You Asked For More : Planet Money We ponder the price of chicken, safe haven currencies, and the cash value of coupons. Why? Because you asked.

You Asked For More

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Do you have economic questions rattling around in your head, driving you nuts, keeping you awake at night? You tried shouting them out a window.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Screaming) Why don't hotel rooms have ceiling lights?

SMITH: But nobody answers. Your phone doesn't know what you're talking about.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Why are rotisserie chickens so cheap?

SIRI: I can help you find restaurants if you turn on location services.

SMITH: And Google - who has the time anymore?

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Why are Swiss franc (phone ringing) - hello?

SMITH: I know, I know. You're ready to give up, but there is hope.

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SMITH: Hello. I'm minor podcast celebrity Robert Smith, and here at PLANET MONEY, we've come up with a miracle answer system. You simply get us your question.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hi, PLANET MONEY.

SMITH: And our team will do the Google - the reporting for you, and send the answers directly into your earbuds. Easy-peasy, and it works. Now how many minutes of your life would you expect to give up for all the answers you could ever want? Forty-five minutes? Thirty minutes?

Well, here at PLANET MONEY, we got a special deal for our listeners. We're going to do it in - producer Nick Fountain.

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: Twenty-three minutes.

SMITH: Whoa. I pre-recorded this, but even I'm impressed with that. Do not miss out. Satisfaction guaranteed.

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SMITH: Hey, we just wanted to let you know that Invisibilia - NPR's show about the invisible forces shaping our behavior - is back on March 9 with a new season. This time, they're taking on some of the biggest cultural fights of our time - Russian hacking, reality TV, the Me Too movement, just to name a few. You can listen and subscribe to Invisibilia on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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SMITH: People are always saying to me, Robert, what do the listeners of PLANET MONEY really want to know? What is the number one question you get over and over again through the years?

And I'll tell you what the question is. In fact, this time it was one of our listeners named Chad wrote in. And the question is, hey, you know, if you've ever seen a coupon, in tiny print on a coupon, it says cash value - cash value one one-hundredth of a cent.

And people are always asking, what does that mean? Can you actually get sort of a truckload of coupons together and get real money? Could you buy a house if you had enough coupons?

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: I think you would probably be able to build a house out of coupons before you could actually buy one, but...

SMITH: Kenny Malone, everyone.

MALONE: I kind of - I think I have an answer for you on this one.

SMITH: OK. Where did this come from? What is the deal with it?

MALONE: So to answer this question, I went to the most obvious place I could imagine.

SMITH: The Coupon Institute.

MALONE: You're not far off - the Association of Coupon Professionals, which is real. And the executive director picked up the phone right away. And he said, (sighs) the coupon cash value thing. We get this, like, every six months. I really should have a file on hand with an answer, but I don't at the moment. But here's a phone number for someone who will know the answer.

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EDWARD KABAK: Hello?

MALONE: Hey, is this Ed?

KABAK: Yes, this is.

MALONE: This is Edward Kabak. He's an attorney with the Association of National Advertisers

SMITH: ANA.

MALONE: And he's, like, right. Yeah, of course, the coupon cash value thing.

SMITH: Ah.

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KABAK: That derived from the relationship to the old trading stamps.

SMITH: Oh, these were - you know, I am old enough to remember these. You would get a bunch of stamps when you bought a product at a grocery store, a regular store - whatever. And you would put them into a book and collect these stamps. And if you got enough of them, you could get, like, a toaster.

MALONE: Crockpot or a blender.

SMITH: Some sort of prize.

MALONE: Sure.

SMITH: It was like an early loyalty program for stores.

MALONE: That's right. So back when these programs were popular, there was some controversy. There wasn't, like, a lot of transparency around who actually benefited and whether consumers were sort of being scammed. And so a number of different state legislatures passed laws that said, OK, fine. If you want to do the program, you need to put, like, some nominal cash value on these stamps so that, like, if I don't really want to go buy a toaster, I can use those stamps and cash them in for money.

SMITH: Which makes sense. But how does this get on coupons today? You have a coupon here for the Magic of Tea/Celestial Seasonings - $1 off.

MALONE: That's Stacey Vanek Smith's coupon. You want to smell it? She pulled it right out of her tea.

SMITH: Oh, it smells great. It says cash value, 0.001 cents. How do we get from stamps to this thing?

MALONE: So trading stamps were a sort of predecessor to the coupon that we know now, and because these laws are on the books, it's just easier to put that nominal cash value on the coupon than to sort of fight the laws.

SMITH: Did your lawyer tell you if anyone uses this fine print and gets cash back for the coupon?

MALONE: Yeah, no. I mean, of course I asked him about this - like, how do I turn this Celestial Seasonings coupon in for its cash value?

KABAK: Well, that's another question. There's no procedure for that. I think that's a more complex issue. I've never even gone that distance.

MALONE: It's just, like, so ludicrous that he hasn't even explored this option, but it seems to me like it's worth exploring, right?

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Automated customer service message) Thank you for calling Celestial Seasonings. We invite you to bring the perfect balance to your day.

MALONE: I got a very nice customer service rep named Grace.

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GRACE: Yes. How can I help you?

MALONE: And, of course, I go through the same thing. You know, I've got this mint-scented coupon from you guys. It's worth a fraction of a penny. How do I get that money? Like, is there a way to do that?

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GRACE: That I've never been asked before.

MALONE: You've never been asked that before?

GRACE: No.

MALONE: Have you ever seen a coupon and wondered about the cash value thing yourself?

GRACE: I've never looked at the cash value, honestly.

MALONE: It is very small.

GRACE: I'm going to look at it now and see what is the cash value.

MALONE: Yeah.

GRACE: I've never thought of that.

MALONE: So Grace told me she tried to get an answer, but as of this recording, we're still waiting.

SMITH: But I've already loaded up a truck with 10,000 of these coupons, headed towards Celestial Seasonings headquarters, Kenny.

MALONE: I actually think this is worth playing out for any PLANET MONEY listeners that maybe are thinking about giving this a shot. Because, like, think through this with us for just a second.

SMITH: Sure.

MALONE: Most of these coupons are worth one one-hundredth of a cent, so, like, let's say you manage to wrangle 10,000 coupons - you happen upon them laying around.

SMITH: Ten thousand coupons from the same manufacturer.

MALONE: You're going to package those up. How much would that even weigh?

SMITH: You have to find them. You have to cut them. You have to send them someplace with the postage.

MALONE: And mail that.

SMITH: And then you would get...

MALONE: One dollar. But you would be a coupon legend.

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SMITH: Kenny Malone, thanks.

MALONE: You're welcome.

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SMITH: There are some questions that are timeless - that you ask yourself over and over and over again, and you start to suspect that there is no answer to this question.

FOUNTAIN: Is God real?

SMITH: That is not one of the questions. Nick Fountain, what is the question?

FOUNTAIN: The question comes from Seth Angle (ph) of Oakland, Calif.

SETH ANGLE: Why is rotisserie chicken so cheap? Seems like an unnatural bargain. What's the catch?

SMITH: Right? This happened to me just this past weekend. I was shopping, and I noticed that the rotisserie chicken, you know, it smells great, it's got all the spices on it, it's already cooked - 5.99 for the whole chicken. I walk around the corner to where the raw chickens are. They're more expensive - 10 or 12 bucks.

So why is it cheaper to have someone else do the roasting and all the work for you? And my working theory on this, Nick, is that they're using old chickens. They're using expired chickens.

FOUNTAIN: I thought that, too. So I went to your local supermarket - my local supermarket.

SMITH: In Brooklyn, Steve's C-Town.

FOUNTAIN: One of the best. And I found Rudy Rivera (ph). He's the deli manager there.

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FOUNTAIN: My first big question - by the way, this smells delicious.

RUDY RIVERA: Yes.

FOUNTAIN: Is you sure that when the meat department is seeing that some chickens are going bad, you sure they're not sending some over to you guys?

RIVERA: Oh, no. We would never do that. They're totally different chickens. I would never do it anyway, you know, because I live around here, and also, I shop here, so I would never do that.

FOUNTAIN: I didn't quite believe him 100 percent, but he was, like, we're getting a delivery of them right now. Come out to the truck.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

RIVERA: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

RIVERA: That's mine.

FOUNTAIN: This is you? What does it say?

RIVERA: Perdue chickens.

FOUNTAIN: He's pulling boxes of raw chicken off the truck, and he brings them back to the cooler, and he opens them up and shows me them.

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RIVERA: They come vacuum-sealed.

FOUNTAIN: So they're vacuum-sealed and they're...

RIVERA: Already seasoned.

FOUNTAIN: Already seasoned. What kind of seasoning?

RIVERA: Italian seasoning - they come Italian, plain and barbecue.

FOUNTAIN: So do they do a rub on the outside as well?

RIVERA: I think they inject them, if I'm not mistaken.

FOUNTAIN: They inject them. That's the first thing I learned. That's amazing.

SMITH: That is some high-level chicken maintenance right there.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, and it means that there's not that much labor that goes into this, right? So you think that you're getting such a deal out of these rotisserie chicken because they're, like, rubbing them, and then they're putting them in there and they're doing the dishes. No, they're injected, probably by a robot at a big Perdue factory.

All Rudy has to do is show up at 6:00 a.m., put the chickens in the oven. And sure enough, three hours later, Rudy is checking the temperature of the chickens.

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RIVERA: That's already at 180. It's going 190 - 200.

FOUNTAIN: Boom.

RIVERA: Perfect. Take this, clean it. Take the pokes out, load it (ph). We already got the prices on them. And we put them in the heater.

FOUNTAIN: Are you going to do that right now?

RIVERA: Yeah.

SMITH: OK, so I understand that Steve's C-Town (ph) supermarket has a kind of assembly line thing going here. They can do it for super cheap. But 5.99 still seems cheaper than what it would cost me to cook that chicken myself.

FOUNTAIN: Robert, you are wrong. You fell for the oldest trick in the supermarket playbook. You were just looking at the price of the whole chickens, right?

SMITH: Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: The raw chicken and the rotisserie chicken.

SMITH: Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: But what you didn't notice is that rotisserie chickens are really small.

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RIVERA: Two - little over two pounds.

FOUNTAIN: So Rudy and I - we do the math. It's a little bit complicated because the chickens lose a little bit of weight when they're cooking, but whatever. We figured out that the price for rotisserie chickens per pound is more expensive than the price for raw chickens per pound.

SMITH: So let me - let me look at your calculations here. Customers are paying, at least in our supermarket in Brooklyn, customers are paying 6 cents more per pound for a rotisserie chicken than the raw chicken. I know that's a small number - 6 cents - so it's probably worth it for the convenience to just buy the rotisserie chicken, but still, it makes economic sense that the prepared food item costs more than the raw food item.

FOUNTAIN: Totally. And I did do a little more reporting than just going to our local supermarket. I called up the USDA. They pointed me to this awesome chart, the USDA National Retail Report for chicken, where they, like, look at every supermarket circular that they can find and they see what the advertised prices are.

And nationwide, this difference is even more pronounced. The price per pound for whole bagged fryers, which is like what we would roast at home.

SMITH: The raw chicken, yeah.

FOUNTAIN: It's about a buck per pound.

SMITH: Makes sense.

FOUNTAIN: And the price for rotisserie chickens is around $2.35 cents per pound.

SMITH: Still worth it.

FOUNTAIN: Totally, it's very convenient.

SMITH: Thank you, Nick.

FOUNTAIN: Thanks.

SMITH: Chicken man.

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SMITH: Coming up on the show, we answer some - oh, I don't know - economics questions. We'll do that after the break.

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SMITH: You know, our questions here to PLANET MONEY are not all just fun and games and roasted chicken. We have serious - probably econ students who demand answers to serious economic questions. With one of those questions, here now is Julia Simon. Hey, Julia.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Hey, how's it going?

SMITH: Let's hear the question.

SIMON: The question is from Spence Henderson in Birmingham, Ala.

SPENCE HENDERSON: Why are the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen considered safe havens during times of uncertainty?

SMITH: We should probably start by explaining this term safe haven. So in the case of Japan, during the great financial crisis when people were panicked about banks around the world, the value of the Japanese yen went up. Money poured into Japan. And it happened again during the European financial crisis. The yen went up. And it actually happened last month when the stock market dipped around the world. The Japanese yen went up. So Julia, why in times of crisis do people send their money to an island in Asia?

SIMON: Right - or a mountainous country in Europe like Switzerland. Well, these countries have a lot going for them. Japan and Switzerland, they have stable economies. They have trustworthy institutions. They have a lot of money sloshing around.

SMITH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Brag. Brag. Brag. But that describes a lot of big economies.

SIMON: That's true. So I called up Jane Foley. She's a foreign exchange expert at Rabobank. And I asked her why Japan and Switzerland are so special. And she told me that the thing about these countries is that they have a lot of people saving a lot of money. They got all these savers - people putting their money into banks and investment plans. And in good times, this money goes all around the world. But when times get rough, the Japanese and the Swiss, they get scared.

JANE FOLEY: And generally what savers do when there's times of crisis is that they bring their money home.

SMITH: So all that money comes back into Japan - meaning there is more demand for the Japanese yen, meaning the Japanese yen's value starts to go up.

SIMON: Yeah. And people all around the world are saying, hey, look at the Japanese yen. Why don't I put my money over there? And so people all around the world are piling on.

SMITH: Now longtime listeners of PLANET MONEY may remember that when your currency is strong, it's not always a good thing for the country.

SIMON: It is not always so great because think about it. All those cool Japanese comic books or a Swiss army knife - when the price of the yen or the Swiss franc goes up, it's more expensive for people around the world to buy those exports. So the Japanese, the Swiss, they kind of resent being this safe haven currency. I was joking around with Jane Foley about it.

Can I give you an analogy? Do you think that this analogy works - that it's like being a designated driver. You - it's good in some ways because you're safe. But you can't have any fun.

FOLEY: Yes, it is quite like that. There is a lot of responsibility. And, yeah, you can't have any fun. And it does limit their policy habits. It's a lot on their plate.

SMITH: Well, thank you, Switzerland and Japan, for being there for us. I'm going to transfer all my money there as we speak. And thanks, Julia, for answering the question.

SIMON: Thanks, Robert.

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SMITH: Next up, we have this question from listener Glen O'Sullivan.

GLEN O'SULLIVAN: I was wondering why do most hotels not have ceiling lights.

SMITH: I have thought about this too. You know, you go into a hotel, and you turn on a light. And maybe in the little entryway the light goes on, but the rest of the hotel room is dark. And you have to wander around and figure out is the light switch near the bulb, or is it at the bottom. And you're stumbling. You're tripping over things. This is a weird thing about hotel rooms. So I talked to some architects and some lighting designers, and I have three answers to this question. Answer number one - lighting designers hate ceiling lamps. They all talk about there's this one blaring light. Everyone looks bad. I mean, you're a lighting designer, so what you want is ambiance, mood. So they want all of these table lamps and task lighting. And their first go-to is to spread the lamps around the room, which leads me to answer number two. Why not connect all those lights with one switch?

Answer number two is switches are expensive. And the more switches you have - especially these three-way switches you need to control everything - the more money it costs. And if you're doing that for 400 rooms, it can bust your budget - I swear - on switches alone. And then there's answer number three, which I found fascinating that an architect told me. And she said, you know, if a hotel room's lights are driving you crazy, it's because, when you come right down to it, all lighting schemes are crazy. They're not intuitive.

I mean, think about your own home for a second. Some lamps have switches at the top. And some have floor switches. And some have wall switches. But you've already memorized it. You don't think about it. It's click, click, click, click, click. All of a sudden, your whole room is flooded with light. But the moment you walk to a hotel room, or any unfamiliar place, you think you're going crazy because you have no idea which switch corresponds to what light. You don't know how to get the light anywhere you want it to be. And so this architect was making the point - you know, she hears these complaints all the time about lighting in the hotel room. And she says, you know, maybe it's just because you haven't spent enough time there to get used to it. By the time you've figured out the system, you've checked out, and you've moved on to the next place.

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SMITH: Our next question is a quick one and as nerdy as it gets in the economics world. So, of course, we brought in Paddy Hirsch, the editor for The Indicator. Hey, Paddy.

PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: Uber nerd. Hello.

SMITH: So the question came from Brian Knowles. And what's the question?

HIRSCH: So the question is what is a Giffen good.

SMITH: A Giffen good - I just - it's one of those things that I've read about, but I have not consolidated into my mind.

HIRSCH: And the reason really is for that is because it's basically a unicorn. OK, it's a concept that's dreamed up by this Victorian chap called Sir Robert Giffen, who claimed to have identified certain products that people consume more of as their price goes up.

SMITH: It violates the law of supply and demand.

HIRSCH: It absolutely does - rising prices and rising demands. Usually when prices go up, demand falls. And there are two notable exceptions to this dynamic.

SMITH: OK, let's just go over them quickly.

HIRSCH: Well, the first is when the product is a luxury item, like a limited-edition sports car. So the manufacturer wants to make the car an exclusive purchase that signals status. So they crank up the price and maybe reduce the supply, forcing scarcity on the market and hopefully driving demand.

SMITH: Yeah. And in those particular cases, the more you spend on a collectible watch or a sports car, in fact, the happier you are because you can lord it over your friends and drop the amount that you spent on it.

HIRSCH: Exactly. So you see demand and price rising at the same time in those cases. And that happens all the time with this particular type of good. But those are a very specific type of good. They're called a Veblen good. You see them all the time. A Giffen good is something very, very different. You pretty much never see it because for a product to qualify as a Giffen good it has to be a staple or something of comparatively low value - so not like a watch or a car. It has to be something like bread flour.

SMITH: So something that we buy all the time that when the price goes up we consume more of it - now how does that work?

HIRSCH: Well, it only works if there's no substitute. So for example, Robert Giffen was studying poor people in Victorian times in the late 1800s. And he came up with the example of bread, right? He said that when the price of meat became too high for poor people, they bought more bread because there was no alternative. That increase in demand for bread drives the price of bread higher, of course. But because there's no alternative to bread back then - right? - they didn't have noodles or rice in the way that we do today - because there was no alternative, and meat prices were still too high, people had no choice but to buy more bread even though the price kept rising.

SMITH: And the more money the poor were paying for bread meant that there was even less money for meat. So they had to buy even more bread and so on and so forth. It could go on forever in theory. But these days - like in the present not in theory - I can't even think of something for which there is no substitute - thinking. You got one? You got something that we've seen today?

HIRSCH: No, these days, it very rarely happens, right? It might have happened in the late 1800s. But today there were so many alternatives that you can buy, right? So it's very difficult to find a good example of this. There was some research done in China that suggested that in certain parts of that country the price of rice and noodles went up, and people still kept on buying them when meat got expensive. But for the most part, the concept of demand for a staple product increasing at the same time as prices rising is pretty much a mirage.

SMITH: Well, much like the rare bird that, you know, birders aren't sure if it even exists or not - if anyone out there sees something that qualifies as a Giffen good, they should contact us. We'll send a safari out to go look for it.

HIRSCH: And send them a prize if it's real.

SMITH: Thank you, Paddy.

HIRSCH: Thank you.

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SMITH: And I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, ah, I had a question, and yet I didn't get it in in time for your annual question show. But you know what? We'll take your questions anytime, anywhere, anyhow. Just email us - planetmoney@npr.org. We really do read every single email. We're also on Twitter, Facebook and, my favorite, Instagram.

Today's show was produced by Sally Helm and Nick Fountain, our chicken man. The senior producer of PLANET MONEY is Alex Goldmark. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt. And special thanks today to two of my architectural friends Ron Neal (ph) and Michele Hunter (ph). Also we are still looking for summer interns. This is a great job. It is paid. You get to be in on our edits and our story ideas. We get to send you out into the field. This is a job that you want. If you're in school or have recently graduated, you can find out more info at npr.org/money. I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

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SMITH: Have you ever seen a coupon? A coupon - you know, you buy a little thing - why am I defining a coupon?

(LAUGHTER)

MALONE: A coupon - a piece of meaningless paper that is redeemable for goods at a smaller price.

SMITH: I don't know what kids these days do. It's like Groupon on paper.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: It's a coupon, OK.

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