Part 1

In our increasingly disposable world – geared in every way toward the act of consuming, it’s no wonder that the things we buy seem increasingly less usable and reliable. While offshore manufacturing and cheap dollar store knock offs provide a piece of this puzzle, they are but symptoms of a much larger problem, namely: A disfunctional relationship between consumers and the companies we buy products from. As we head into the holiday season, and the urge to buy alot, and buy it fast comes on like a sugar rush from too many candy canes, let’s take a look at where this relationship went wrong and what we can do to fix it.

Like so many wired up wall street traders frantically shortselling their toxic stock, companies seem hell bent on unloading last year’s products on us. Take a look down the isles of any discount department store and you’ll see them – those same gleaming, name brand, fresh-off-the-factory-floor “must haves” from last year at discounts deeper than Loch Ness. But before you jump at that deal, ask yourself how it is that a product got so deeply marked down in the first place. Surely it can’t have been very popular. Or maybe the store just ordered too many? or maybe….We can only speculate, but the fact is – and we all should know by now – the product has been priced (up or down) so artificially that we consumers have no idea what it’s really worth.

A generation ago, it was very different day. The relationship was young and innocent. Call it the honeymoon period. Brands were all about building a loyal customer base as quickly as they could, and consumers felt rightly well done by. Back then, when brands that “got it” would never discount their products beyond a mere gestural 10%, consumers got back quality in spades – fantastically functional, well-designed products that lasted. If the kids today groan at that old saying “they don’t make things like they used to”, that’s only because they’ve never experienced an appliance that lasts 30 years. They are actually suspicious of the whole concept.

I am not saying that there aren’t good products any more. The breakthroughs in consumer electronics over the last 10 years are enough to make even the grinch giddy. I am talking about day-to-day products, like say, a can opener. One of the simpler, single-use pieces of household necessity.

I remember our family having two of exactly the same can openers with different colored handles that we used for decades without incident or failure. When it came time, one went to my brother and the other to me. In a subsequent move, my can opener was lost. Following the prerequisite grieving, I reluctantly went out to the dept. store and after a thorough examination of the available models, bought a new one. A long time believer in the mantra “I can’t afford to buy cheap things”, I chose what seemed to be a higher end can opener, anticipating a long, loyal relationship. As I walked to the cash, I found myself mouthing my father’s favourite phrase “this should see me through”.

As my purpose here is to point the light and not fingers, I won’t mention who’s can opener I ended purchased. Suffice to say this major kitchen appliance company had produced a complete dud. Not only did not open cans. It got stuck to and ruined the can I tried to open with it.

Standing downcast in the kitchen I asked myself – How did this happen? How did the designers miss this? Did the customers not complain? How did this product make it to the shelves and into my shopping basket? How?

The answers to these questions and more in Why Companies and Consumers need Couples Counselling – Part 2

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