FROM THE STOOL

THINGS WE WANT

My last column, "How Do You Figure," concluded that most of us will pay a lot more for what we want or think we want, than for what we need, and often a considerable premium in relationship to cost or value.

Why, when almost no one goes off road, and few have any real need for 4-wheel drive, is this feature such a pervasive and successful premium option for virtually all makers of cars and trucks? People must feel good about having it available, or fantasize about coping with wilderness conditions, even if such conditions are nonexistent in the normal course of their lives.

It has only been fairly recently as our country has become more affluent and our population more mobile and well informed, that the amount of retail space devoted to wants significantly exceeds that available for needs.

Even the most basic vendors supermarkets, drug stores, gas stations devote more of their shelf space to noncore impulse items. Fill up the gas tank and load up on beer, soft drinks, cigarettes, munchies, paperback books, newspapers, Hostess Twinkies, condoms, and a Christmas tree. The liquor store sells fine cigars, gourmet coffee, ice cream and world-class deli. Bookstores serve coffee and assorted pastries, coffee shops sell books and magazines.

The last decade has seen more new retail concepts catering to our wants and dreams than the previous ten. Pier 1 Imports, Costco, Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, The Container Store, Restoration Hardware, GNC, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Victoria's Secret, Body Works, Home Depot, Sharper Image. Thousands of stores selling huge earthenware platters, electric nose hair trimmers, oversized plastic mugs in bright colors, electric scooters that fold up, refillable polyurethane dumbbells for the traveling weightlifter, shellfish capsules to strengthen joints, moisturizers custom built for particular body parts, lingerie for the working courtesan, unique and nifty stuff which makes us want to buy in spite of the fact we have no real need for the products and often no place to put them.

All of this extraordinary growth has come at the expense of once venerable merchants like W.T. Grant, Woolworth, and Montgomery Ward, who just didn't get it. Notice the enormous number of new storage businesses, which provide secure garage-like structures for the growing number of families who have run out of room for their high priced stuff, have no one to give it to, and can't bear to throw it out.

There are almost as many stores in our major cities selling manicures, pedicures, bikini waxes, and massage as there are shops selling coffee. Foot Locker, the world's premier seller of athletic shoes and apparel, dresses their staff to look like referees and organizes their merchandise according to activity basketball, tennis, running, cross-training, aerobics, soccer notwithstanding the fact that almost no one buys a Nike Air Jordan shoe, $175 per pair, to actually play basketball or anything else for that matter. It is a statement about life for those who never have, could, or would play basketball. We want to "be like Mike" and will pay much more for the feeling.

We buy Rolex Submariners not to keep time, but to help us mentally associate with America's Cup Racers, deep-sea divers, Everest expeditions, and Arnold Palmer. Giorgio Armani and Hugo Boss authenticate our right to order a $100 bottle of wine. Sub-Zero and Viking appliances, Pella windows, oriental rugs, provide justification for our ridiculous mortgage payments.

A Porsche Turbo Carrera, top speed approaching 200 miles per hour, gives its average customer (male age 55) a feeling of renewed sexual prowess, a life on the edge, even though our speed limits run out while the car is still in second gear.

Americans love spectacles football ice hockey rock concerts - and most recently NASCAR - gladiators competing and crashing, and sometimes dying in front of huge frenzied crowds and roaring engines. How do you figure a little old lady cheering when cars hit the wall at very high speeds? Setting mental illness aside, it must represent an unrealized want. NASCAR generates huge revenues from people who want to be identified with those crashes. Then there are people who are willing to buy pay-per-view wrestling matches, but will drive 30 miles across town to save three cents on a gallon of gas or use the same razorblade for a month.

This all seems to say spend freely on those goods and services which feel better, expand our self-image, relieve stress, cause excitement, are fun. Fiercely negotiate for motor oil, toilet paper, furnace filters and vacuum cleaner bags.