The right to a soda.. at any price

by Eszter Hargittai on July 6, 2004

I was sitting in the St. Louis Amtrak station yesterday (huh, that would be a glorified name for a shack[1]) and observing with curiosity people’s reaction to a soda machine that was sold out. Given the hot day and my tourist explorations of the morning that left me tired and thirsty, the soda machine was the first thing I looked for upon entry into the waiting room. The two machines I noticed at first were selling snacks and coffee. I couldn’t believe that there was no soda machine – unfathomable for this type of an establishment in the U.S. – so I circled the room. And there it was, of course. The first thing I looked for was to see how much the soda cost. However, instead of a price, I found the words SOLD and OUT flashing. Bummer. But now came the fun part: observing how other people reacted to the sold-out soda machine. At one point I was almost convinced we had a candid camera scenario. It was quite amusing to watch how few people bother to check signs. (This was second in a series that day after having watched just a few minutes earlier a woman in front of me exit – or try to do so in any case – a building through a door clearly labeled and also taped shut by a sign stating that the door was out of order. After pushing it a few times she noticed the sign at her eye-level letting her know that this was not going to work.)

Most people approached the soda machine with bills or coins in hand and started to feed (or attempted to do so) the money into the machine. The machine seemed to be configured so it would not take bills when empty (good call) and the coins fell through and came out in the coin-return section immediately. These signals did not prompt most people to look for clues about what may be going on. Rather, they continued to attempt feeding the machine with their money. The most interesting case was a young man who walked up to the machine with much confidence and tried to feed a dollar bill into it. Soon enough he noticed the SOLD OUT sign. This did not faze him, however. He decided to try again. You can guess the result: nothing. At that point he walked over to the other two machines with much confidence intent on satisfying his soda needs. His stride made it seem as though by marching with enough confidence those machines would transform themselves into selling sodas. Alas, that’s not how it works. Oh, the world is so unfair!

What seems interesting in all this (in addition to the obvious) is that people were ready to buy the soda no matter the price. After all, the SOLD OUT sign was where the price would be displayed. But other than one woman (in addition to me), no one cared to check it before starting to feed their money into the machine. Sure, it may be that all these people go to the St. Louis Amtrak station all the time and are already familiar with the price of a soda, but I doubt that that is the case. People probably have an expectation for how much the soda might cost and are willing to pay in the vicinity of that sum regardless of the specifics. Next up in the candid camera saga is a soda machine that charges $7.50 per bottle. Stay tuned for reactions.

fn1. The station is so remote (although downtown) that a woman on her way there stopped her car when seeing me walking toward it to offer to drop me off saying that it was all too dirty and messy for me to have to walk to. Some people are so nice. (No, I did not take her up on it, but did think it was a very kind gesture.)



cooper 07.06.04 at 5:53 pm

I think there are two things you are missing here, though.

1. Soda, much like pay phone calls, while there is some variation is usually structured to the same prices everywhere.

2. Vending machines can be so horribly unreliable — the one in my office a prime example — that sometimes “Sold out” doesn’t really mean sold out. Sometimes not taking your money is an indication of nothing more than an annoyingly finicky machine.

As a rule with vending machines, its better to go ahead and try anyway, since there is a 25% chance the machine is lying to you anyway.


Steve 07.06.04 at 6:40 pm

Sometimes not taking your money is an indication of nothing more than an annoyingly finicky machine.

No kidding. Try the Los Angeles Metro system. The machines there are horrid. I walked up to one and started reading it to figure out how to buy a ticket. Nothing indicated it was sold out, and so I put my money in. I’d hit the button for a ticket and nothing. I tried a couple more times, moved to the next machine, same result. All the machines were like that. Further, L.A. had decided that attendants in the subway stations was a stupid idea so you can’t ask anybody for help.

I will never ever ride the LA Metro again. Even if my life depended on it. Since the sytem uses the honor system (i.e., you can get on w/o a ticket, but if a cop asks to see it and you don’t have it you get another more expensive ticket) it is full of homeless people and the stench…unimaginable.


NancyP 07.06.04 at 6:57 pm

Yep. That’s why we St. Louisans call it the “AmShack”. Hard to find, too, even if you are familiar with downtown. Hope you liked our fireworks and music and air show at the Arch.


eszter 07.06.04 at 7:17 pm

Nancyp – “AmShack”, yup, that’s quite appropriate.:) I only saw the fireworks from afar, but I did enjoy seeing the Arch up close finally and took some neat pictures. I don’t like air shows so I didn’t watch that. In fact, I found the military planes especially disturbing. But I did enjoy getting to know town. I loved the zoo and found the do-it-yourself-amusement-park style of the City Museum very fun!:-)


a different chris 07.06.04 at 8:02 pm

Ahh, it’s probably just hard to overcome the tyranny of repetition.

For instance, every day I leave work around noon- I put my computer in the trunk so it is not visible when parked. Today about 1/2 hour earlier than that I realized that I needed something in the passenger compartment of the car. So out to the parking lot I went, at which point I hit the trunk button on the remote and spent the next moment or two staring blankly into it.

Realizing what I had done, I gave a little self-deprecating chuckle, slammed the trunk and proceded to the driver’s side front door.

Where, as many of you have probably anticipated – I again pushed the trunk button. Dick Cheney, as so often anymore, was wrong: the language I used as I watched the trunk lid gently rise into the air did not make me feel the least better.


Richard Bellamy 07.06.04 at 8:30 pm

It is, I guess, an ingrained feature of capitalism that the cost of an item is usually much less than the people who buy it would have been willing to pay. It is only the marginal consumer who is willing to pay $0.75 for a can of Coke, but not $0.85.

This huge free-market discount could be seen most clearly if, instead of going to the Amtrak station, you have gone to a Cardinals baseball game. If it is like most sports stadiums (“no outside food or drink permitted”), you will get much closer to the $7.50 soda (although it will come in a snazzy commemorative plastic cup.)

When you are thirsty and there is only one vendor, most will happily pay many times the “usual” price, with only the small minority of fathers telling their sons “There’s no way in hell I’m paying $10 for a pack of Nachos!” (For a similar phenomenon, check out the ATM service charges in a strip club. Or, better yet, don’t.)

Perhaps the most under-rated benefit of a free market is that it does most of the comparison shopping for you.


Matt Weiner 07.06.04 at 8:58 pm

To add to what cooper says, this only really shows that everyone was willing to pay any price up to $1–if the first dollar bill had not done the trick they would have had to look to see how much more to put in. (Maybe they would have automatically put in a second, but not a third.)

My armchair prediction of the results for the $7.50 pop machine is that most people will put in one, maybe two dollar bills, look at the price, and angrily hit the change return button. But why don’t you and your friends actually do this experiment (armchair speculation being my department)? I’ve thought for a while that a lot of social psychology experiments would make great Candid Camera shows, especially the inattentional blindness experiments.* In fact I was going to propose a TV show called “America’s Funniest Psych Experiments” but then I saw a Dateline show on inattentional blindness that amounted to more or less the same thing.

*This was originally inspired by thinking about what happens when the people in the Darley and Batson’s Good Samaritan experiment stopped to help the actor moaning and coughing in the doorway. Apparently he continued to play along, but I expect that if anyone had, say, called an ambulance he would have had to unmask.


Mary Kay 07.07.04 at 1:32 am

While all the above caveats may or may not be valid, as a librarian I can assure you that nobody, almost, reads signs. The question most often asked at reference desks is, “Where’s the restroom?” including at the last library I worked where they had to walk past a huge sign saying, “Restrooms” to get to the desk. Certainly has made a sign reader out of me.



Two Dishes 07.07.04 at 3:37 am

I greatly enjoyed the concept of a documentary shooter last year who captured the dissapointment of people who arrive on the train platform just as the train doors close.


cm 07.07.04 at 8:10 am

I presume the reason that people don’t pay enough attention to signs is that in a way, signs do not usually have “fundamental”, but “auxiliary” meaning; and the fact that often signs are missing, inaccurate/outdated, or unhelpfully located, and thus to a certain extent unreliable, figures into people’s behavior. If signs were universally present and accurate, I’m sure people would heed them more closely.

For example, when approaching an unknown store in the evening or early morning, are you looking for the open/closed sign first, or at the appearance of the store (cars parked, store lit, people moving)? When about to walk across a street, do you look at the traffic light, whether cars are approaching, or the presence of police cars (in case you intend to jaywalk)? The signs are important, but they are not the “fundamentals” you look for.


Silent E 07.07.04 at 7:41 pm

Such signs are not generally standardized: when you approach a library counter to ask about the restroom, which sign would you read? If there are only one or two signs, then reading them may be a sensible investment of time. But if there are myriad signs, you might need to read five or six. Where do you start: signs on the wall, typed signs affixed to the countertop (on a variety of colors of paper), signs handwritten and taped to the side of the book scanner? Easier just to ask the assistant at the counter.

Generally, the more non-standard signs that are posted, the less it is likely that anyone will read them.

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