Consumer Ephemera

16:00 Sun 22 Jul 2007
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Last night Seth and I had a conversation about how hard it is to think of products that you can be sure will still be available in a couple of years. I brought the topic up in reference to sneakers, because I dislike having to choose new models every couple of years if I’m perfectly happy with the old ones. I’m not talking about refusing to try anything new, just that I’d like to be able to fall back on the old model if none of the new ones are as good.

It extends to a lot more than sneakers. Other forms of clothing seem to be the same, with possible exceptions—I know they still make the classic Doc Martens boots, but I’m not sure if they’re really the same as they were ten or twenty years ago. Converse sneakers (the Chuck Taylor All Star) might be also, although they’re no longer made from exactly the same material. Both of those examples are iconic products. Is it that only the mega-popular icons can survive in the modern marketplace while remaining the same?

Seth and I have both had plenty of experiences where we really liked some product, and soon after our adoption of it, the product ceased being manufactured. I had thought this was due to our tastes often running counter to those of most of the market, but now I wonder whether that matters at all, because (with few exceptions) even popular products don’t remain the same.

Partly this is due to focus on price. If most of the buyers don’t care about quality as much as price, then all manufacturers will pursue cost-cutting, even where that cost-cutting might result in changes for the worse (substituting cheaper materials, for example). The market also seems to have an insatiable demand for novelty, although I can’t tell if this is a standard aspect of markets or if this is due to markets being advertising-driven. Electronic products push this, of course, partly because they do make rapid advances, but also because retaining high margins means constantly making improved, expensive products—if the improvement ceased, then commodification would ensue, and the market for that product would be swamped with very cheap competition.

Some of this is tied in with the tremendous drive to constantly buy, buy, buy, which is largely advertising-driven.

As a consumer, though, this can be extremely annoying. Going out to purchase a running shoe, I want one that’s as close to my old running shoe (which has served me extremely well) as possible, but there’s no way to determine that except by trying a lot of them on. Certainly that old shoe model is no longer available. The concept of fashion has an awful lot to do with this, of course, the idea of shoes and sneakers as going in and out of fashion based on look alone, and the apparent horror with which important segments of the market view the idea of being seen with “last year’s sneaker”. This has always been one of my problems with the idea of fashion, that clothes could be relegated to outcast status within a year—and in fact this was the intent. And this is certainly true today with the personal electronics market, as phones are clearly fashion items as well. My Razr, apparently so fashionable two years ago, has fallen to the “old and busted” category, while the iPhone is the paramount accessory. Obviously the iPhone is a technological advance over the Razr, but in terms of actual use my Razr outperforms it in some key areas (the ability to function on multiple networks, for example).

If all the improvements really were improvements, of course, this wouldn’t be a problem. But they’re not, and along the way a lot of good features often disappear. Apart from that, though, it seems unbelievably wasteful to create new products when the old ones were sufficient. Cars are another example of this, an egregious one because they’re so expensive, and because the year-on-year advances are, for the most part, very minor. Yet car turnover among consumers in the US is rather high. At least with cars, though, many of the underlying aspects remain stable over time, so that a model you like won’t change utterly in a short span.

Practically speaking, for the smaller consumer items, the only way to deal with this turnover is to buy multiples of the things that you like and that you think are going to wear out.

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