Efficiency Matters, But Thoughtfulness Matters More

We were driving to a holiday dinner and my son pointed to the remnants of an improvised Christmas tree lot. “Dad, what do they do with the trees they don’t sell?” Before I could answer, the implication retorted itself. “Why don’t they sell them for five dollars? They’re gonna have to throw them away if they don’t sell them.”

Raise inquisitive children and here’s one of the mixed blessings. They’ll take both ends of a conversation if they don’t think you’re keeping up.

“Believe it or not,” I started, unconsciously hitting that Once Upon a Time storytelling tone, “there are families who don’t buy a tree until Christmas Eve. When the children wake, the tree is part of the Christmas surprise.”

“That means for some people —” Now it’s me not waiting for him. “— the value of the tree being sold is highest at the last minute. So they’ll probably sell a few on Christmas Eve at full price.”

Most of us assume most of the time that others are mostly like us. Economists rebuke those assumptions, tabulating how we differ from one another.

Celebration gives license to waste, as anyone who’s ever swept up after a party can attest. My mother always saved bows from Christmas wrapping, but trash pick-up still broke family records the following weekday.

Waste commands our attention only occasionally, but economists and merchants wrestle with it constantly. So holidays offer us object lessons about everyday life.

A Christmas tree is worth exactly nothing on the day after the holiday. Unsold Christmas ornaments, lights, cards, and all things Santa-ized can be had for a dime on the dollar because they will live in attics for the next 11 months. December 26 is their “pull date,” when they are pulled from the shelves and piled into bins blaring their deep discounts.

I’ve seen with FOOD for Lane County’s Food Rescue program what grocers pull from their shelves with an eye on expiration dates. Like the Christmas trees, they command full price until a certain date. Then, boom, it’s a donation. I’m glad we can rescue some of that food, but there’s plenty being missed. Today’s perfectly ripe fruits and vegetables are usually tomorrow’s compost contribution.

I would happily support the grocer who culled his or her own industrial pantry, pulled the foods that were at their peak, gathered them together with a simple recipe and the other necessary ingredients, and labeled the display “Ripe for Tonight.” Sometimes I have enough time and energy to cook, but not enough to devise a meal and shop for the ingredients. “Ripe for Tonight” would be for those nights when a rotisserie chicken is Just Too Easy.

Food has an expiration date you can taste, so it’s obvious to all of us, but try this little experiment. Next time you’re at a concert or a play, stop for a moment at intermission and look behind you. Are there empty seats? The value of those seats has just plummeted from whatever you paid to zero, with no stopping points in between.

Larger cities fill those extra seats at a discounted price with last-minute purchases from tourists and conventioneers, because they’ve learned that a full house increases the satisfaction of everyone attending, adding value to whatever price they paid. When you stop to look behind you and see no empty seats, you can’t help but feel a twinge of pride that all those people probably bought their tickets after you did.

Gifting itself introduces inefficiencies. We all want to give gifts that others will enjoy, but some of us take more chances than others. When we guess wrong, those items will be resold or given away. Some or all of the value will be lost.

Gift cards are the latest solution to this perennial dilemma, but gift cards get forgotten or lost. Bridal registries long ago were invented to eliminate unwanted and duplicate gifts. Amazon.com is testing a system designed to make regular gift-giving this efficient. It will allow people to list their gift preferences, and then return or exchange gifts before they even have been shipped.

That sounds a bit too efficient to me, like a family member having both ends of a conversation.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs here. His two grown sons also live in Eugene.