Retailers exploit "clunker" concept to sell you more stuff
Whether you agree or not with the policy underpinnings that drove it, there's no denying that the government's Cash for Clunkers program was a success in the most basic terms: It got Americans to buy cars, and lots of them. (Of course, dealers are suffering a wicked hangover from that sales binge and facing a 28-year low in sales now that the program is finished, but that's another post.)
The nation's beleaguered retailers watched and took notes as thousands of otherwise tight-fisted Americans dumped 20 or 30 grand (or more!) on a brand-new car because the government deemed their existing vehicle junkyard-ready and gave them a rebate. Now, this article from the New York Times tells us, sellers of everything from furniture to appliances to cookware are offering discounts if customers bring in the item they're replacing. Some offer a flat dollar amount off, while others take a percentage of the original purchase price off the top. Most but not all of the retailers donate the "clunkers" to charity after customers drop them off.
Now, whatever a store would like you to replace has been dubbed a clunker. For instance, I bet you never thought of that comfy sofa you sit on to watch So You Think You Can Dance as a clunker, but according to some of these programs, it is. The same goes for your appliances. Hey, maybe your dishwasher is white and kind of scratched-up instead of that sexy stainless steel, but it still gets the lasagna crud off the pan just fine. Kind of insulting, isn't it?
The Times article highlights one key reason why retailers think these clunker-themed promos might succeed at parting recession-minded customers from their dollars the way plain-Jane sales failed to do. They're specifically designed to make you feel less guilty about junking something that probably still works pretty well or as well as it used to, even if it's not as pretty and shiny as the day you brought it home. By labeling your possessions clunkers, the marketers are trying to make you feel like you live in a dumpster and need to upgrade. Conveniently, since getting rid of the offending item will save you a few bucks and because the item will probably - although not definitely - go to charity, you're being subtly encouraged to dismiss any guilt your new splurge may yield.
The bottom line? Nobody's telling you not to buy a new sectional if the springs poke into your rear when you sit down, or a fridge that sounds like a jet engine when the ice machine is running. But don't be swayed by a novel-sounding deal, and don't pay more than you should for something just because they make you feel less guilty for whipping out your credit card. Shop around for the best price, whether they call it a "trade-in" or a rebate or just an ordinary sale. Then, bring your old goods to the Salvation Army, Goodwill or Habitat for Humanity, or hand them down to a college student or new grad furnishing their first apartment. They'll be happy to take your "clunkers," trust us.