Steve Chapman

Toyota and Honda made huge inroads by offering better cars or lower prices, or both. Foreign makers of other goods have done likewise.

Easier access to goods. In the old days, stores were few in number, and you had to physically enter them to make purchases. Today, there are towns that seem to consist of nothing but shopping centers jammed with retail outlets -- which have to entice shoppers who can go online to get products delivered to their doors. Shipping is often free.

More information. Want to know what people think of their smartphones? Hotel accommodations? Winter parkas? The problem today is not finding information but sorting through it all. Our parents and grandparents, by contrast, were largely dependent on what they heard from friends and relatives.

If you arrive in a town you've never visited and want a good meal, you don't have to take your chances. You can get instant, reliable guidance from Urbanspoon, Yelp, TripAdvisor and other online sources.

They are beneficial even to consumers who never go look at them. "In a world of more effective word-of-mouth communications, especially via social websites, it's really easy for consumers to complain, and firms are so dependent for their survival upon repeat business that they go to extremes to make sure their customers are happy campers," says University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson. "Firms that make shoddy products or provide inferior service to their consumers are soon known as former firms."

It's all proof that a free-market economy serves the interests of ordinary people. Stores don't open on Thanksgiving because they want to; they open because shoppers reward those that do, at the expense of those that don't. For consumers, it may be a reason to abbreviate the holiday festivities, but it's also grounds for gratitude.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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