What Do Vape Shops, Bowling Alleys, Apple Retail Stores, and Gas Stations Have in Common?


The answer is nothing.

But that didn’t stop someone from writing the following headline for a story:

“The U.S. Has More Vape Shops Than Bowling Alleys”

When I saw the numbers – more than 10,591 vape shops versus less than 4,000 bowling alleys – my first thought was “well that’s not good”. But then a moment later I thought why would there be any reason to compare those two numbers? Is it meant to suggest that people are giving up bowling to go vaping instead? I don’t think that was the point of the story.

If you’re looking for something dramatic to highlight the rapid growth of vape shops, why not compare the number of shops to the number of Apple retail stores, of which there are only 463? Although such a comparison might suggest that people are leaving Apple stores in droves in order to go vaping.

What if someone took a different tactic, and compared the number of vape shops to the number of gas stations. Since there are 186,000 gas stations in the U.S., one could argue that there aren’t that many vape shops, and as a result there’s no need to regulate them, since people are hanging out at gas stations.

I think part of the issue with any such comparison is that most people would have no idea what the number of vape shops are (or should be), so if you throw out a number to compare it to, you are using the concept of anchoring.

According to Wikipedia, anchoring ,or focalism, is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.

So if someone asked you “Do you think there are too many vape shops in the U.S.?, and you replied, “I’m not sure how many there are currently”, and the person said “There’s almost three times as many vape shops as bowling alleys”, you might be taken aback, and think, “Wow, that’s a lot of vape shops.”

On the other hand, if someone had answered your question by saying “There’s only one vape shop for every 15 gas stations, you might think, “Well that doesn’t seem too bad”.

Here’s a classic example of anchoring, from a 1974 paper entitled “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics And Biases, by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The two psychologists conducted a study in which a wheel containing the numbers 1 though 100 was spun. Then, subjects were asked whether the percentage of U.N. membership accounted for by African countries was higher or lower than the number on the wheel. Afterward, the subjects were asked to give an actual estimate. Tversky and Kahneman found that the seemingly random anchoring value of the number on which the wheel landed had a pronounced effect on the answer that the subjects gave. For example, when the wheel landed on 10, the average estimate given by the subjects was 25%, whereas when the wheel landed on 60, the average estimate was 45%. As you can see, the random number had an anchoring effect on the subjects’ responses, pulling their estimates closer to the number they were just shown – even though the number had absolutely no correlation at all to the question.

So is 11,000 vape shops a lot of shops? To me, even one is too many. But from a business perspective, I think one would need to be a little more analytical than just comparing the number of vape shops to the numbers of other businesses, such as bowling alleys, for which there is no correlation.

Perhaps a more meaningful comparison would be to compare the number of vape shops to cigar shops, or hookah bars.

I do like the method that the original article used to get the count of vape shops, since such shops aren’t even a recognized category in the business classification codes used by the US Census Bureau. The author turned to Yelp to look up the number of vaping shops, presumably by each state. Yelp does seem to have quite an extensive listing of businesses, and so is potentially a good source of info.

For example, according to Yelp, there are 50 hookah bars in the Philadelphia area, and 66 vape shops, and about 193 cigar shops. What that all means I can’t tell you, but I think it would much more relevant to track those numbers together as opposed to vaping shops vs. bowling alleys.

By the way, I did think of what vaping shops, bowling alleys, gas stations, and Apple retail stores have in common: they are four places I’ve never kissed a girl.

Thank you to Cliff Clavin for helping me to think outside the box.

2 thoughts on “What Do Vape Shops, Bowling Alleys, Apple Retail Stores, and Gas Stations Have in Common?

  1. I agree that one vape shop is too many. And it drives me nuts when people try to skew numbers to suit their biases (or they’re just trying to come up with something interesting to pull you into a weakly developed story).

    I like Cliffy’s answer the best. (I hadn’t seen that clip in several years — thanks for the chuckle!)

Leave a Reply