How Much Would You Pay to Disappoint Your Dad?

Bloggified by Jake on Sunday, December 13, 2009

For the past week, I've had to take my kids to school every morning. Considering I stay up until 3AM or so most nights writing, you can imagine that A) I didn't get much writing done this week, B) I didn't get much sleep this week, and C) I'm not very happy about either A or B.

Making matters worse is the reason I had to drop the kids off all five days last week instead of my customary one. Their mother, who teaches fourth grade at another school, needed to go in 45 minutes earlier than usual to help run Santa's Secret Store.

For those who don't remember Santa's Secret Store from your elementary school days, let me summarize. A company carts in a bunch of cheap crap that ranges in price from a quarter to fifteen dollars, touting it all as affordable gifts. Teachers run the cash register and at the end of the week, the company comes back, counts up the sales, and gives the school a percentage of the sales to use for field trips or special projects or paying teachers salaries so layoffs can be delayed for another month. Whatever.What's worst about this whole fiasco is the false hope it gives the children. I had to fight it in my own children every day as they begged to "go to Mommy's Santa Store" after school. They pulled change from their piggy banks, eagerly anticipating buying presents for me and their mother and their grandparents.

Economist Joel Waldfogel has a new book out called Scroogenomics. I haven't read it yet, but I have heard several interviews with him and am intrigued by the ideas behind it. An expansion on a paper Waldfogel wrote 15 years ago, the book makes the case that gift giving is almost always an economic loser.

To quantify the value lost in gift giving, Waldfogel compared the price someone paid for something to the price the recipient would have been willing to pay themselves. For example, a couple of my friends are getting customized NFL jerseys of their favorite teams with their own names and numbers. These cost $100 each (the website had a sale on Black Friday so I got them for a bit less, but we'll use $100 as the price for this example). My friend Rob is a Packers fan, so I got him a Packers jersey with his last name and the number 99 on the back. If Rob is asked, "How much would you pay to buy that jersey for yourself?" and he answers, "$75," then I have wasted $25 from an economic standpoint.

My goal isn't to dissect Waldfogel's argument too much--I will delete the three paragraphs I've written here and expand on them in a separate post--but rather to use it to make the case that Santa's Secret Shops are among the worst offenders. After all, how much would you pay for one of these?The sane among you answered, "Nothing. What the hell am I going to do with that?" If you found out that someone paid $3 to buy it for you, not only would that be a loss of $3 per Waldfogel's calculations, there would be the added loss of other unquantified values like how much respect you lose for the person who paid $3 for a little rubber piece of crap, the disappointment you feel for the gift you received versus the anticipation you had for it prior to unwrapping it, and the disappointment the gift giver feels when it becomes clear you didn't like the fun, google-eyed rubber sunburst he bought you.

Santa's Secret Shop's greatest crime is selling itself to children as a place to buy great gifts for grown ups. With this in mind, kids scrape together some cash, whether by asking mom and dad or by busting open their piggy banks, and go to the shop, expecting to find gifts that mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa are going to love.

I remember in fifth grade, we had a Santa's Secret Shop set up at my school, so I took a couple dollars hoping to find something for my parents. I don't remember what I got my dad, but I settled on a big pencil for my mom. It was blue and about a foot long and almost an inch in diameter (too big to fit in a pencil sharpener, you'll note). At the time, I recall thinking, "What the hell is my mom going to do with this?" but I felt pressured to get something there because I wanted to be able to say I took care of everything by myself. I didn't need Dad to take me out to the mall to get Mom's present and vice versa.

On the plus side, I didn't get anything like this.This is the worst of the worst that Santa's Secret Shop has to offer. At $8.50, this adjustable-to-fit-the-head-of-any-dad cap is out of the price range of most shoppers. The one afternoon I dropped in with the kids, about 60-70 kids came through the shop and I don't think anyone had more than $5. And therein lies the tragedy. $8.50 is a lot of money just to disappoint your dad. Hell, kids are doing it for free every day!

But the lost value far exceeds the $8.50, which, it should be noted, is a huge amount of money for a fourth grader to spend on anything, much less something that is only going to cause family strife. There is also the frustration his father is going to feel, knowing that his child spent the equivalent of a decent Friday's entrée on an ugly, stupid hat that will never get worn.

At least, that's what he hopes. But that's not the case at all. Unlike the yellow rubber thing that can be tossed in a drawer or a "#1 Grandma" ornament that can be hung on the back of the Christmas tree for a few weeks every year or the foam rubber keychain that can be used to hold the key to the garage, back gate, or utility room, the hat serves only one purpose.

And dad only has one head.

Receipt of this hat on Christmas morning gives dad two "value-losing" options. Either he's going to have to wear it out in public, upsetting himself as he is silently (if he's lucky) ridiculed by everyone who sees him, or he has to explain to his child, his own flesh and blood that he loves in ways he never imagined he would love anyone prior to having this new life born into his own, that he has terrible taste in gifts and would have been better off buying Dad a Wendy's value meal and pocketing the rest of the cash because no, no, I'm not going to wear this gaudy thing, not even long enough for your mother, who hasn't stopped laughing since you handed me the package, to snap a picture just so she can mock us both twenty years from now in front of your wife and my grandchildren.

You can imagine how well this will sit for Christmases in perpetuity. Speaking as someone who refuses to decorate the Christmas tree every year because my mom and grandmother got mad at me for putting too much tinsel on our tree in 1980, I can tell you those memories stick with you.

On top of all the tensions that Santa's Secret Shops bring to families every year and the economic losses it perpetuates, the school only raised $190 (which, sadly, was more than double what it raised last year). That means that if every teacher who worked it had paid $8 a day not to have to come into work 45 minutes early and stay 45 minutes late every day, they would have made more money.

3 sarcastic replies:

Iceman said...

The hat could actually be a worthwhile buy... if worn by the right guy. I can picture 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander wearing that hat... especially given the fact that he's *not* a dad in the show.

Jennifer Juniper said...

Too much tinsel in 1980? Wow. I wasn't even 5 months old yet at that point... heh

But I call BULLSHIT on that excuse. My father doesn't do it b/c he's lazy and my male friends think its gay or something. I believe you're in one or both of these categories and you just use that lame 29-year-old incident as an excuse. I can't believe your wife & kids let you get away with that.

BULLSHIT I say!

Otherwise, great post! HA!

Jake said...

My mom and her dad took Christmas decorating very seriously. Every ornament belongs in one of six sections on the tree (top, middle, and bottom of the front and back) and woe be upon anyone who puts one that belongs on the top at the back on the bottom of the front! My grandpa died in August of 1980, so my mom and grandma were both a little more psychotic than usual that year because emotions were running high, it being the first Christmas without dad.

Anyway, that particular year stands out--especially the part where I (at the age of 5) said, "I don't want to do this if you're just going to yell at me!" and my grandmother replied, "Oh, let's have a pity party! 1-2-3-awwwwwww!"--but more than that, Christmas decorating was always a fucking miserable chore.

In my mom's defense, she mellowed out a lot around 1989, but by then I hated Christmas decorating so much I was never coming back around.

And for the record, I don't have a wife, so if you know anyone who's in the market for a guy with two kids and a lot of pent up anger and a hatred for Christmas decorating, send them this way!

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