Friday, July 10, 2009

The Economics of an Ice Cream Cone

It’s summer and with a young child, ice cream is a joyful, daily ritual. But as I’ve been shelling out dollars over the past days, I began to realize just how our economy plays out — even with something as simple as an ice cream cone.

In New York City, Mr. Softee is our basic ice cream man — a truck that features a smiling ice cream cone with a swirl of vanilla on his head that is a bit Carmen Miranda-looking to me.

One truck usually pops up outside my daughter’s school downtown when warm weather hits. The deal is simple — you hand your kid $1.50, and she comes running back with a vanilla cone covered in rainbow sprinkles.

Three weekends ago, the little one was treated to a cone in SoHo Vanilla ice cream, please, with sprinkles. With $1.50 in hand, my husband turned back to me and asked me for another $3. One for me too? Nope. In SoHo the treat was $4.

Then, last weekend, we all ended up on the Upper East Side — a rushed visit to my daughter’s doctor when her temperature hit 104ºF. With The Plaza hotel and tourists in the background, her beloved cone clocked in at $3.50.

New York is always a numbers game. But how can the price of a basic summer ritual be jacked up nearly 300 percent? When it’s 90ºF outside, and a 6-year-old is staring longingly at the ice cream truck, $4 is a bargain. And when you’ve taken a $34 horse and carriage ride through Central Park (for 17 minutes) on your first trip to New York, what is $3.50?

One family may decide to spend $30,000 for a Volvo station wagon because they believe the safety features validate the price. Another will choose the Honda Fit, at $15,000, because the rest of the money doesn’t justify the extras.

Price is what the market will bear. Price is what people collectively agree to spend. If the tourists stopped buying $3.50 soft serves and opted for $1 Popsicles, I’d bet Mr. Softee would adjust his prices. And if we stopped buying $13 packages of organic diapers, or $95 American Girls, so too might those numbers.

As for me? I’ve got a fiver in my pocket for the rest of the summer. Just in case.


Anonymous said...

Just an FYI: The cost of a standard 20 minute ride in Central Park has remained unchanged for 20 years.

$34 for a family of four or five in 2009 is a bargain by any measure - what other thing that charges $$ is that cheap? Imagine the cost of maintaining a horse, driver, and carriage in NYC in 2009.
A guided tour, a few travel tips & recommendations, some photos and memories to last a lifetime.

A carriage ride in Central Park is probably the best deal in NYC.

Certainly tops a $4 ice cream cone.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and by the way - there is no 'free market' with carriage rides. The rpices are set by the City, with no increases since 1989.