The age-old consumer dilemma: brand-name vs. generic. What’s at stake?
If the generic product’s good, you feel like you’ve won a small victory against larger commercial forces. If not, old prejudices and insecurities are reinforced: that you really do get what you pay for; that the flashy, better-packaged object usually is superior; that you can judge a book by its cover.
I find this debate seems most pressing during periods of mild financial distress. It is irrelevant during the flush times, because who can be bothered trifling over a dollar when the wallet’s thick. You’re on top of the world. Live like the king or queen you are! And if you’re in a truly bad financial state, the decision doesn’t matter much either. You do what you must to get on.
But mild financial distress provokes a special mindset. Things were recently good, or are only tenuously good. You are teetering away from a better place, and eager to maintain whatever footing remains. Yet, things aren’t bad enough to warrant a total lifestyle change. And so you resort to the fiduciary equivalent of ordering diet soda with your cheese fries: selective cheapness.
Last month I found myself experiencing mild financial distress. I’d just moved into my own place, and spent a kind of staggering sum on movers, security deposits, new furnishings, etc. The dwindling figures in my bank account were of concern. I knew there was a simple solution to my problem: stop spending so much money. But that would not happen. I still needed a coffee table. Thus: selective cheapness, the squishy embrace of which would soon be felt in the dental hygiene section of the Duane Reade on Bedford Avenue, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
It was a few days after I’d moved, and I’d come to buy dental floss. I was excited. Since the move I’d just been stewing in a filthy stupor amidst unopened boxes and disarrayed rooms. I wasn’t bathing too often, much less flossing. So the floss purchase represented, to quote Warren G. Harding, a return to normalcy.
It bears mentioning that I generally dislike Duane Reade stores, with their cramped subterranean aisles and awful packaged foods. And this Williamsburg branch is perhaps most loathsome. It made news when it opened a few years ago because of its hipster-baiting amenities like a walk-in beer cooler and taps from which one can fill growlers. Unfortunately it lacks truly authentic hipster features, such as wool cash register cozies knitted by local artisans.
And yet, I had come to Duane Reade without coercion, had chosen it freely over, say, the nearest bodega, for a specific reason: selection. There are dozens — if not hundreds! — of floss choices in this world. Waxed or unwaxed. Various flavors, textures, thicknesses. It can be overwhelming, and that’s exactly what I wanted: to be barraged with dental floss options. To let them cascade over me in a minty wave. The surf was up at Duane Reade.
After a period of simply basking in the twinkling glow of fluorescent lighting reflected off the floss’s shiny blister wraps, I honed in on the range of Oral B Pro-Glide flosses, which I’ve used before and enjoyed. It was while considering the relative merits of the Pro-Glide one-pack or two-pack that I noticed Duane Reade’s Hi-Tech Dental Floss, strategically positioned beneath the Pro-Glides and costing $1.20 less. The hyphenated names suggested to me that the two products were similar in terms of design, and the price differential reminded me I was going broke. In this moment Duane Reade’s Hi-Tech Dental Floss achieved unforeseen luster: it was not simply a tool for promoting healthy gums; it was also a vehicle by which I could once more attain financial solvency.
If you do not floss regularly you might think there are few design considerations to dental floss, that floss is little more than a thin piece of string to be dragged between one’s teeth. You are wrong in this assumption, and at greater risk of gingivitis for not flossing.
Duane Reade’s Hi-Tech Dental Floss is floss gone bad. It tears raggedly when I pull against the little cutter, so that I’m left with long partial floss strands in my hand. Its top doesn’t close all the way, and it won’t stand on the plastic feet on the bottom of the case, so the floss always falls out when I open the medicine cabinet. Sometimes the floss shreds while flossing, so little pieces get stuck between my teeth, undermining the exercise of flossing altogether. In these instances I’m reminded of a Ricky Roma line from Glengarry Glen Ross: “What you’re hired for is to help us…not to fuck us.”
The decision to purchase Duane Reade’s Hi-Tech Dental Floss haunts me every day, and will continue to do so until all 50 yards of the stuff are exhausted because, naturally, the policy of selective cheapness precludes me from buying new floss.