Consumer’s Lament

23:13 Tue 13 Jul 2010
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My wallet—not the metaphor, but the physical object I use to hold money and other things—has become worn and ragged. It’s time to buy a new one.

By “new one”, I mean ideally a new wallet of exactly the same model. This wallet has served me extremely well, and I don’t see why I would want to change its configuration given that it’s worked perfectly for years.

Naturally, this appears impossible or, at the least, extraordinarily difficult. It’s a Ben Sherman wallet, black, nylon, several years old. The wallet itself has no data on it other than the branding. A model number would be too much to ask for, apparently. Searching online for it has proven entirely fruitless.

Fine. Surely, I say, surely, it couldn’t be difficult to find a wallet with sufficiently similar characteristics?

Further searching reveals that apparently, sometime in the early 2000s, Ben Sherman created a wallet design that was just about perfect. Then they decided it wasn’t worth making any more, and nobody else seems to have used the design either.

It starts out simple:

  • Bifold.
  • Black.
  • License holder.
  • Credit card slots.

That’s not difficult. However, this wallet had some other features that made it a paragon of wallets:

  • Two main money slots instead of one—ideal for putting dollars in the first slot and Euros in the other.
  • Instead of more credit card slots on one side, a pocket with a zipper—ideal for carrying random small things like USB drives and SIM cards.
  • A snap closure for the whole wallet, helping to ensure nothing would slip out of it even when a little overfull.
  • Other cleverly-placed pockets—I didn’t use these a great deal, but I like the fact that it uses space optimally.

It appears that no other wallet that one can purchase online matches all eight, or seven, or even six, of these characteristics.

In itself, my difficulty finding a decent replacement wallet is extraordinarily minor. The real problem is that this happens all the damn time. Footwear, jackets, pants, backpacks, pens—it’s all just consumerist ephemera. It’s not merely that our society and economy produce ridiculous varieties of this stuff (with planned obsolescence built in), although that’s certainly hugely wasteful. It’s also that it’s ever-changing. The demands of our capitalist model mean that very few products can remain the same and survive, even if they’re excellent products. The vast majority can’t even survive with upgrades and improvements. What’s the story of my old wallet? Probably that some designer came into Ben Sherman, designed the Tadhg-perfect wallet, then either left or was pushed out, and their ideas faded as the company decided that the real way to go was to print Union Jacks on everything.

One of the problems is that people who purchase the way I purchase are apparently extremely rare. I start with criteria first, and tend to do research attempting to find products matching those criteria. Not always, and I have my impulse-buying moments. But that’s my usual approach, and it’s absolutely my approach when I’ve already found something that meets the criteria and I need to replace it. But the vast majority of consumption seems to be done using some entirely other procedure, my guess one far less utilitarian and far more seeking of immediate emotional payoff (likely related to objects as status markers). While I have issues with that, right now I wouldn’t care—except that that approach has killed off many products that I would have liked to have continued buying.

Do I really have to buy multiple copies of everything that I like, just so I can be sure I can get another when the first one wears out?

This reminds me of a realization I first had shortly after getting my first job, one which frequently recurs: when I was a student and had little disposable income, I always thought that the barrier between me and consumer satisfaction was money. I was mistaken. Money is a factor, but time and effort are extremely major factors, because, thanks to the syndrome I describe above, it’s often just not possible to pay good money for the thing I want.

It also reminds me of one of the reasons why I want Freebase to succeed: because if it were to succeed, then it’s possible that over time all products would have an accepted schema. Wallets, for example, would have a schema including the eight characteristics I list above (any many more). I like to hope that if this happened, using the damn schema on shopping sites would be a competitive advantage, and gradually everyone would move over to it. I further like to imagine that if that happened, companies would examine the data to see what holes in the market currently existed, thus making it more likely that more or less every configuration combination would be available somewhere.

In a way, such a shift (which is highly unlikely, to say the least) would seriously threaten our current model of capitalism, which is based hardly at all on meeting the demands of informed consumers, and rather on manufacturing demands via advertising and related methods. To shift things so that we could specify what we wanted and then have companies bid on producing those goods—that would indeed be a radical transformation of capitalism.

In the meantime, I have to settle for a vastly inferior wallet.

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4 Responses to “Consumer’s Lament”

  1. Eoin Says:

    Well, I can’t help with the problems you refer to regarding society (at least, not until I work the kinks out of my death ray), but you -could- design and make your own wallet. Then it would be 100% Tadhg-perfect, +- a few percent to allow for any anomalies in your ability to perform those tasks. The duct tape wallet springs to mind. Of course, if money is not a concern, you could comission a suitably skilled induvidual to do it for you.

  2. Alex Says:

    Indeed, a temporary substitute until your wallet is found


    may need some customization to meet all requirements

    Although in a functioning market consumers vote with their cash for successful products and less popular or successful products should be removed over time, and replaced with new comers..
    Also I would say there is a false dichotomy in splitting the utilitarian/functional approach from the emotional / signaling one. For many people the signal/emotional response IS the function of the product, i.e. clothes are for looking stylish in not for keeping warm

  3. Lev Says:

    Your burning passion for wallet perfection is highly idiosyncratic. While many consumer goods (cars, computers, stereos, kitchen fittings) are manufactured with an eye toward customization, I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a big market for customization of a commodity good such as a wallet. That said, I wouldn’t doubt if there were thousands of latent wallet geeks such as yourself who would drool over a line of custom utili-wallets, but it would still be a low margin business to mass produce them.

    Better that you do what luxury goods buyers have done for centuries…. order it bespoke from a master craftsman. In Florence recently, Molli came across a leatherworker’s atelier and bought a lovely, cleverly designed coin purse. The leatherworker apparently does most of his business in design and construction of custom wallets and bags for wealthy foreigners. I think Molli kept his card and can share his info with you.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    All of you make a good point about making a wallet myself. I don’t think I could build a wallet myself, and suspect that I’m not quite willing to spend what it would cost to have them built on an individual basis.

    Eoin: Do you mean that once you stop messing around with the death ray project you’ll be free to aid in our society’s radical transformation?

    Alex: Thanks for the link! I don’t think that the utilitarian/signalling split is a false one. While many people do look for that as the main point of purchased objects, that focus is still different from that of people who really are focused on its non-signal functionality. Also, while clothes are useful for warmth, the real purpose of clothing is clearly to provide pockets.

    Lev: Idiosyncratic? Me? If I get to the point where I think this issue is worth several hundred dollars (we’ll see if I get more frustrated with my current wallet or I’ll just accommodate it via adjusted behavior and pocket reorganization), I’ll ask you for that info. I do think that the custom utili-wallets would be a good geek product—maybe I should suggest that SeV make them.

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