One Man's Trash

The front page of today's Wall Street Journal contains an article about an apparently common pastime in Germany: dumpster diving.

"It's the culture here in Germany," says Dora Fecske, a Frankfurt businesswoman. "Why trash something if it's still good?" She recently found a large wooden dining table in the street and carried it several blocks to her home with help from friends.

Ms. Fecske's furniture foraging is the ultimate expression of one of Germany's favorite pastimes: saving money. Even when Germans do spend it (they need to eat, after all), they aren't looking to pay full price. Flea markets pull big crowds every weekend. Used goods are so popular that Germany is eBay's biggest market outside the U.S.: Surfing the site accounts for nearly a fifth of the time Germans spend online.

The article goes on to note that much of the Germans' penchant for sifting through garbage can be explained by the thrill of finding neat, eclectic whatsits rather than a burning desire to save money. There is no question, however, that Germans do favor frugality in many economic arenas, such as with groceries.

On the other hand, my observation (and I believe it is by no means unique) is that in many other economic arenas such as with automobiles and other manufactured goods, Germans tend to equate price with quality. And when this is true, discounting doesn't work.

This simple observation might go a long way towards explaining something that has puzzled me since I arrived--namely, the bicycle market. Bicycle shops are abundant in Germany, but only rarely will one find a new bike for under 200 €, and used bikes are rarely seen in the shops. Secondary markets for bikes (e.g. flea markets, classifieds, and eBay) exist and are thriving, which gives strong evidence that there would be a market for new bikes priced somewhere around 100 €. Long therefore has the Unternehmergeist within me perceived a gigantic arbitrage opportunity, and I wondered why some enterprising German hasn't had the same idea. Perhaps the answer is simply that the German understands his peers simply won't buy a new bike for a price that seems, well, too cheap.

I'm not entirely satisfied with this answer, but if I keep sifting away in the rubbish heap of my mind I'm confident I'll eventually find something of value.