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Are You Sure About Buying Number One?

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Thanks to what economists like to call the "winner-take-all" approach to society, many North American consumers tend to view things that finish first as being the only items worth owning.

This is true even if the adjudication process responsible for this ranking is flawed and/or the other candidates finished a half-second or quarter-meter behind the "winner". If it's not wearing a gold medal, these people believe, then it's not worth owning.

I suppose owning these products can help you shore up a tottering sense of self-worth by impressing your equally insecure friends, and there may be a case where such an attitude actually does you some genuine benefit, though I can't immediately think of one.

But the reality is that in a highly competitive society buying only the "number one" items is actually a fiscal error.

By way of example, let us consider the minivan market in North America, where the Honda Odyssey gets the most auto-writer nods as the number one vehicle in the segment. For the most part, my colleagues tend to toss this status to Odyssey because they are impressed with its dynamics when it's driven hard.

This speaks volumes about my colleagues, who are almost all of them men, though you probably figured that out when I mentioned how they liked Odyssey's "dynamics when it's driven hard."

Perhaps in the twisted little universe of male auto writers people buy minivans for their driving dynamics. In the real world, however, the vast majority of these extremely prosaic vehicles tend to specialize in hauling kids and the things they need (groceries, hockey equipment, musical instruments, soccer teammates, and so on) around the constant carousel of modern life. Not much room there for driving dynamics.

But because so many people are always looking for guidance to keep ahead of the Joneses, the recommendations of my colleagues has made the Odyssey a bigger success than it should be and -- attention all readers, message cited on the starboard bow -- cost lots of buyers lots of money they didn't need to spend.

The winner-takes-all attitude causes prices for the "number one" model to stay high because the company has so many willing sheep, er consumers willing to pay top dollar for their product.

At the same time, of course, the vehicles that didn't earn that arbitrary and questionable "number one" ranking sit around on dealer lots wearing big discount stickers.

Please don't get the idea that these vehicles aren't getting as much action as Odyssey because they don't deserve it, since nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, there isn't really a minivan on the market that's not worth owning.