Wednesday, August 27th, 2008
it’s fair time

The smells, sights, and sounds are unmistakable; they mean that summer is drawing to a close, the harvest season is upon us, and we have found our way to the state fair.

Begun as agrarian expositions, these American celebrations are perfect for seeing the marketplace at work and for thinking about how we buy and sell things.  Of course, there are odd foods (chocolate-covered bacon?) consumed in mass quantities, without regard to the consequences.  After all, we only do this once a year, right?  Right?  Well, maybe our behaviors are more predictable (and repetitious) than that.

The market for goods, services, and ideas proceeds in a thousand dimensions at a big fair.  Like in the securities business, there are specialists who are the “inside market” in each corner of the action.  A city slicker gazing at row upon row of ears of field corn can see variations in color and size, but hasn’t a clue about what is good or bad, so he looks for the judge’s assessment, and even when studying the winner can’t understand what makes the grand champion grand.  That’s really not too different from our cluelessness in contemplating a nascent technology — and our need to have the interpretation and blessing of someone else, perhaps a member of an expert network that we pay for advice.

Without such guidance we are left to our own devices, gravitating to those things that match our interests, those that seem to be drawing others like us (let’s be honest here), or those for which we are pulled in by someone selling the wares.  At times it is a classic carnival barker that lures us, but more often is someone with a pitch honed over the years, one that’s not exactly subtle, but that clearly pushes the buttons in a way that draws our attention.  Again, not dissimilar from someone selling a security to you that (until that moment) you didn’t know you needed.

There are also those salespeople sitting in a chair, looking forlorn, waiting for buyers to come to them.  There is no buzz of activity, for their products have no buzz.  The big SUVs that people were glad to sit in last year couldn’t be shinier, or less attractive to the massive crowds that go streaming by.  Unloved like a value stock, what will it take to make people interested, and how likely is it to happen?

On the flip side, the “eco” building that was pretty empty a year ago is now full of people watching demonstrations and checking out products that could change their lives.  The shift in interest is likely more economic than philosophical, but it’s definitely a mix of those two (often conflicting) imperatives.  As with someone intrigued by environmental investing, the question remains as to whether this is a temporary blip in the ways of the world, or a transition to a new way of doing things.

On the grounds, there are reminders that good marketing can at least get you to pay attention.  Who are all of those people around the fair in the yellow t-shirts?  They are just enjoying a day at the fair, but they could just as well be wearing sandwich boards.Minnetronix | The gambit worked; I checked out the company after I left the fair.  It’s a private firm in the medical device business. What are the ploys of brokers or issuers that capture your attention?  How sticky are their campaigns?

Speaking of which, it’s an election year, so the denizens of the political stands (close cousins of those at the issue-advocacy booths, which seem best at capturing those that already believe) are reciting their position points, passing out buttons, and dreaming of confetti.  Like them, too often we harden our views, fantasize about gains, and ignore the need to adapt and adjust.

The pioneers who brought produce for show years ago could not have imagined the fairs of today.  But the instincts that drive us haven’t changed much since then.  Our self-imagined sophistication masks behavioral tendencies that affect the choices we make for ourselves and for others.