The demise of the U.S. retail market

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One of the issues with the left-leaning progressives in Western culture is that they don’t quite get the fact that the rules of our society have changed in a deep and irreversible way as we’ve transitioned into a society obsessed with appearance rather than substance.

One of the side effects of the so-called “revolt of the elites” is the change its has wrought in the relationships between consumers and sellers, and between citizens and their elected officials.

One can no longer protest and expect those in authority to back off; news organizations no longer write stories to please readers, but to curry favor with advertisers; and the fundamental rule of quality in the consumer marketplace also has undergone a sea change.

Have you ever noticed how people who actually create and make things are paid far less than those people who simply push money around? Meanwhile, people like the Kardashians haul in obscene amounts of money for producing nothing.

Ask anyone who does things like building cabinets, repairing appliances, sewing clothes, and so on. They don’t bank away fat yearly salaries with bonuses.

Why?

Their skills are rare, they often do custom work, and they work hard. However, they are on the bottom rung of the pay scale ladder now because the whole concept of quality has changed.

I know a guy we’ll call Dan, who can build almost anything. He built his own car in the 70s as a teen-ager, built a house from scratch, and can do plumbing, electrical, masonry — you name it.

A couple of years ago, Dan’s main line of work — producing architectural drawings — dried up as the economy began to sag. So, he went looking for something else to do.

He thought about opening up a repair business and mentioned it to a woman he knew. She reacted enthusiastically.

“That’s a great idea,” she told Dan “You could make a fortune that way!”

The woman was his first customer, bringing in an old radio she loved and needed repaired. She also had a fancy espresso maker that cost close to $400 and was on the fritz.

Dan took a look at the radio and the espresso maker. The radio was an easy fix, but the espresso maker was more complicated. It required a full cleaning, soldering of the metal steam tubes, and other repairs.

A number of disparate skills were called into play. Everything from an understanding of electronics and heating elements, to being able to solder joints. Not to mention possessing the patience to take something apart, diagnose its problems and methodically repair them, and then reassemble the device.

In the meantime, another client approached Dan with a broken breadmaker. The machine needed a $35 replacement part, but had to be taken apart to find the problem. After Dan purchased and installed the new fitting it needed, he had to reassemble the complicated machine. 

All in all, a time consuming process.

Dan saved the woman several hundred dollars by repairing the radio and espresso maker, but had no firm idea of the value of his own work. Being curious, he asked her what she felt was fair.

She offered him $20.

The other client offered Dan a grand total of $10 dollars for fixing his bread-maker.

Dan was disappointed. He’d met their expectations, but their estimates of the value of his skillful repairs fell well short of the time invested in them.

“So, that’s their idea of making a fortune,” Dan thought to himself.

People simply don’t understand the value of skilled manual work any more. The outsourcing we’ve become accustomed to has convinced us that products should be as cheap as possible. 

Plumbers and electricians still seem to make a good living, but that’s only because their professions are protected by strong labor unions and government safety regulations. 

I knew something was wrong with the whole quality/pay equation, even before I spoke with Dan. I knew it because I’d had the same conversation that day with a documentary filmmaker and another handyman.

The handyman performs all kinds of home repairs in my neighborhood — painting, drywall, and so on. A few months ago, he fixed something in our garage and I apparently astonished him by simply paying him without bargaining or bickering. 

“You know what your work is worth and I paid you accordingly,” I explained. “That’s that.”

I saw the handyman in the street the other morning and we started chatting about quality. He told me everybody wants something for nothing these days. People try to bargain him down on even the smallest repair.

Customers don’t seem to understand the simplest concepts of costs for labor, parts, etc., he said.

“The wealthiest customers are the worst,” he said. “They think their professions should be highly paid, but that somehow mine shouldn’t be.”

I had a long phone conversation later that day with a friend who makes documentary films and promotional films for businesses. His experiences were very much the same.

“I’m trying to make a living creating short promo videos for various companies,” the filmmaker told me. “It’s amazing how hard that is.”

He said businesses often ask for free “sample work” which they then try to craft into a final product by themselves. When he quotes a price to customers, he said they automatically assume it’s a starting point for negotiation.

“No one understands that you have to pay for stuff,” he told me. “Not only that, but people don’t understand that I’ve been in this business for years, and I know what I’m doing.”

Customers don’t seem to value his experience, even though it allows him to complete tasks faster and better, he said. They demand it during the interview process but feign ignorance once the issue of compensation arises.

My friend also pointed out something I’d noticed before, which is that companies and other institutions are more willing to attempt an unfamilair project “in-house” due to the business community’s current obsession with cost cutting.

That often means having an unpaid intern attempt an unfamilair project, with predictable results.

This is an experince I’ve had myself more than once.

A big educational nonprofit asked me to submit a proposal for a customized university teaching program for natural resources – an area of expertise of mine.

I’d worked with the California nonprofit before. They knew I was efficient, timely, detail-oriented and produced quality work. Moreover, they weren’t even bankrolling the project money, which was being funded by a government grant.

I spent several days putting together a formal proposal for them, with a professional breakdown for deliverables and costs. They took one look said said it was too expensive.

Then had their interns use it as a template for a similar program, which was a complete failure. The inexperienced interns knew nothing about education or how to present material.

You get what you pay for and people have become so obessed with cost-cutting nowadays that they’re simply taking it too far. They’ve stopped asking “how much is too much” and are well past the point of diminished returns.

Where does this rejection of professional, quality work come from?

Back in the 60s, people chose products based on quality and were willing to pay for them. Back then, companies believed that they had to offer the best product to attract new customers — and that was that.

It was good capitalism, in the sense that there was a tangible and direct relationship between price and quality. The advertising of the time reflected that relationship. Even that evil giant, Bell Telephone, emphasized the quality of its products via ads showed you the guts of the device you were buying.

Bell did that because they were selling quality.

How often do you see that kind of thing in advertising these days?

The old focus on quality changed with the rise of marketing and the increased emphasis on cost-cutting by the Wal-Marts of the world. Now business believe that “people don’t buy the steak, they buy the sizzle.”

Instead of producing and selling quality products, business has come to be about consumption and cost-cutting. Executives are obsessed with getting consumers to buy products they’ve spent as little as possible producing.

That’s why Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s started replacing the beef in their hamburgers and tacos with wood cellullose. We’re talking about undigestible plant fiber and wood pulp. However, someone up high decided these additives were the right way to grow profits at the expense of their loyal customers.

Quality has fallen by the wayside and planned obsolescence has became a thing in this strange new business world.

Executives believe that when a shiny consumable breaks, consumers will simply purchase another one. So they build them to break, instead of building them to last.

Toyota’s decision to stop making its popular FJ Cruiser in 2014 reflects this new reality. The jeep-like vehicle was the best value on dealership lots when it first came out in 2006 with a sticker price of about $24,000. However, the FJ was the least profitable on a per-unit basis because the former concept car incorporated so many unused Lexus parts.

Toyotas dealers revolted because they no longer believe they’re in the long-term business of selling the best cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles to their customers. Instead, they think they’re in the short-term business of selling the most profitable.

Which is why the FJ was rarely included in Toyota advertising during its short life and why the automaker’s dealers eventually lifted the price into the high 30s and low 40s.

Businesses have shifted into the final phase of this race to the bottom, where it’s hardly about the product at all. Instead, it’s about the “user experience” or even lifestyle.

All those car ads on TV with the beautiful people in fancy clothes? They’re not about the car and how it’s made — they’re about the lifestyle you’d like to have while driving it.

The Samsung cellphone ads of a few years ago were a perfect illustration of this marketing sleight of hand. They’re all about the hip lifestyle taking place aound the cell phone, instead of the product itself.

Clearly, an uninformed cunsumer is now American business’ best customer.

As a society, we’re getting products that won’t last, living in poorly-built McMansions, and suffering from a complete lack of experienced repair techs. We’ve become cheap fucking bastards at every income level, and we’re getting exactly what we pay for.

A society of appearance, rather than substance.