Low End Theory: Always Low Prices! And Yet...


By Brendan I. Koerner

A few weeks back, I asked y'all a tough ethical question: have you ever felt guilty about buying pirated goods in the name of saving a few bucks? Now I've got another dilemma to ponder, inspired by my recent discovery of the four-gig Ematic flash drive pictured to the right. What kind of moral quandary could such a humdrum gizmo possibly cause, you might inquire? It's not about the product itself, but rather who's selling it: the boogeyman of mom-and-pops, the decimator of downtowns, the bane of organized labor, the Arkansan colossus which dare not speak its name. Yeah, you know who I'm talking about—and if you don't, well, best get your ignorant self up to speed.

Back before I started this column, I wouldn't have thought twice about buying electronics at Wal-Mart—I'm an eternal sap for low, low prices. But then I namechecked the store's Durabrand in a column last year, and got a flood of e-mails to the effect of: How dare you support such a menace to American decency?

I haven't bought a Wal-Mart gadget since, either online or off. But I was tempted this week by that Ematic, listed at $59.98. And it got me thinking not just about Wal-Mart, but about what it means to be both a cheapskate and a geek.

Don't worry, I'm not gonna rehash the standard pro-con debate on Wal-Mart. Odds are your mind's already made up about that, and I invite y'all to leave arguments on either side in comments. (Play nice.) But in the constant back-and-forth on the subject, I've rarely seen much about Wal-Mart's impact on other electronics retailers. Sure, we all know that they're squeezing the life out of Main Street grocery stores and apparel shops. But what's the effect been on the place where you bought your first disk drive? And was that place a CompUSA or Radio Shack, neither of which can be deemed a lot more cuddly than the Bentonville Gorilla? In my experience, Wal-Mart hasn't Borged the electro-retail landscape like it has elsewhere.

I'm also not sure that Wal-Mart can be blamed (the wrong verb, perhaps) for making Guangdong the capital of the cheap electronics world. Yes, the $29 DVD player that Wal-Mart debuted a few Christmases ago was a paradigm shifter (not to mention an event that revealed the very worst about humanity). But Wal-Mart was a relative latecomer to the low-end electronics game; the knock-off factories were already humming before Duraband was a glimmer in some corporate lackey's eye.

So then, what has been the "Wal-Mart effect" on the gadgets industry? They've certainly made computers affordable for a lot of families who otherwise not have them, a development you quibble with at the risk of being branded an elitist prick. And their constant inflow of cheaper and cheaper products has spurred the sort of price competition that us low-enders dream of—basic economics, right?

But here's the rub: by buying that $59.98 Ematic drive, I'd be patronizing a company that's done some things I disagree with on a very deep, profound level. Which is a weird feeling to have, because my brain usually shuts down once it realizes what a great bargain's to be had.

It's also weird because, let's face it, us gearheads aren't always the most political lot. We have our causes, sure, mostly to do with personal freedoms and the protection of a vibrant public commons. But let me put it this way: the CES floor is not a place where you're going to hear a lot of strong opinions about non-gadget issues, and cramming your head full of iPhone rumors leaves scant room for other pressing matters. We tend to fixate on objects and their esoteric backstories, often to the exclusion of a bigger picture—not that there's anything wrong with that, I'm just sayin'.

My ultimate train of thought goes something like this: though I think Wal-Mart's impact on the electronics landscape has been a lot less deleterious than people think, I took a stand and refrained from buying that Ematic drive. However, there's a big caveat here: my choice was made all the easier by Newegg, which has this Avixe four-gig drive on sale for even less. It's easy to make a political stance when it's not hitting me in my beloved pocketbook, natch. I'd like to think I'd still do the "right thing" if Wal-Mart was the budget champ, but my judgment can go haywire when a deal is just too juicy.

Low End Theory: Always Low Prices! And Yet...

Worry not, the droning's done. Now I'm gonna throw it back to y'all, dear readers: do you have any ethical qualms about purchasing electronics from Wal-Mart, especially when the price is oh-so-right and your bank account is oh-so-empty? Have I been hoodwinked into conducting my boycott-of-one, or should I be patting myself on the back? Replies in comments (which I avidly peruse over a couple of Ballantines every Thursday evening), or directly to me.

Also, while you're at it—is there some reason I should be steering clear of Newegg? Their prices of late have been too good to be true—I'm worried that they're making flash drives out of Chinese raccoon dogs or something.

BEST OF TECH 2007: The fact you made it this far in the column proves that you love you some tech writing. Put that passion to good use by nominating entries for the next installment of The Best of Technology Writing, the anthology I edited last year. This year's guest editor is way, way more stellar—journo superstar Steven Levy. Go here to submit nominations; self-nominations are welcome.

LASTLY: Colts are gonna win. You can't stop The Horse!

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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