To the Editor:
Analysts of consumer behavior refer to it simply as “the O’Neill.” Specifically, the O’Neill Point is the threshold at which a relatively minor increase in the price of a commodity reaches some psychological trigger at which a majority of consumers actively seeks out alternatives.
But how exactly did Connecticut’s 84th governor get credited with the phenomenon? The year was 1981 and then-Gov. William A. O’Neill and the state’s democratically controlled legislature called for an increase in the state’s budget.
But where would these funds come from they pondered? The answer came in the form of legislation which increased the price of tolls located on the state’s highways from 25 to 35 cents.
Just a dime you say?
Problem was, that dime got folks thinking. Twenty-five cent tolls were something Connecticut motorists had grown up with and come to accept without question. Tolls had been a quarter ever since the state’s parkways and highways opened in the late 1950s and early 1960s and so accustomed were drivers to 25-cent tolls that many installed small, spring-loaded coin holders in their vehicles to hold the stacks of quarters readied to be tossed into the chutes of the state’s toll plazas.
But wait now … what’s this 35-cent thing? Hang on while I search for a quarter and a dime, or a quarter and two nickels, or three dimes and a nickel.
Wait … I think there’s some change in the fold of the passenger seat … C-R-A-S-H!
While the motorists were fumbling around looking for all manner of change to satisfy what appeared to be a relatively minor price increase (the root cause of many accidents and fatalities) drivers become acutely aware of the price of the tolls.
When consumers begin to consciously think about what they doing and more importantly question the need to continue doing it, there comes a point of awareness that drives them into action. The public quickly reached what would become known as the O’Neill Point and their alternatives included protesting for the removal of all tolls and driving the secondary roads which paralleled the highways.
In particular, traffic along Route 1 came to a standstill as it quickly filled to capacity with drivers who refused to pay the new price. Connecticut wisely pronounced last rites for its highway tolls in 1985 when all were removed.
You’re probably thinking this is a story about the frequent debate on reimplementing highway tolls; but it isn’t. It’s actually a story about the next chapter of the U.S. Postal Service, which recently announced a “temporary increase” in the price of their ubiquitous Forever Stamp, from 46 cents to 49 cents.
Just three cents you say?
Now you know. There’s logic behind that 49-cent price tag: knowledge that the O’Neill Point lies just one cent away. That next penny will be a last penny; for once the 50-cent price tag is reached, the public will visualize those two quarters slipping through their fingers each time they stamp an envelope.
That next increase will be the psychological “trigger-point” which drives consumers’ in mass to less expensive alternatives, such as electronic bill paying, e-greeting cards and for businesses, charging their clients for the “privilege” of old-fashioned paper billing.
Mail volumes will plummet precipitously, and the dramatic decrease in volume will spell the end of the U.S. Postal Service as we presently know it. Death for a dime or death for a penny, the effect of the O’Neill is a certainty. Let’s hope the postal service finds a way to reduce the cost of postage.
Frank C. DeFelice