Sparklers, Bagels, and Value

I have a 6-year-old, which means I also must have sparklers on the 4th of July. (And that’s about it; I don’t trust my klutziness to be in the proximity of most explosives.) So this year, I drove down to South Carolina on the eve of the 4th to make my purchase. I got 96 sparklers for $5.00 – WOW, that’s only 5.2 cents per sparkler, I thought – what a great value! We got them home, night fell, emotions got high, and my kid was concerned that our sparklers would be so fantastic that all the neighbors would come to watch. (“Do we have enough seats in the yard?” he asked.)

It was dark… we were ready. We lit the sparklers. Expecting a ball of sparks at least 6 inches in diameter, I jumped back after I lit the end of the stick. I was looking forward to the part where we could write our names in the dark air, letting the letters hang there – a rite of passage in youth, or so I assumed. A little tiny penny-sized flare zizzled up, and a few sparks shot out straight to the ground, and 10 seconds later it was over. Just 3 sparklers left giant, noxious clouds of irritating ash and dust that filled up the neighborhood, to the point where we couldn’t light any more after just one round.

WHAT????!!? I thought. I wasn’t alone… I looked over and saw a sad, puzzled face looking back at me. “Are you sure you got real sparklers this time?” I was sure, but what I’d purchased – though a great perceived value, at first – turned out to be very low perceived quality. Why? My expectations were that any decent company making sparklers would have standards… nice ball of sparks, 60-second-plus duration, smoky cloud that would not put you in the hospital or give you Black Lung. My expectations were unmet by the product, and as a result, both perceived quality and perceived value plummeted.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, there is a difference between how you perceive quality, and how you perceive value (according to Mitra, 2002):

  • Perceived quality happens before you buy, adopt, or experience something.
  • Perceived value depends on how well the product, service or experience meets your expectations after you buy, adopt or experience it.
  • Perceived quality and perceived value are moderated by your expectations. Your expectations can (and often do!) change after you buy, adopt or experience something. Perceived value is NOT invariant, nor is it independent of perceived quality – your perception of value can change after you buy, adopt or experience similar products or participate in similar activities, because then you have a more rich basis for comparison.

This made me wonder just why people are buying these sparklers… as a sparkler connoisseur since this incident, I have noticed that pretty much all sparklers that are sold are the exact same variety that we got. Which means there must be a lot of people buying this brand of sparklers… and the company certainly wouldn’t be making them if people weren’t buying them. If we keep buying low quality products, how will manufacturers ever know that they’re not meeting minimum quality standards? I know this is significant in safety critical industries, or industries where there’s intense competition, but this whole sparkler debacle made me realize that as consumers, there are probably many fronts where we’re selling ourselves out. I’m sure there are plenty of families who also bought the same sparklers and thought they sucked, but they probably rationalized it by thinking that any sparklers are better than no sparklers for my kids. I might have thought the same thing, but I’m now of the opinion that NO sparklers are better than crappy sparklers, because buying duds sends the wrong message into the Invisible Brain of our Invisible Hand-guided global economy.

So what does this have to do with bagels? Here’s what. As I was lamenting the sad state of the sparklers, I thought to myself, “This would never happen in New York City if we were dealing with bagels.” Why? Because people there know a good bagel when they eat one, the price point is well known (as is willingness-to-pay), and people will not tolerate bagels that are subpar. They will vote with their feet. Bad bagels will cease and desist. The market will eat them, if they don’t meet the very high quality standards of the local bagel consumers.

My appeal to consumers is to ask yourselves this question. How bad does the quality OR value of a consumer product have to get before you’ll just say no, and send a proper signal back into the economy? If you don’t signal now, what makes you think the quality levels will stay the same as they are now?

LET EVERYTHING BE YOUR BAGEL. Don’t settle for minimally acceptable quality unless you’re ready for it to sink even lower.


  • A tad belated – but I just had to say that I like this post – sometimes a story explains things better than an in-depth and convoluted academic article

  • Nicole – I really like the simplicity of the story in this post – sorry I am a tad late in commenting – sometimes a story can be more powerful than a long & convoluted academic paper – cheers KerrieAnneC

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