The Home Economist

Quality versus value: Do you have to choose?


Shopping tips

When setting out to shop, we consumers usually have a goal of finding either quality or value — and neither of those will help us make the right selection. Here in short experts tell you what you need when buying:

•  Wine: Look for South American wines, not a Pinot Noir.

•  Steak: Buy cuts such as flank steak or shoulder and correctly cook them.

•  Cars: Make all offers at the month’s end.

•  Make-up: The expensive brands charge mostly for packaging.

•  Sunglasses: Find UV protection and a properly cut lens.

At Whole Foods stores in South Florida and throughout the country, the wine selection includes bottles ranging in price from $2.99 to $1,000. To help shoppers choose, stores post descriptive signage 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,” says Brian Welter, regional associate specialty coordinator for Whole Foods Markets. “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 and 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 our 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, says 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 says. “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 décor, 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 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 says.

Buying the right product each time would mean researching each purchase, she says. 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 Côtes Du Rhône region. Don’t try to buy to find a low-priced Pinot Noir.

“It’s a difficult grape to grow,” he says.

Steak: Look for cheaper cuts and learn to correctly cook them, says Derrick Roberts, chef de cuisine of Gotham Steak at the Fontainebleau 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 says.

Cars: When it comes to daily driving — getting from home to work — vehicle break-down stats won’t vary greatly across manufactures, says Gregg Fidan, publisher of, 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 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 says.

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, says Sage, a Broward County-based make-up artist who’s worked on faces modeling for Calvin Klein and Dillard’s stores. “When you buy the more expensive products store you’re paying for the packaging,” she says.

However, cruelty-free will always cost more.

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

“A person might ask, ‘Do I need to spend $400,’ ” he says. “No. But stay away from glasses that are mass produced because they’re unsafe.”

This is one of an occasional series of columns by Miamian Brett Graff, a former U.S. government economist who writes about how economic forces are affecting real people.

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