "pork shoulder from traditional hog breeds finished on acorns"

I bet you think I'm joking about that last one. Sadly, I'm not.

This is a surprisingly common phenomenon in food blogging, and we need a new phrase for it. So allow me to coin one: ingredient bragging.

When offering a recipe to strangers over the internet, self-aware food bloggers know full well that they can simply write ingredients as is. If a recipe requires carrots, the word "carrots" suffices. If an individual reader wishes to use organic carrots, local carrots, carrots from their backyard garden, cruelty-free Purple Dragon carrots from their local hipster farm market--or, uh, just carrots--they can.

Now, I fear that any food blogger who actually needs to be told this is already beyond help, but... if you actually write local, organic Purple Dragon carrots as a recipe ingredient, you impose an obligation on your readers: an obligation to restrain themselves from throwing their laptops across the room. You've pretentiously given your readers a non-obtainable, expensive and frou-frou ingredient, and then forced them to ask various near-existential questions:

Does this recipe really require Purple Dragon carrots? 
What the heck IS a Purple Dragon carrot, and where could I possibly buy one? 
Can I substitute just... carrots? Am I a bad person if they're not organic?
How much longer is this urge to throw my laptop across the room going to last?

Your readers only just read your recipe, and already you've condescendingly given them all kinds of extra mental work.

But there's more to ingredient bragging than just pretension. And annoying your readers. And doubling their time spent shopping. And quadrupling their grocery bills. And replacing their laptops. There's more going on here.

If we really want people to cook at home--for health reasons, for economic reasons, for personal development reasons, for whatever reason--we want to make cooking accessible. Ingredient bragging does not make cooking accessible. On the contrary, it makes cooking seem far more difficult and far more expensive than it really is. It actually encourages people not to cook! This was Stuart's point in his post, and it's a good one.

But worst of all--worst, worst, worst of all--is the bald-faced status signalling. If you have the temerity to engage in ingredient bragging you are openly, transparently and unnecessarily signalling your status. You are overtly advertising that you are the type of person who of course always buys these high end ingredients. You are elevated and refined, and you want to make sure everybody knows it. In fact, it's so important that your high status be known that you will remorselessly make your readers' lives more expensive and more difficult in order to signal so.

Ingredient bragging: Just don't do it.

Readers, what are your thoughts?

PS: Every new annoying trend ought to have its own neologism. When I touched on this topic before here at CK, I called it organic-dropping, an admittedly stone-handed portmanteau of organic and name-dropping. Readers, I hope you like ingredient bragging better.

Readers! You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

Is “Meet Or Beat” Pricing Anti-Consumer?

The four biggest British supermarket chains all offer some form of price-match guarantee, promising that their customers could not save any money by shopping elsewhere.
--from The Economist

Any savvy, empowered consumer will have a predictable response to claims like "You won't save money by shopping elsewhere." We laugh inwardly and disbelieve. Claims like this work out great for the claimer only if no one actually tests it.

So when a claim like this is made by four separate grocery store chains in the same region at the same time, it's a "what you talkin' bout Willis" moment. [1] A real credulity-stretcher.

Obviously, and by definition, not every store can be the cheapest. But every store benefits by fooling their customers into not checking!

Which takes us to the counterintuitive economics of "meet or beat" pricing.

When a store in your community adopts meet or beat pricing, it sounds at first like a great idea. Theoretically, you always know that you'll get the best price by going there. So, you can just go there.

Wrong! What real-world examples teach us is that meet or beat pricing is inflationary--it actually makes prices go up. In order to see why, though, you have to ask the second order question: And then what?

This is exactly what all the other competing stores in town are asking themselves: How can I compete when I know this meet or beat store will always match or beat my price?

It then becomes game theory situation. The other stores can try and cut prices, but they'll only hurt themselves. Worse, typically, the store adopting meet or beat pricing is usually that market's low-cost provider anyway.

You don't compete on price unless you can compete on price. So, the other stores must compete some other way. Thus the correct game theory response--if you're not the store with the lowest cost structure--is to raise prices. It sounds counterintuitive, but this is actually what happens in any market where one player embraces a meet or beat strategy.

In this case, the market creates its own pricing umbrella, and all the retailers win. At your expense. Your prices go up, even as you think you're getting the best deal in town.