The price isn’t right: Spring Street and the movie theatre syndrome

As a world-class cheapskate, I always considered the prices on the Williams campus a little out-of-the-ordinary. At first, I thought it was normal sticker shock. I couldn’t expect the cost of living in rural Oregon to be the same as that in well-to-do western Massachusetts, could I? I soon found out, though, that the prices of everyday goods on campus were still exorbitant in comparison to the ones at off-campus locations like the Stop & Shop. Sometimes, products in Williamstown cost double what products in North Adams and Pittsfield do.

I started to wonder whether this phenomenon occurred at other schools, so I e-mailed my friend Max at the University of Southern California. He told me that the prices of goods at the USC campus aren’t significantly higher than those at off-campus venues, since USC is in a large city (Los Angeles) and students can eat and shop wherever they want. In contrast, Williams is somewhat isolated, and to shop in North Adams or Pittsfield requires a car and an investment of time.

It occurred to me that Williamstown is a classic example of the “movie theater syndrome” or location-based monopoly. A movie theater can charge almost anything for popcorn and candy because patrons can’t buy it anywhere else. (I’m hesitant to make this analogy, since Images is very reasonable and has great popcorn, but I’m referring to big chains like Regal.) Similarly, the businesses on our campus can charge a lot for what they sell because they’re the only people nearby who sell it. Since Williams is pretty isolated, they’re not subject to normal competition. The only limits are the amount of discretionary income that students have and the willingness of students with cars to go off-campus for their groceries and school supplies.

This isn’t exactly the fault of the shop owners. They’re charging what the market will bear, and the market will apparently bear two-dollar cans of soda. But I still don’t think that students should have to break the bank to buy everyday necessities. I can’t help but wonder whether Williams needs a college-owned store for students. Most colleges have at least one. These stores, often located in student centers or other campus buildings, typically provide office supplies, groceries, toiletries and other basic necessities, at prices that students can afford. Colleges profit from these stores, and students have a cheap and convenient place to buy everyday objects.

Of course, a college-run store introduces its own problems. I wrote to my brother to ask him to assess the situation at his school, the University of Portland in Oregon. Does the presence of a college-run store, I asked, keep the cost of living down? “Nah,” he wrote, “they gouge us. [The store has] household stuff like Tylenol and Kleenex and pencils, which they at least double the retail price of. … Stingy jerks.” Ah, but we know Williams wouldn’t do that to us, would they?

Other ways to reduce the cost of living include reconsidering the town’s mostly oppositional attitude toward chain stores. In an op-ed last April, Dan Binder ’07 addressed this attitude, stating that “the ‘evil global corporation’ argument is getting a bit old” and that it “would really be in the best interest of the town to provide students with affordable dining options.” I agree. There’s a strange economic phenomenon at work in Williamstown: a combination of our isolation, our status as a “quaint New England town” and weekend-tourist destination, and the curious willingness of students to pay ridiculous amounts for a package of Noodle Ramen. (I admit to being guilty of the last one. A man’s got to have his ramen.) Chain stores would compete with other local businesses, which would be motivated to offer lower prices, wider selections and better service.

Granted, the local economy will never be perfect. Chain stores could force nearby stores out of business if price competition got too fierce, and a college-run store would be a major undertaking. Still, future generations of Ephs will thank us if they’re able to live here without having to worry unnecessarily about money. After all, isn’t being a cheapskate what college life is all about?

Andrew Triska ’10 is from Estacada, Ore. He lives in Lehman.

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