Is Renting the New Buying?

October 21, 2008 at 4:49 am 2 comments

We covet the cool things other people have – and we live the age of instant gratification.  Deficit spending, whether we’re talking about credit cards or the national budget, has become the norm rather than the exception. 

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that renting is increasing in popularity.

Renting used to be limited to real estate, appliances, cars, furniture and tuxedos.  But the market has expanded to include a mind-boggling array of goods.

Today we can test-drive luxury by renting the latest in designer handbags, sunglasses and jewelry.  Some high-end stores allow customers to rent high-end runway and vintage fashions instead of buying them.  Galleries let patrons rent works of art for special events or lease them by the month.  Vacation rental and fractional-ownership businesses offer everything from destination vacations to yachts, jets and collectible cars. And its not just hard goods, now we can rent pets and even grandparents

Jodi Watson, chief marketing officer of the high-end fashion rental business Bag Borrow or Steal was interviewed earlier this year by the Washington Post:

“Renting is the new buying,” says Watson. “You can experience everything you want without having to make the commitment.”  “It allows people to enjoy a seasonal or trendy item without having to clutter their closet or explain it to their husband,” she says.

Where does this lust for possession – even if it’s temporary – come from?  Barry Schwartz, who wrote The Paradox of Choice was interviewed by

Schwartz argues that the expanding number of choices places a cognitive burden on us. It’s stressful making choices.  We arbitrarily narrow our choices, with each narrowing requiring cognitive effort. The more choices we have, the more narrowing and effort required. And if the decision is about something of minimal importance, such as the picking of the best salad dressing from the store shelf, the amount of effort required outweighs the potential benefit. We evaluate the amount of cognitive effort we put into decisions based on the benefit, or expected utility, we would get out of the decision. If we’re forced to put too much effort into a decision for too little return, we walk away.

We need ways to reduce the cognitive load, bringing it in line with our expected utility from the decision.   We need choice. We prefer options, even if we never choose them.  But, as we start to consider our choices, there are finite numbers that we can cognitively consider at a time. One is too few, and dozens are too many.

Everyone agrees that having choice is better than not having choice. It seems evident that if choice is good, then more choice is better. The paradox is that this “obvious” truth isn’t true. It turns out that a point can be reached where, with more choice, people are worse off.

People can’t ignore options – they have to pay attention to them. If they make a choice, is there another choice would have been better? There’s more effort put into making decisions, and less in enjoying them. What’s nagging is the possibility that, if they had chosen differently, they could have gotten something better. 

Analysis Paralysis

In modern, affluent societies, it is nearly impossible to find an area (except, of course, for politics) where the amount of choice available to us isn’t overwhelming. Because of the insane number of choices available to us, we are choosing more often just to opt out – either because we’re worn out from the effort involved or because we think that postponing the decision means that more options will be available to us.

And when we do suck it up and make a decision, we tend to be less satisfied with our choices. When we are forced to make a final decision on something utterly irreversible (like euthanasia) even if it’s a terrible thing, we feel some sense of relief. Our stress is decreased because when we make a decision we can’t take back, the thing is done, our mind finds a way to cope with it and eventually, we move on.

But the choices we can indefinitely postpone – or worse yet, those we can take back – are a lot more problematic. After settling on a decision such as which of two suitors to date or where to go on vacation – we often expend an enormous amount of effort wondering if we really did do the right thing. Because of this, these decisions have a tendency to make us feel unsettled. They add to our stress instead of decreasing it. And in today’s world, we are inundated in these kinds of decisions. They have come to dominate our decision-making processes.

Three Dog Life writes:

In the 1930’s there was an enormous economic crisis in this country.  Today we’re dealing with a new crisis… a poverty of consumerism… meaning we never have enough.  As one writer put it, we’re “thirsty in the rain”.  We have overestimated the benefits of stress-free lives, and oversold the positive effects of smooth, non-challenging childhoods.  We reward our offspring’s mediocre accomplishment, instead of challenging them to do better, all in an attempt to build self-esteem.   We buy all the latest material goods for our children to make up for time not spent with them, instead of giving them a sense of purpose by allowing them to work and save for what they want.

Of course we don’t live “stress-free” lives. In fact, the chronic, undifferentiated stress we experience today is far more damaging than the periodic episodes of acute, focused stress we are evolutionarily adapted to cope with.

Wondering if we bought the right car. Or if we should lease instead of buying. Deciding which route to take through city traffic. Having to decide which items, out of an endless array of goods, we’ll take home and have for dinner. Though on the surface they seem minor, these decisions expose us to enormous amounts of chronic stress because not only are we forced to expend the effort to make hundreds (if not thousands) of these types of decisions each day – but the decisions we make regarding these issues rarely give us any sense of resolution.

Escaping an attacking dog might, on the surface, seem to be a more stressful situation than those described above – but once our coping decisions have been made, the attack has been thwarted and Cujo safely restrained, we feel a great sense of relief. Or even elation. The issue is resolved. It’s over. We avoided injury (and hopefully insult) and not only lived to do it again, but hopefully learned new ways of coping along the way.

Not so with those pesky reversible decisions. After competing in an obedience trial we wonder: Should I have worked harder on the finish? Did I use the wrong collar? Would an outdoor trial have been a better choice? Ironically, though my life and health were never at risk, I’m exposed to far more stress from a trial I win than from an attack I avoid.

Maybe I should have rented…

Entry filed under: behavior science, dog training, dogs. Tags: .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Audie's Gramma  |  October 21, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    I can see some areas of life in which a trend towards renting at need, rather than accumulating material crap, is a positive development.

    Perhaps if we committed less to our material acquisitions, we could commit more to the people and animals in our lives who depend on us.

    Fancy clothes for a once-a-year event — sure, why not? It would just sit in the closet forever if you buy it. It’s no different from renting a “costume.” (The poor have rented clothes for festivals since forever, in all cultures.)

    Tools and equipment. I could BUY a log-splitter and have one more thing to maintain and store, or I could get all my firewood cut, get it piled up by the woodshed, rent one of the beasts, and have it all split and stacked in a day. The beast goes back to the rental center and someone else uses it the next day, rather than it cluttering up the shed.

    Flex cars for urban dwellers — great idea.

    Renting housing makes great sense for people in certain life stages, and the past decade has featured an awful lot of pressure to buy that — hey, turns out, hasn’t worked out so great for some of those people.

    What worries me is “ownership” that is really renting, and renting that comes with all the burdens of ownership: software and electronic media that is “protected” so that the ersatz “owner” cannot transfer it to another piece of hardware — and electronic hardware is the ultimate designed obsolescence. Condominiums — all the joys of a mortgage AND a landlord, without the protections that the law gives tenants. Auto leases — renting with all the obligations of ownership. Timeshares — whatta scam.

    If people stopped thinking of themselves as consumers, and started thinking of themselves as citizens and human beings, the ready market and legal support for these ripoffs would evaporate.

  • 2. Sophie Garrett  |  October 28, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Renting can be a great option for items that you only need very occasionally. Another option is sharing: joint or fractional ownership or long term fractional rental. This works really well for items that you need quite often, so renting them every time is irritating. Tools and equipment of all sorts, gardening, DIY, exercise etc etc, all can be bought by a group of neighbours. This also has the advantage that only one person has to store the item, and often the group decides to pay a bit more for a better quality item that will last longer.

    However I fully understand the concerns about “ownership”. There are so many ways of setting up the ownership, rental or timeshare. There is nothing inherently wrong with these in principle, but sometimes they are inappropriate to the asset or the consumer, and sometimes the sales pitch is misleading. The consumer must read the terms carefully, and many don’t.

    The consumer must know what the price for the complete item would be and the price of the share. In commercial fractional offerings, it is fair that the share is more than the straight proportion of the total cost as the agent has a higher sales cost to sell (say) six shares So a quarter of a £1 million home might actually cost $350,000 rather than $250,000. The consumer may still be happy to pay this, but they need to understand it, and know if they need to sell their share later, future buyers might not be prepared to pay this level of premium.

    My interest in this subject is helping private individuals get together to buy assets together, so this “mark-up doesn’t apply. The partners must be like-minded and have a compatible requirement: careful discussion and negotiation is required to agree the contract which proves this. When set up correctly, the owners are always invariably highly delighted with their sharing arrangement.

    This does add another level of complexity to some already complex buying decisions. But as over time buyers tends to home in on the most popular, and usually the best, offerings, so over time, people will learn to understand all the potential ways of buying, renting and sharing – and home in on the most appropriate methods.

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