Sunday, August 26, 2012

Buying it on Amazon (or how I avoid paying high Norwegian prices)

I thought I’d put in my two cents concerning the discussion about how expensive it is to be a tourist in Norway. There have been a number of recent articles about exactly this topic—how expensive it is to travel in Scandinavia, and especially in Norway—and some of them are pretty funny, at least to me, since I recognize my own reactions (and a bit of shock) to much of what is written in them. Try this recent article, for example http://frugaltraveler.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/scandinavia-on-125-a-day/?hpw). Tourists are not the only ones who are shocked at the high cost of living here; I’ve lived here for twenty-two years and I’m still often taken aback at how much things cost. It’s not so much housing prices (which are comparable to Manhattan and other large cities around the world), but it’s other things, like cars, eating out, gasoline, groceries and other necessities. However, a number of low-price supermarkets have sprung up in Oslo in recent years; here you can find some bargains and that’s always a good thing. Prices in Norway for different items can be shocking; you need to take a deep breath at times and stop converting the prices to American dollars if you’re an American expat. Because if you continue to convert, you will realize how much money you are really paying just to live, and it’s not to live extravagantly. For example, if you convert, you will find that you are paying twenty dollars for one, I repeat, one dental floss dispenser at local pharmacies. It doesn’t matter where you are—in the rich or less rich city areas—prices are the same. And the dental floss is not manufactured in Norway, it is imported. It is good old Johnson & Johnson dental floss that you can find on Amazon for a fraction of the Norwegian price. In fact, a package of six dental floss dispensers (100 yards each, more or less the same size as what is available for sale here), costs about twenty dollars on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Reach-Dentotape-Designed-spaced-Unflavored/dp/B003XDVERE/ref=pd_sim_hpc_1). In other words, you’re being suckered if you pay that price for one floss dispenser in this country. So guess who recently ordered dental floss from Amazon. Even if I pay international shipping costs, which are not much, the total price for six dispensers is still much cheaper than what I would pay for one here in Oslo. And so it goes. Take aspirin. Genuine Bayer aspirin (325mg 200 coated tablets) on Amazon costs 9.47 dollars (http://www.amazon.com/Genuine-Bayer-Aspirin-Tablets-Coated/dp/B001LFG0OI/ref=pd_sim_hpc_1); at an online Norwegian pharmacy, I can get a package of 20 aspirin tablets (440 mg) for 7 dollars. It borders on the ridiculous. Of course, healthcare costs are ‘lower’ in this country than in the USA; but wage earners in Norway pay for universal healthcare through their taxes (at present, the sales tax is 25%), as well as taxes on gasoline, liquor, and cigarettes. I don’t have a problem with paying taxes to fund universal healthcare (something Americans should think more about so that healthcare became more accessible to all), but just so the point is made—healthcare is not free in this country by any stretch of the imagination. Nothing in this world comes for free. But it would be nice not to have to pay through the nose for some basic items like dental floss and aspirin. So whenever I am in the USA, I stock up on such things; it’s worth it. Norwegians pay their taxes willingly, but never believe for one second that they don’t want a bargain if they can get one. Those Norwegians who live on the east side of the country save money by shopping for groceries and liquor in Sweden, where prices are much cheaper. And when they travel, they stock up on duty-free items (e.g. liquor and tobacco products) on their return. And duty-free prices are still expensive, just considerably less expensive than the usual prices. 

Why are prices so high? Someone is getting rich, and it’s not the average consumer. But if you take a look at the incomes of the owners of the major supermarket chains in this country, that will shed some light on the matter. They are quite wealthy; in fact, they are some of the wealthiest people in this country. They control the food prices; the farmers who are always being blamed for the high price of food do not. Farmers are subsidized in many countries; it’s a tricky and difficult profession and I don’t begrudge them the subsidies if this is what helps them to live and as long as the subsidies are reasonable. I have a problem with the middlemen—that group of people who bring the consumer goods to us. Again, I don’t mind paying a 15% or 20% markup so that they can make some profit from importing goods for us to buy. I mind when the markup is 300% or 600%. There is no reason other than pure profit that dental floss and aspirin cost the exorbitant prices they do at present. It reminds me of how middlemen have milked my own profession for years and made huge profits. The suppliers of medical research items like antibodies, buffers and other reagents have charged sales tax on items that should have been tax-free because they were being used for research. They also marked up prices for many of these items by 100% or more. So you had an insane markup plus 25% sales tax. Fair? No. They were finally forced to implement the tax-free policy and made it as difficult as possible to implement. It always surprised me that hospitals and research institutions were not more aggressive and adamant about having this tax-free policy enforced many years ago already, considering the financial difficulties many find themselves in at present.