By David Tulis
The eighth commandment (“Thou shalt not steal”) is framed as a negative. Like all God’s commandments it imposes positive duties, as well. It requires that we “endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estates of others, as well as our own,” says one Protestant catechism.
How shall we understand, then, a gimmick in national economy that seeks to render null the part of the commandment touching on our need to “further the wealth *** of others”? The gimmick is the 110 percent price match being pushed by Home Depot and Lowe’s, which compete in local markets against such outlets as General Appliance in Chattanooga, a locally owned retailer of GE wares.
The 110 percent price match is touted in the financial press as “consumer friendly.” Maybe so. But it is part of a commercial culture in my hometown and yours that turns shoppers into piranhas. The arguments in local economy would divert the shopper into just the opposite direction — that of trader.
Aggressive price comparisons
You walk into the Home Depot appliance department and see a fridge tagged at F$1,000. If you can show the salesman an ad or a business card from a competitor with the same device priced at F$900, Home Depot will charge you only F$820 for it. In other words, the shopper doesn’t obtain just a price match so he can buy at a familiar chain store. He gets an extra 10 percent discount.
“Trust our 10% price guarantee,” says a Home Depot flier in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “If you find a current lower price on an identical, in-stock item from any retailer, we will match the price and beat it by 10%.”
This 10 percent discount is, potentially, fuel for a horde people to shop competitors, gather a report of price, then leverage that gotcha price to get an even LOWER price back at the chain store. The mechanism plays on the spirit of commerce and stokes one’s personal financial interest apart from any benefit to the other person.
In the abstract, the marketplace requires the profit motive, and allows all the actors with self-interest to play their part as either sellers or buyers, or both. But the free market works not only in the abstract, but among human beings who have obligations before God and in the company of their fellow man.
Me me me me in modern marketing
Free markets work because they assume mutuality, a harmony of interests, and a thinking of the other. On this last point, if an entrepreneur doesn’t put his customer FIRST, he will not succeed. His enterprise is not sustainable. The idea of local economy assumes the underlying truths of the gospel and the sacrificial death of Christ Jesus for His people. As Christ died for enemies and strangers by an act of divine imagination, the entrepreneur likewise lives outside his own skin. He works imaginatively, thinking of his client and customer, whose life is made easier, cheaper, quicker, more fulfilling and more delightful by his being a customer. The free market exists on the template of the Christian religion, in short.
We see in these aggressive sales techniques more than just retailing genius exercising itself in Home Depot’s Atlanta headquarters. We see a scary side — water boiling around a cow, as it were, that haplessly wanders into the river and been stripped of its flesh before its skeleton collapses beneath the waves.
Local economy as an idea, as a personal agenda item, thrives when consumers do more than just buy. They “trade.” A person who trades accounts for the support he gives to the seller, and that seller’s character and person matters in principle. For local economy to work as we await more cataclysms in national economy, people need to exercise grace in the marketplace. They might temper the slick marketing, and not send shoppers into rivals’ showrooms as they covet the 110 percent match. People looking for appliances should visit local providers such as General Appliance in Brainerd, where prices and service are competitive. Self-interest is satisfied by shopping local and not using a local shop’s lower price to give business to a national chain.
Sources: Catey Hill, “America’s Most Consumer-Friendly Retailers,” Marketwatch, Dec. 9, 2013
Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 141