The Step-Down Phenomenon: The Ohio State Fair

The 156th Ohio State Fair began this week.  As with every Ohio State Fair, this year’s edition features entertainment acts, performances by children’s choirs and bands, a butter sculpture, and tasty but horribly unhealthy foods, like elephant ears and the enticingly named “fried dough.”  This year’s hot new food option apparently is deep-fried buckeyes — that is, deep-fried balls of peanut butter and chocolate fudge molded to look like a buckeye — which sell for 5 for $4. 

2008 butter sculpture of Ohios presidents

2008 butter sculpture of Ohio's presidents

Interestingly, this year the Ohio State Fair is specifically being marketed  to appeal to people in the grip of the step-down phenomenon — in this case, people who can’t afford to travel long distances or take expensive vacations.  Instead, those people take “staycations,” where they spend a day at some location within a reasonable driving distance.  The Fair’s advertising is emphasizing the Fair’s value, the availability of coupons for Fair events and goodies, and other special deals.  Fair organizers are hoping for record turnouts, if the weather cooperates. 

I hope the weather is good and this year’s Fair sets attendance records.  I like the entire Ohio State Fair experience — getting there early and touring the livestock barns to see the kids and families taking care of the animals they have raised and entered for judging, walking through the open-air flea market and new product pavilions, having lunch at one of the good, home-cooked food restaurants staffed by members of churches, and strolling along a hot and dusty midway with rides designed to cause people to lose the fried sauerkraut they just gobbled down.   Through all of these activities, the Ohio State Fair is a great place for people watching — which is just another part of the good value people might be seeking in these recessionary times.

The Step-Down Phenomenon: Dining Out

A few weekends ago we went out to dinner with friends on both Friday night and Saturday night. Friday we went to a relatively new restaurant in the Arena District and had an exceptionally good meal. Saturday we went to a restaurant at a busy corner in the Short North and had a pretty good meal. At both locations, we noticed how empty the restaurants were. Indeed, on Friday night there were perhaps four other tables filled at a fine restaurant with well-prepared and interesting food, skilled wait staff, and very pleasant surroundings. The turnout was so low that I gave our waitress an extra-large tip to compensate for the fact that she had only two tables to handle during the entire evening. (I would mention the name of the restaurant, which Kish and I would gladly frequent again, but I don’t want to embarrass it.)

There is no doubt that the recession has affected the restaurant business. Overall, the number of restaurants in America has declined, and the drop in business has hit “fine-dining” establishments particularly hard.  In the meantime, restaurants like McDonald’s are doing just fine.  People still want to eat out.  When they go to a McDonald’s, they may not get the highest quality food, but they get out of the house, have a filling meal, and don’t have to worry about doing the dishes when they are done.

This is an instance where the step-down phenomenon has pernicious effects.  McDonald’s , with its overly salty food and bastardized versions of food classics like lattes, will always be with us.  A high-quality restaurant, on the other hand, is to be treasured and savored, and there is no doubt that more of those fine dining establishments will fail before the recession loosens its strangling grip on the nation’s economy.  No business can survive for long serving only four or five tables on a Friday night.

The Step-Down Phenomenon: Community Colleges

By all accounts, community colleges are having a banner year. This article reports on 30 percent increases in applications to some community colleges and notes that community colleges are far more affordable than four-year public universities or private schools. It is obvious that, in these recessionary times, many would-be students simply can’t afford to go away to a traditional four-year college and pay the significantly higher tuition costs for that kind of school. But, they still value and need a college education, so they have “stepped down” to community colleges.

A building on the Columbus State campus

A building on the Columbus State campus

In Columbus, the primary beneficiary of this trend is Columbus State Community College, which has more than 24,000 students and is the largest community college in Ohio. The school recently announced an 18 percent increase in its summer quarter enrollment, which follows significant increases in its spring, winter, and fall quarter enrollments. To all appearances, Columbus State offers a quality education for a reasonable price, and the growth of that institution has been good for the city. Columbus State is located in downtown Columbus and it has helped to make the Discovery District of downtown a much more interesting place.

I think the willingness of people to look at community colleges as a viable alternative to four-year public and private colleges may be a good thing for other reasons, too. It would be wonderful if the elite colleges and universities in America realized that there is not endless elasticity of demand for degrees from those schools, and that the American educational consumer will take cost into account in deciding where to attend college. For years, our colleges and universities imposed rote 5% annual tuition increases and still managed to set application records, but perhaps this recession will make them hesitate before they implement the next tuition hike. A little price competition and attention to the law of supply and demand in the higher education realm would be a very good thing.

The Step-Down Phenomenon: Foresaking Vanity

Some months ago I heard a report on NPR that described what I have come to call the “step-down phenomenon.” The phenomenon addresses what people do when times get tough, family budgets become leaner, and belts are tightened. In effect, people “step down” from more expensive items to less expensive items, rather than cutting out an item entirely. Since I’ve heard that report, I’ve noticed a number of examples of the phenomenon, which I’ll write about in the next few days.

A recent report on the sale of vanity license plates in Ohio is a good example. In Ohio, any special license plate costs an additional $35. In 2008, when the recession was just beginning to be felt, the number of “vanity” plates fell by 277, and my guess is that the numbers will fall even farther in 2009. Nobody “needs” a vanity plate, and it is easy to “step down” to a regular license plate and save that $35. Families make these kinds of judgments all the time, when they decide what is really important and might cut out some activities, or scrimp on others, in order to save up to pay for a child’s education or take a special trip. If only Congress had that same kind of decision-making ability!

The extra $35 is a painless way for Ohio to raise additional funds; last year vanity plate fees produced an extra $20 million in revenue.  Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing fewer of them on the road. Vanity is not an attractive quality, and vanity plates often seem to live up to their name by being annoyingly egotistical and narcissistic. Is it really necessary for the Prius driver to have a plate that says “GR8 MPG,” or the BMW driver to have one that reads “MY BEEMER”? And I’m sorry, but I doubt the plates that read “1 BUX FAN” or “TOP DOG” are accurate. This is an instance where the recession may be having some positive consequences by eliminating some of the irritations found on the morning drive.