More expensive by the dozen

“Caveat emptor” is a Latin term that means “let the buyer beware.”

It started as a legal term, from an English court ruling in 1603. Basically, what it means is it’s up to the buyer to either ask the right questions about the product or have it covered by guarantee before buying it. If you don’t do that and your purchase is a disappointment, it’s just, to use another Latin phrase, tuffus noogus.

I learned this phrase in high school, but it took a bunch of buyer’s remorse for me to understand its consequences. This is why I have several ironclad rules about buying things.

First, I try to buy everything locally, from independent merchants I know. Second, I buy well-known brands with good customer reviews and warranties. And third, if I buy over the internet, it’s only from reputable companies.

So if I do all those things, nothing can go wrong, right?


One of my hobbies is drawing and painting. Like all my hobbies, I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it, which is what hobbies should be about in the first place.

Years ago, I read somewhere you should only draw on large sheets of paper, filling out the sheet completely with your drawing. The theory was if you drew large figures, you’d see the flaws readily and thus would improve your technique faster. While it made perfect sense, I never did it because I liked drawing small. Since I never expected to make my fortune drawing, I kept drawing small, and I still draw small.

Two principles guide my approach to any art. The first is to favor the the simple over the complicated. Better to do a basic drawing well than a fancy one poorly.

The second is to use only quality tools. By themselves, good tools won’t make you skilled, but they’ll be easier to work with, so it’ll be easier to improve your skills. Also, cheap tools, in addition to doing a worse job than good ones, won’t last. So ultimately, if you keep using cheap tools, you’ll also keep replacing them and will spend more replacing them than you would’ve spent on good ones.

And all this brings me to my recent purchase — some specialty paintbrushes.

A great deal — for them, not me

Basically, I needed super-small brushes for designs I wanted to paint. Where to get them? I immediately checked Dick Blick, an established and reputable art supplies company. And sure enough, they had exactly what I wanted — Princeton’s mini-detail brushes.

I needed several different brushes for different uses, and I saw there were sets of six and 12 brushes. The selection in the six-pack took care of my needs, so I ordered it. And beyond them doing the job I wanted, they were a bargain: The list price for the combo was $53.75, but they were selling it for $34.96 — a whopping savings of almost 20 bucks! Great brushes and a great deal.

The order arrived shortly and the brushes were great brushes. The deal, as it turned out, was no deal at all … except maybe a crappy one.

Here’s what happened. As soon as I got the brushes, I tried them out. They served my purpose perfectly, and my little heart went pitty-pat with delight. And that took care of the brushes. The deal was a whole ‘nother deal.

I didn’t notice it at first because I was o’erjoyed at being able to paint super-fine lines. But after a few days I checked out Dick Blick’s site to see about getting some more tiny brushes. And when I did, I got a shock to my nervous system like I hadn’t had since I got my draft notice.

When I looked up the other Princeton mini-detail brushes, I noticed something I hadn’t before: Each brush had two prices after it — the list price and the Dick Blick price — and the difference was significant. Basically, the Dick Blick price was one-third its list price. After I noticed that, I noticed something else — all the brushes were 3 dollars plus change. So what’s significant about that, you ask? Just this: I’d paid about $35 for my six brushes. Now, I’m not a very good artist, but I’m an even worse mathematician. That said, even I could divide in my head 35 by 6 and figure out it’s a whole lot more than 3 bucks plus change.

I grabbed a pencil and paper and put the Dick Blick price for each brush I bought, added ’em up, and whattaya know? Not only did it not total $35 — it didn’t even come close. In fact, the exact total was $19.50! I didn’t save 19 bucks like I thought I did. Instead, I got hosed — to the tune of 16 bucks!

Well, hush my mouth and call me matzoh.


For the next day, I had a bunch of mood swings about this shtuss, alternating between anger and confusion. I was angry, thinking I got ripped off, and I was confused, thinking maybe there was some reason for the price disparity but I just couldn’t think of it.

Finally, I decided neither anger nor confusion would do me any good, but an email might.

I was proud of the tone of my final draft. It wasn’t angry or accusatory. Instead, it was simply curious, wanting to know how the price hike happened. OK, so I managed to be a bit snarky, too, conceding I’d understand if they wanted to cop a couple extra bucks on the six-pack (I referred to it as “a tax on the naive”), but a 75 percent increase seemed a tad on the unreasonable side. I also said I could expect this type of dealing from some fly-by-night outfit but never from a stalwart like Dick Blick. And that pretty much was it.

I got a same-day reply from Sierra at their customer service. She (at least I assume Sierra’s a she) was both pleasant and helpful. First, she apologized for “the pricing issues.” Then she said, as a one-time courtesy, they’d refund the $15.79 price diff. After that, she gave me caveat of her own, and I quote: “For future orders, you’ll need to calculate what would be the better deal first.”

I thought that was a fair and diplomatic solution to rather sticky situation. Certainly, I appreciated the refund.

I even appreciated the caveat about future orders — even if it was the perfect definition of gratuitous advice.