Sunday, February 25, 2007

Purchasing power parity: a parable of two opticians

When I was working in Sri Lanka last summer, the piece holding my glasses frame to my ear broke. Fortunately, opticians are in plentiful supply. There was a small shop in the somewhat downscale district of Borella, within easy walking distance of my residence. There were no other clients when I arrived. I was greeted by the owner and his assistant, both neatly clad in white shirts and ties, This being Sri Lanka, we chatted for a few minutes before getting down to business. The owner said it would be difficult to purchase a replacement but he thought they could weld the broken piece back together. We exchanged business cards and I agreed to stop back the next afternoon, which I did. The repair was successful. The cost was 800 Sri Lankan Rupees, about $8.00. I have no had further problems, except that….

Last week, the piece on the other side broke. Fortunately, there is a shop, Voorthuis optical in the upscale shopping center near American University. I have traded there for a number of years, purchasing more than $1,000 worth of services during that period. There was another customer being served as I waited behind the counter. The young woman serving her did not acknowledge my presence. Four other staff members avoided eye contact, pretending not to notice me. Presumably they were preoccupied with more important matters. After a wait of five minutes or so the transaction with the other customer was completed and the young woman deigned to notice me. I explained the problem and how I had be dealt with it in Sri Lanka. She seemed incredulous and said sharply, “we don’t do welding! I’ll see if I can order a replacement.” The next afternoon, I received a voicemail message that the part had come in and the repairs were complete. Later, I picked them up. On this visit, the service was excellent. The cost was $88.00.


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