The Home Economist: Quality versus value: Do you have to choose?

Consumers should research each purchase, but these guidelines from experts will help

The Miami HeraldAugust 18, 2013 

BIZ PFP-HOMEECONOMIST 1 MI

Brian Welter — showing a bottle of Tilia, an Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon, on sale at the Boca Raton, Fla., Whole Foods store for $6.99 down from a regular $10.99 — says customers often ask him for the best wine $10 or under.

CHARLES TRAINOR JR — MCT

At Whole Foods stores throughout the country, the wine selection includes bottles ranging in price from $2.99 to $1,000. To help shoppers choose, stores post descriptive signs for almost each variety. They also host classes, pass out tastings and, in many locations, build bars, where we can fully explore a vintage.

"We ask customers what they normally drink," said Brian Welter, regional associate specialty coordinator for Whole Foods Markets in the Miami area. "We want to expand their thought processes."

Investing more than a few minutes on wine-buying represents the time-versus-money tradeoff we consumers are constantly making. But new science shows that rarely does research win; instead, we set out to buy anything from vino to vehicles to a burgundy shade of lipstick by having in our minds a goal of buying either quality or value. If it's quality we're after, we'll ignore our lower-priced options — even when they offer equal or superior features. But if we're primed to pick up value, we'll disregard higher-priced selections, even though they might better suit our needs. Unless we're accurate by accident, we'll probably wind up misspending our money, said Susan Powell Mantel, a professor of marketing at Ball State University.

"There are these two competing theories out there — quality and value — and they're not right from either perspective," Mantel said. "We don't have all of the information we need at any given time."

Mantel asked more than 90 people to evaluate a magazine's content. She gave each one an article on home decor, but half read that when it came to installing your floors, price was the No. 1 indicator of quality, telling homeowners to choose the costliest and most exotic wood possible. The other half, meanwhile, read that expensive materials were not always better and that when it came to resale value, good quality was more important than high price.

Then they asked subjects to try wine — one priced at $39.99 a bottle and another at $9.99. The people primed to favor high prices gave the expensive wine good reviews but shook their heads at the cheaper variety. Those who'd read about value, meanwhile, gave the exact opposite opinion. Remember: No one followed their deep-seated beliefs but instead responded to conditions created for them. All the groups were served the exact same wine.

"If you're not knowledgeable, you can be manipulated by marketing," Mantel said.

Buying the right product each time would mean researching each purchase, she said. So here, industry experts give us guidelines on maximizing quality while minimizing price.

■ Wine. Regardless of economic conditions or store location, Whole Foods' Welter says he's constantly asked, "What's the best bottle for $10?" At the moment, he tells cost-conscious sippers seeking quality to select South American wines, particularly the Argentinian Malbecs. From France, choose wines from the Cotes du Rhone region. Don't try to find a low-priced Pinot Noir.

"It's a difficult grape to grow," he said.

■ Steak. Look for cheaper cuts and learn to correctly cook them, said Derrick Roberts, chef de cuisine of Gotham Steak at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach. Tri-tip, hanger steak, flank and skirt steak are great seared quickly on the grill — medium rare — and then sliced. Shoulder, short ribs or chuck flap are best stewed with vegetables until soft. Don't be afraid to ask the butcher for sales and specials.

"At the end of the day, product sold at a discount is better than product thrown away," he said.

■ Cars. When it comes to daily driving — getting from home to work — vehicle break-down stats won't vary greatly across manufacturers, said Gregg Fidan, publisher of RealCarTips.com, though the more expensive cars offer additional luxuries and high-performance options. Pick a price point and remember that sticker price is more negotiable for some brands. Check TrueCar.com to see average lows. Also, never buy a new model immediately after its introduction and always make offers at the month's end, when dealers are meeting quotas, he said.

■ Make-up. When it comes to ingredients and color, lower-priced cosmetic lines such as Revlon, Maybelline and Cover Girl are blended by some savvy scientists, said Sage, a Broward County, Fla.-based make-up artist who has worked on faces modeling for Calvin Klein and Dillard's stores. When you buy the more expensive products, "you're paying for the packaging," she said.

However, cruelty-free will always cost more.

■ Sunglasses. Look for two basic features when shade shopping, said Edward Beiner, who owns 12 eyewear boutiques in Florida. You'll want UV protection, which shields your eyes from the ultraviolet light causing wrinkles and cataracts, he said. Also get a properly ground lens for accurate vision. Those are made from either CR-39 glass, which is a polymer, or polycarbonate. Fishers will need a polarized lens, and bikers should wear one that won't crack on impact, Beiner said.

"A person might ask, 'Do I need to spend $400?'" he said. "No. But stay away from glasses that are mass-produced because they're unsafe."

Brett Graff is a former U.S. government economist and the editor of Thehomeeconomist.com, where she reports on the economic forces affecting real people. She writes an occasional column for the Miami Herald. Reach her at brettthehomeeconomist.com.

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