Thursday, April 14, 2016

On the Economic Calculation of Free Cone Day

Ben & Jerry's annual Free Cone Day is basically a holy day here in northern New England (and some other places, I assume?), and I'll confess to thinking transgressive thoughts about whether it's really worth it. Wouldn't it be better in the long run to just go buy an ice cream cone some other day? So I was very interested to see Libby Nelson's economic case for waiting in line on Free Cone Day over on Vox, and while I appreciate her analysis of the value of leisure time and her point that free ice cream is worth more than paid-for ice cream, I feel like this issue is actually way more complicated than that. (Spoiler: I didn't end up going this year, but have many times in the past.)

So. For the ice cream lover who wants to really overthink Free Cone Day, here are some factors to consider:

How long is that line, really? I believe Nelson that the average wait time is around half an hour, but I'm pretty sure I've always waited longer. (Time of day may factor in here: I'm generally going after typical office hours, like a whole lot of people.)

What is the weather like? Maybe you live somewhere where it's 72 and sunny all the time. Here in New Hampshire, though, it's almost always cold and rainy on Free Cone Day. Even a short wait can be really unpleasant in a 40-degree downpour. (I once went to Free Cone Day at a store in a mall; this is a good way to avoid the weather issue, but standing in line for two hours in a mall wasn't a ton of fun either.)

Transportation and Parking: Perhaps you have a Ben & Jerry's in your neighborhood, in which case perhaps I'd like to move in with you. But if you're going out of your way to travel somewhere and/or pay for parking, that's worth considering. (Of course, these considerations would still exist if you went on a different day, but could be mitigated by going to Ben & Jerry's when you're already in the area for other reasons or by getting non-Ben & Jerry's ice cream closer to home. And parking is, obviously, easier to find on days without big free ice cream events.)

Flavor Selection: Many Ben & Jerry's stores offer a severely restricted list of flavors for Free Cone Day, either to keep things moving quickly or just because anything interesting is gone by noon. Don't go if you've got your heart set on a specific flavor.

Scheduling: Nelson is correct that this outing counts as leisure time and so does not exactly have the same value as an hour of work. But it's not leisure time that can happen any time - it's a specific day when you might or might not have pre-existing plans. And for many of us the line between work and leisure time is less than completely clear cut. This is ultimately what decided me this year: While I would have met friends to stand in line after I was done at my day job for the day, I had already planned a bunch of errands and writing-related work for that evening. It was when I found myself thinking "Well, if I move stuff around and stay up an hour later each night this week..." that I decided it was PROBABLY NOT WORTH IT.

Socializing, Intended: Are you waiting in that line alone, or are you going with friends? If this is a chance to hang out and catch up with people you want to see, the wait time calculation totally changes.

Socializing, Unintended: Depending on the size of your community and the ice cream inclinations of your professional and social networks, standing in line in a public place with no escape may mean running into a bunch of people who want to make small talk. Only you can decide whether this is something to embrace or to fear.

Stranger Danger: There are going to be strangers in that line, too. They may insist on talking to you. How do you feel about that? Even if they don't, you'll be in a situation with near-mandatory eavesdropping, which could be great or terrible. (One year I learned an astonishing amount about a sketchy new tattoo parlor in town.) And it seems worth noting that this year, specifically, a Ben & Jerry's event giving away free stuff sounds like catnip for Bernie Sanders supporters. BEWARE.

Number of People & Economic Situation: Nelson and I both approached this analysis from the point of view of one economically stable adult for whom the cost of even a fancy Ben & Jerry's ice cream cone is more or less functionally negligible. But say you've got a bunch of kids (or one kid with some friends you'd like to treat) and dropping $20 or more on ice cream cones is not something you can or want to do under normal conditions. In that case, Free Cone Day might make total sense. (As long as having your kids wait in a long line sounds like a thing that won't make you completely insane.) Or say you're currently unemployed and don't want to spend money on extras, but have some time to stand in line while you're waiting for potential employers to respond to your job applications. Also reasonable!

Where does all this leave us? If you've got a Ben & Jerry's nearby and the weather is nice, and you don't have pressing plans for the evening, and you're in a social mood and have some friends to hang out with (and no ice cream-loving enemies to avoid), sure, have fun! Otherwise, as Ben & Jerry themselves would say, "if it's not fun, why do it?"

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