Friday, April 24, 2009

I, Consumer

Two nights ago I was relaxing here at home when my doorbell rang -- a rare occurrence in my apartment building. It was an older woman, armed with a stack of paperwork, conducting a consumer survey. As president of the co-op, I was about to ask her to leave the building when she waved $75 in cash in my face.

For $75? Sure, I’ll take your survey.

She ran through a list of questions about my reading, TV watching and moviegoing habits, and had me name the magazines I’d read in the past month. Then she paid me and gave me a thick questionnaire, saying if I completed it, I’d get another $75.

Now, I do not buy a lot of stuff, and as you may remember, I don’t have a TV. I could skip whole categories of the booklet devoted to things like automobiles, make-up, hair care and television. So when I sat down with it last night, I thought I'd make quick money.

Man, was I wrong! This book asked about everything: My clothes-buying, banking and grocery-shopping; travel habits; personal values; media consumption. For every product I had to note whether I’d bought it in the last six months or year, which brand I’d bought, which type of product (baking soda or non-baking-soda toothpaste, tartar control or regular, gel or paste) and how many times I’d used it in the last month or so.

There were whole categories for things like Cornish hens (did I buy Perdue or Tyson?) and Frozen Corn on the Cob (Bird’s Eye or Green Giant?). Granted, I was able to skip most of these categories, but it was exhausting to comb through so much! Breath fresheners, lip care, domestic dinner and table wines, foreign travel, batteries, computers, movie viewing, ready-to-eat sweet rolls and pastries, frozen hot snacks (love that disparity, don’t you?), fresh fruit and vegetables, frozen orange juice, rubber gloves, cat litter, “removable self-stick notes.” I was horrified to discover under toilet paper a variety called “moist wipes,” which I don’t want to think about.

It took me nearly five hours to complete the book. Which makes me think I should get more than $75.

I discovered some interesting things, though. For one thing, although I am generally brand loyal, I sometimes don’t know what brand I buy. I shop purely out of habit, grabbing the same product from the shelf that I bought last week or month. When the booklet asked me, for example, which brand of tuna fish I eat, I had to go and look. (Turned out to be Bumble Bee.)

I was nearly crazy by the end of this project. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been for people who shop for an entire family!

(Photo: Tribeca, April 2009)


  1. Sounds like you earned your money. Some people you pass on the street probably use Tucks Pads (moist wipes) every day and you would never know unless you saw them shopping or read their $75 survey book!

    Don't you wonder what all that data will be used for? Sometimes I think data has taken on a life of its own (or is it "have taken on a life of their own"?)

  2. boy, can you imagine how valuable all this information must be if the manufacturers are willing to pay that kind of money ? I wonder what that survey is costing?
    Amazing. (I can just imagine the ad campaign: 'Guess why 4 out of 5 tuna fish lovers choose Star Kist over Bumblebee?' - or vice-versa.)

    Love the color contrasts in the photo, btw.

  3. B: Oh, I have heard of Tucks Pads. Maybe it's the phrasing that put me off!

    RLB: Indeed! And they can cross-reference it in so many interesting ways. For example, are single people more likely to buy Colgate than Crest? Do liberals buy Bumble Bee while conservatives buy Chicken of the Sea? It boggles the mind.

  4. if it was a pain to fill out, think about how much of a nightmare it will be to compile all the answers! luckily that's not your problem. great details on the survey content. next question: how did that woman get in your building??

  5. Last time I went shopping I spent $112, and only picked up beer and steaks. I bike to work, hate NASCAR, and vote Democrat. I wonder what my survey would look like?...

  6. I used to go to the mall next door to my old job in the hope that the survey people would stop me. They used to pay a few bucks for a ffew questions.

  7. 4 out of 5 wipe users prefer Moist Wipes over Sandpaper Wipes.

  8. Five hours?!?


    There really is no such thing as a free lunch!

  9. no, i don't want to think about moist wipes either

    ha, and just read Squirrel's comment.
    i guess that could be true but i wonder about the 5th user

  10. What a hilarious survey. Although I guess $15 an hour isn't too bad for filling out a survey...and you learned a bit about your own habits too!