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Why are we such suckers for a bargain?

The never-ending sale, the supersize offer that is dearer … retailers are skilled at selling us bargains that aren’t

About a year behind everyone else, I’ve just started watching The Killing (Danish version) after picking up the DVD box set. Like everyone else, I’m hooked. And, like deputy superintendent Sarah Lund, I have a puzzle to solve, although a rather more prosaic one. Why do people bid more for a second-hand DVD box set on eBay than they will pay buying it brand new?

The Killing retails at Asda, Amazon and HMV for around £38. That’s rather pricey for a box set, so I clicked on to eBay. Maybe there would be a second-hand one going for half the price.

Sure enough, eBay has lots of used Killing sets on auction. Visitors are, evidently, internet-savvy and like a bargain. So explain this: as I’m writing, there are 15 bids for one used box set, and with nine hours to go it’s already at £31. Others with three days still to go are attracting bids of £25-£30. My guess, based on my experience of eBay, is that most of the action will take place in the final few minutes. The winners will, almost certainly, end up paying more for a used item, from a seller they don’t know, and without the consumer protection that comes from buying from an established retailer.

I won’t call them “mugs” as that’s a rather out-of-date term of abuse. On the internet, it’s required that you use the term “muppet” or “numpty”. And no doubt these people are. But how often do the rest of us fall for bargains that are nothing of the sort?

The Waterstones’ 3-for-2 book deal. Thankfully, last week they ditched it. You pop in for one book, come out with three, but only ever read two. The third languishes, untouched, nagging to be read. It won’t ever be. Maybe I’ll put it on eBay and some numpty will pay more than the cover price.

• The Sainsbury’s £5 meal deal. You get two giant pizzas, plus two salad bags or garlic bread, for a fiver. Carb-guilt forces me into taking the bagged salads. But it is a fact of modern living that the poor, tortured salads, once opened, have a half-life of about 10 minutes. The contents of that second bag never avoid the recycling box.

• The never-ending sale. A salesman in the Croydon branch of DFS actually managed to keep a straight face as he told me the sale was ending next week. “Half price” kitchen retailers play the same game. But neither matches the lighting shop I cycle past every day which is holding its “closing down sale”. It’s run for five years now, I think.

• The supersize offer. A particular favourite of toilet paper manufacturers. Obviously, the jumbo 20-roll is cheaper, per roll, than the eight-pack. Except, it’s not. The shelf ticket tells you the per roll price, and often it’s cheaper to buy the small pack. Shoppers, though, blithely ignore it. Meanwhile, a colleague (a serious jam maker) insists that, at his Morrisons, the two-kilo pack of sugar is sometimes significantly more expensive than two one-kilo bags. He even pointed it out to a shopper filling a trolley with two-kilo packs, to no avail.

Classical economic theory is based on us all being rational market participants, taking sensible decisions. But, like most classical economic thinking, it’s a load of old nonsense. Modern retailers take us for muppets. And we probably are. What are your favourite bargains that aren’t? © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds