Cameras and Cars, Supply and Demand

I’ve been in the US for almost five years now, and usually the differences between here and my home country fade into the background. Sometimes, though, they’re thrown into stark relief. Our recent experiences with cars and cameras have reminded me of one difference that’s particularly relevant to this blog: attitudes toward supply and demand.

Here in the US, it’s rare to hear the word “sold out” – especially when it comes to services such as rental cars and hotel rooms. Sure, you may not get your first choice hotel or car company – but at the very least you’ll be able to get a car of some description, or a room in a Motel 6.

In my home country, on the other hand, there’s about enough capacity in the rental car and accommodation sectors to deal with a slightly-above-average amount of demand.   Over the Christmas holiday period, you better have booked that car or you’ll probably be out of luck!  When we were back recently, we called every car company in the phone book, and they were all completely sold out.  We ended up ‘relaying’ a car back north (which had the added advantage of being free), but otherwise we would’ve had to take the bus.
Part of this is a difference of scale.  My country only has 4 million people in an area the size of the UK.  Our capital city has a population of 400,000.  The market is smaller, no two ways about it.

But I do think part of it is a different attitude toward what is ‘enough’ on the supply side.  In many industries here, ‘enough’ is being able to meet almost any level of demand – only a new product launch or aparticularly enormous sale might lead to “sold out” signs hanging in shop windows.   Huge, central warehouses are built and complicated retail software systems are developed to make sure no store shelf is ever empty and more than enough cars pack the rental yard.

At home, though, “enough” is being able to meet an average level of demand.  At high-volume times, such as the Christmas holidays for accomodation and transportation or the beginning of the school year for computers and school supplies – well, you’ll just have to wait.  My brother waited two weeks over christmas for the new laptop he wanted, and didn’t think that was unusual or overly long.

This disparity crept into our lives again recently while we were shopping for a new camera.  We’d decided what model we wanted, and now the question was where to buy it from.  For me, it was important to use a locally owned camera store – both to get a great price via a good value trade-in for my old film SLR, and to support local business and keep my dollars in our community.

So we headed to the camera store and got a better-than-expected trade in value – but the specific package we wanted wasn’t in stock.  The components of the package, sold separately, would have cost $90 more.  They thought the package would come in in one to two weeks. Fine with me!

A week passed by and then another, and we still hadn’t got the call.  I didn’t mind, but H1Worker was on edge.  “This is America!”, he said.  “Why do we have to wait for something?”

Eventually, we cut a deal with the store – they’d sell us the components separately for an additional $50.  Not my ideal choice, but it was still the best deal available thanks to the trade in, still within our budget and helped soothe H1Worker’s anxieties.  In the constant balancing act between dollars and feelings, this was a good middle ground.

So now we are the proud owners of a Nikon D80 – bought with a credit card that’s payable in full every month, so we could dispute the charge if necessary.  And it sure is worth the wait!


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