The Deli Charges a Different Price Every Week

The neighborhood deli charges me a different price for breakfast every Saturday.

I hate to admit it, but it’s probably been going on for years. I’m not the sort that checks in on my 401K every day. Or week. Or month. (Or quarter).

Saturday morning is the hallowed time of order-in breakfast. It’s also an especially bad time to get me to pay attention to math. Stupid with sluggishness, I answer the door of our NYC apartment. I take the carton from the peppy delivery person and sign the slip. I nestle into the couch next to my husband, Chris, and dip hot buttery muffins into creamy egg yolks.

Here’s our weekly order:

Two organic eggs, over easy with hash browns

Four English muffins, toasted and buttered

One large, fresh-squeezed orange juice

Price: $27.80

Or was it?

Sometime last spring, a neuron finally fired, and I decided to save the slip. The next week, I compared slips. Yep. Different. I kept doing this. In a few weeks I got two $27.80s, a $27.75, a $26.25, and a $27.20.

Then, my statistics-collecting plan was foiled by a change in my husband’s palette. He decided he didn’t want the orange juice any more.

For some reason, I don’t know why, I thought this would snap the deli out of it. After all, it’s easier to make a mistake on three different items than on two, right?


New weekly order:

Two organic eggs, over easy with hash browns.

Four English muffins, toasted and buttered

Price: $21.80. And $23.95. And $19.50.

But why? Could it be shifting commodity prices? Though I really didn’t expect the deli to be so tuned in to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Also, are English Muffins considered a commodity? Was the deli just writing stuff down off the top of their heads?

And what if they were? Why should the local café be punctilious with the tally? Most other price tags are just this side of made-up.

I and every woman in American knows the cost of her face cream is approximately 80% packaging 15% marketing and 5% the actual cream. Two skirts may be manufactured by the same factory in Thailand, but slap a Theory label on one, and the price quadruples.

Then there’s Zappos with its “free shipping.” Of course someone has to pay for the packaging, the trucks, the gas and the people who carry the packages. It’s all buried in the price of the shoes. Yet we fall hook line and sinker for the perception the Zappos shipping is free.

Don’t get me started on loss leaders — those virtually free items in the front of the store that con you into the overpriced weed whacker in back.

Matters get even squishier when it comes to paying for things less concrete than shoes, weed whackers, or cream. I’m a technology consultant. Customers, who are happy to pay for programmers to generate code, often balk at fees for the know-how needed to manage software development projects. It’s just a lot of thinking, right? You’re charging me for brain waves?

Question: Which makes you feel more satisfied: Leaving the doctor’s office with some helpful advice, or with a prescription for pills? I’ll be honest. For me, it’s the pills.

What is something worth? How can you tell? Better yet, what is money? It used to be a paper representation of value. But now it’s just pixels on a screen signifying our money inside a bank that, in many cases, isn’t a physical place either.

I applaud the shifty register slips from my local greasy spoon. They are like an object lesson in economics and the ambiguousness of value.

Tech expert, novelist, and essay writer with an ticklish funny bone. My novel, “Greedy Heart,” is First Best Book Finalist in the VIVIAN Awards.

Tech expert, novelist, and essay writer with an ticklish funny bone. My novel, “Greedy Heart,” is First Best Book Finalist in the VIVIAN Awards.