Change you can believe in l Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Feb 28, 2018

There's an old “Saturday Night Live” commercial parody that lives forever in my brain, apparently in a storage locker designed to keep dumb stuff secure but accessible. There are entire episodes of “My Favorite Martian” in there, along with a couple of really ordinary brownie recipes and a bunch of bad ideas.

And this fake commercial, which has to be 25 years old, placing it firmly in the apocryphal category. I just did a quick search here on the internet machine, and I got zilch. I might not have worded it in the right way. I might not have wanted to find out the truth, either. A lot of my former life looks a little mythical from the perspective of my current age, which I believe also to be a myth. So I could have made the whole thing up.

But I’ll assume it was a real sketch, and I can describe it. Mike Myers is a spokesperson for a place called The Change Store (as I recall). He's interviewed on this commercial, talking anecdotally, with actual anecdotal customers also giving some testimonials.

The Change Store made change. That's all. You walk in, ask for 10 ones and 2 fives for your $20, walk out a satisfied customer. There were several good stories about people who found The Change Store just in the nick of time, with parking meters, buses to catch, etc.

This is part of the reason this might seem, in retrospect, to be fictional. It feels like the term “long distance,” which means something to people of a certain age, who remember the days of expensive phone calls, and something else entirely to people of another certain age. People who may not, exactly, know what a phone call is, either.

In other words, having “exact change” might have been an issue in 1993, when debit cards were barely around and actual money was in circulation, as gross as that sounds. Sometimes dimes and quarters came in handy.

(I’m obviously explaining this for the benefit of a twentysomething reader, who is also sort of mythical.)

How did this store in the fake commercial make a profit? Myers had the answer, obviously having heard the question many times.

"Volume," he said, smugly, directly into the camera. Fade to black.

That’s actually the punch line to any number of old jokes, repurposed for late-20th-century humor, unaware that it had a shelf life. It’s not as funny anymore, if only because it feels normal.

Amazon, the fourth-largest company in the world, the office-space overlord of Seattle, coming into existence at about the same time as The Change Store, made its own kind of change. For years, Amazon famously lost money. Apparently you should never go into battle against someone who buys red ink by the barrel, since this nonprofit business model has made Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world. How did he do it?

Volume, mostly.

Which is why I remembered this parody from ancient times. That, and a discussion about MoviePass.

MoviePass has been in the news lately, although it’s not a particularly new company; they were formed in 2011. The stories mostly had to do with new pricing, and conflicts with some theaters.

MoviePass began as a Netflix-like service for mall movies, a subscription plan that saved film lovers a few bucks at the box office. Recently, they’ve expanded to offer one movie pass a day, all for a monthly price of less than a prime-time ticket. Spend 10 bucks, get up to $500 in benefits.

It’s quite the deal.

It’s insane, too, or that’s the way it looks to those of us who remember the days of exact change. Capitalism has evolved into a complex, often flawed and contradictory system, but the general principles still seem to involve making a profit.

It’s really not a new idea. It just seems to be more of a feature here in this century than an aberration. There are plenty of examples in economic history of big ideas, novel concepts that intend to upend commerce and change the way we live. We usually have a word for these big ideas, which is “failure,” although they’re fun to read about.

But that was then and this is now. MoviePass shouldn’t be sustainable, a reasonable person might think. Like, not sustainable past the first couple of months, pretty much. And yet they're a big player now, actually buying a film at Sundance themselves, and well funded. Following current business models, they seem to be willing to forego profit for an undetermined amount of time in order to build volume.

With volume, they get power, particularly with the theaters, which are hemorrhaging paying customers and who, as we all know, make most of their money through concessions, anyway.

There’s much more that a much smarter person could say about all of this, about companies trading short-term gain for long-term monolithic status. I’ll just note that this is the world we live in, and I have enough subscriptions, thanks. MoviePass sounds great, if irrational, but it also sounds like a gym membership to me, better on paper than in practice.

And an old joke suddenly doesn’t feel so creaky. The Change Store would be an anachronism in a cash-poor world, but they fit the classic model for The Internet Age. If you end up paying little or nothing for a product, the product is you. And that’s not really change, as it turns out.

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