Not Sprinkled With Sugar

Ever play one of those picture games where you look for what does not belong in the picture? Take a look at the picture on the left.

IMG_0236If you spotted it, you’ve got to be asking yourself why a screwdriver is driven into the ground. It is to hold one of those silver rings on the stem that sets the sprinkler pattern, to keep it from being moved by the head and messing up the pattern as it rotates around. Also, see that large silver dial on the top that is supposed to determine water-throw distance? It’s so hard to turn I need wide-handled pliers to turn it.

I do a lot of work for specialty brand industries – something I believe has been in steady decline since industrialization (meaning a long time). Its decline is rooted in a cultural obsession with price that has been instilled in consumers for generations – long before the internet, before big box chains, before mail order, and even before Sears Roebuck & Co. Let me expand on sprinklers to illustrate what price-obsession gets us.

I purchased this sprinkler from my local True Value branded store (there are no true “independent” hardware stores anymore) and specifically asked for “the best”. It was billed as all-metal (meaning better?) and was the most expensive, of course.  I did not mind.  I am not a price-shopper, I am a value-shopper.  More on that in a minute.

After several frustrating uses as described above, I finally called True Value customer service. The agent could not answer questions about the GreenThumb brand (who owns it, how it’s managed, its marketplace positioning, etc. – surprised? Not.)  That agent gave me an 888 number for the manufacturer.  The next call weeded me out as an unqualified caller because I was not an industrial customer, and referred me to another 888 number.  After a 10 minute hold, that agent told me they don’t manufacture GreenThumb, only Gilmour and Nelson.  After careful quizzing, the guy finally admits that his employer does make private label brands for others, but he does not know which ones.  (I’m sure he was annoyed that I wouldn’t just hang up.)  He then sends me to an 800 number for corporate customer service (as opposed to call center customer service? OK, whatever.)

About 30 minutes into this process, I finally find someone who seems a bit more aware of whether it is daytime or night outside.  He admits that Fiskars just bought his company from Bosch and that they are trying to “fix a lot of issues”.  Heh, I’ll bet.  I run him through my entire experience with my end-all question: does your industry have any specialty brands that don’t just sell on price – what brand is it and what’s the best model they make?  I’M WILLING TO PAY.  He generously offered to warranty the GreenThumb “protected” True Value house brand Chinese-made crud I purchased and send me their best Gilmour name-brand model freely available on Amazon.com!  (Amazon sells it for $4 more than I paid for the crud-uh oh.)

All I had to do was email him a picture.  I sent him the same one I am showing you – screwdriver and all.  Now, time to place your bets.  How much better of a product experience do I have in my future from this inbound Gilmour sprinkler that sells for only $4 more?  (BTW, if anyone knows of something not made in China or that works really, really well, please email me the make and model.)

Well, while I wait on UPS and perhaps report back to you all at a later time, let’s talk about what is going on here.  We as consumers all say we want quality.  Of course we do.  Who likes things that don’t work as advertised, that break too soon, that cause frustration and wasted time?  I don’t see any hands raised.  (Of course, I can’t see you behind my computer screen either.)  But I’ll bet none of you is hooting “me, me!”.  Value-shopping means looking for the best bang for the buck.  In other words, it probably won’t be the cheapest, but if it lasts twice as long or longer with half of my effort to use it, and I can buy it for 150% of the price of the cheap option, then I am both wiser and have net-spent less than the bargain hunter to buy the better model.  Here is where most of us should blush: we still resent paying more for quality.

Even when we find a brand and product model that we know was intended to be a high performer, we then proceed to search for a bargain and we could not care less who got cut out in the process of making it available on Amazon, eBay, some other fly-by-night eCommerce operation, the back of a truck, or Alibaba.com.  There are plenty of lessons between these lines for those in brand and product management, but I preach at those people all the time about this stuff, so I’ll just focus on all of us as consumers, here.

As long as we keep sending signals that we aren’t willing to pay for quality, quality options are going to keep disappearing.  That means no small stores with well-trained, specialized salespeople who really know their stuff.  That means no distributors and manufacturers who employ U.S. workers to provide their products.  That means only endless copies of the same Chinese-made crud for the lowest possible price that we keep buying over and again, meaning we are actually spending more on the products we buy over time, not saving money in the process of spending less each time.

Lowes, Menards, Home Depot, Ace, True Value and Wal-Mart sell an awful lot of everyday household products we want and buy.  Because these and protégés of Jeff Bezos are the only providers left in a lot of these product categories and there are ever fewer specialty brands and specialty retailers over time, quality is literally not an option.  No suits sat around a board room one day and decided they didn’t want us to have the good stuff anymore.  We sat around our living rooms online and decided we weren’t willing to pay them for it.  Thereafter, a lot of U.S.-based jobs from professional retail sales & service to warehousing & distribution to brand design & management have disappeared, or commoditized.

Thus, here is the advanced economics proof for today: the average consumer will complain they need to be “price conscious” because it’s just so darn hard to make a good living and be able to be more free to spend.  Indeed.  Ever wonder if there is a connection between what we’re willing to spend on quality and what jobs are available (including what they pay)??  Think deeply on that.  Price consciousness is not the problem, price inebriation is.

This is an opinion piece for which little can be offered in terms of a readily-applied solution.  For every person who reads and understands what I am writing, there are 100,000 others who are all, like zombies, headed to Wal-Mart or Amazon or whatever, sometime in the next 24 hours.  Sheep are we all, unwilling to shovel our own …

Jeff Koenig



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