Specialty Snow ShovelWhat Snow Shovels Can Teach Us About Consumer Choice

Six inches of snow is coming and you remember that you broke your last shovel – you have a short term felt need. What do you do next?

Virtually any customer is going to end up either at a megamart general store, a big-box building store, or a medium-box hardware chain. You will find a shovel that says that it is on sale, making you feel good about a purchase, even though market conditions now heavily favor the retailer.

Are these stores going to have a solution? Yes. Are you going to buy one of their solutions? Yes. Are the chances of a back ache tomorrow morning high?

Broken ShovelCould the shovel break again? Is the new metal edge going to catch on every crack in your driveway and give you arthritis? Yes, Yes and Yes! Are we as consumers cultured to accept this sorry state of affairs driven by big box presence and advertised sales? Alas, Yes.

Megamart retail succeeds not because it solves problems well. It offers ‘quick’ and ‘cheap’, not ‘good’. Always having a solution, that happens to be cheap, is why they turn volume. Now, if your town had a snow-shovel specialty store, and you knew about it, what might you have done?

Imagine: you drive into a small parking lot and are able to park within steps of the front door.  It’s a store for shoveling, so enticing options are on display just inside, not buried deeply within.  People who are experts in the high arts of snow shoveling and actually use their own products are on-hand to educate you.  You might spend $90 instead of $10, $20 or $30, but would you gladly pay it for a shovel made in multiple sizes with a handle-length perfect for your height? Would you appreciate interchangeable handles to fit different size hands?  What if the customizable blade volume was perfect for your build so that didn’t hurt to lift?

Shovels we actually get to buy today are one size fits all, and we aren’t all one size! That’s what sucks about commoditization.

Back-breaking WorkWhat if you could buy quick-change interchangeable blade edges for different surface types guaranteed to glide smoothly due to specialty engineering and manufacturing?  What if a shovel could come with a 10-year no break warranty?  Heck, I’d pay $200 for that shovel because in 10 years I spend $300 over time replacing a crappy shovel every year (and could spend another $5000 on chiropractors!)

Why is there no such thing as a specialty snow shovel — even one that we could call quality considering what we clearly could manufacture if we chose to?  The answer is that no one believes it would sell well enough, today, to justify the re-design, research, retooling of an existing factory, and redistribution of such an animal through a shrinking specialty store retail channel so that customers could learn and try the shovel out before buying.  (And by a try-out, I mean a perpetual snow bank outside the store created with artificial ice shavings if necessary so that customers could always try and compare the models.)

And why is there no faith that it would sell — haven’t I expressed my consumer willingness to pay many times more than the going rate if it could save me $thousands in shovel replacement, medical bills, and time spent shopping?  Am I alone?

Custom ShovelThe unfortunate truth is that the expectation of what a snow shovel ought to cost is so prevalent that not enough consumers may be willing to allow their minds to perceive the superior value proposition of an “expensive” specialty shovel.  Curiosity may bring them into this new shovel store, and have them laughing at the price before allowing a salesperson to prove its worth.  Existing specialties that have already been established for decades, like the bicycle business, are shrinking precisely because A) new generations of internet-cultured shoppers don’t believe in paying a fair price for goods, and B) new generations of brand managers don’t believe in exclusive distribution through specialty retailers, allowing their brands to become commoditized (cheapened, eventually dropping better options from their lineup).

I’m afraid that, within my lifetime, we may have evolved into a society of nothing but cheap, poorly-performing and quickly used-up goods that we actually impoverish ourselves to constantly replace with no better options available to us.  And we’ll call it “progress” and thank discount retailing for making it all possible.


Jeff Koenig