…or, flip-flops in the arctic.
That’s not to say that flip flops are inherently bad. To each item, its purpose.
It is perhaps a constant mental formula, ever-changing, ever-adapting to new additions to the soup of pros and cons that is the value-based decision of the human brain. I’ll be using the word “ITEM” to refer to any item, physical, or imagined, that is purchasable (it will save you valuable seconds when continuing to read this article!).
[Obviously this article will be a bit common-sensical and less-than-academic to some of you. The writing of it is helping me, however, to digest my own feelings for consumer culture in general. The scope of this article is intentionally limited. There are more persons adept at explaining commerce and marketing than I.]
However, disposable culture and the durability of goods are fascinating and sometimes disconcerting topics. So let’s begin.
Is it worth it?
“Is it worth the money?”, you may ask. Is it worth anything? The dilemma of deciding value is a personal decision of choice. For some, the durability of an item trumps its price.
A Many Legged Beast
Everyone’s formula for the value decision is different. It is what makes the experience of everyone personal, and customized.
Some of them include Price, Reviews, History, Brand Identity, Perception of Value, Previous Experience, Appearance, Bling-ability, Shared Understanding of Worth, Different-ness. Let’s start with:
Ah, the ever important Price. We hear terms such as Price-point, Retail, Wholesale, Discount, Sale, Reduced, Liquidation, EVERYTHING MUST GO.
The price aids in at least two aspects of the an item’s worth. It establishes perceived value (to some degree) as well as its desirability. If an item is priced high, it can set expectations about public demand, build quality, as well as durability, although these expectations can easily be misjudged. A sports car priced over $100,000 is a great example. To think that someone is ready to pay for a sports car at this price may seem absurd, but perhaps the engine alone was race prepared for racing teams to compete and win million-dollar purses. Then the price would make sense (to someone).
Price has the ability to ruin a product, whether the price placed too high or too low. There were expectations that the new Apple iPad would never sell at prices nearing $800-900 but the debut price when revealed at somewhere near $500-700 threw people for a loop. In this case, there are long-term plans to sell high quantity, so price can be set a bit lower, and in hopes that the product will dominate a market and squash competing items. Of course, Price isn’t the only factor that can be used to discuss the success of an item or its sales.
It has been said that “The people who can least afford to buy cheap (value) products is those who are least able to.” Those who can hardly afford to buy a durable frying pan to feed their family will (arguably) spend more money buying several frying pans that wear out faster than a person who picks up the frying pan that cooks better as it becomes more “seasoned”.
Five-star reviews and user-submitted input can help us to formulate our decisions on item value. Many websites have implemented a rating system that quickly displays weighted ratings and reviews of items to aid us in our decision.
There are many definitions of this, and many have their own perception of what Brand Identity is, or should be. This includes, Customer Experience, Logo, ability to provide helpful services or sales help, etc. So, Brand Identity can play a pivotal role in defining the value of product. When a company uses slave labor, bad business practices, or illegally toys with market forces to make a profit, it can (and arguably “should”) affect the Identity of a Brand. And we’ve seen this many times. Conversely, supporting initiatives that consumers or users of a certain Brand respect can boost your Brand Identity value. In the remotest of examples, a person could make a decision to purchase simply because it has a good jingle. “Oh Yeah!” may not be as strong as “Just Do It”, but either way, some people respond strongly to features as small as the band chosen that performs the song that represents an automobile, sports brand, curling iron, makeup, or even personal hygiene. Which brings us to:
In some industries, the marketing of a product helps an otherwise unimportant item become a raging success. Using famous spokespersons, models, sports stars, or even cartoon characters to attract and help push sales in products such as Happy Meals. You know what I’m talking about, George Lucas. I know my son understands this easily.
Perception of Value
Luxury is expensive. For example, when a car is covered in Carbon Fiber (a material that can be very expensive to produce in quantity), one usually assumes that the item is both A. expensive and B. luxurious. Luxury doesn’t define the value of an item exclusively, however. Supply and Demand play a large factor here as well.
One of the most confusing examples of Perceived Value can be Price/Hour. If you charge high rates for your services or goods, people wonder why. For example, if prices are high, perhaps there are people willing to pay it. If prices are low, however, perhaps that person or company is underselling itself (or its competitors), or the item or service is not in demand. This can quickly steamroll into catastrophe. A recent example of this is the massive bout of Toyota recalls that occurred a short time ago.
In short, perceived value will make or break your sales and profits.
Previous Experience or History
This one speaks for itself. Have you purchased an item and had a terrible experience, received less-than-standard customer service, or the item even broke short of the expected lifespan? Enough said.
You know, personally, I could buy the same flip flops every time. For the most part…. The history of a brand such as Reef or Ocean-Minded may have a better track record of respecting environmental issues than larger companies like Quicksilver or Sensi. Or maybe not. Historical reference points help us to understand why we like an item or brand. Which brings us to:
Shared Understanding of Worth
When multiple people searching for book cases or an office desk that meets their needs, along with Reviews, knowing that together we can all at least agree that a particular desk meets the desk of many, can meet or exceed the needs of most, becomes a great “value” and carries a resulting (perhaps) measured “worth”. Rather self-explanatory.
When a car glows and shines with its brand new paint, for example, it conveys the appearance of being new. New things are more desirable. Appearance can deceive, though. Louis Vuitton bags that sell at cut rates, may not be “official” products.
In situations where the display of brands becomes a status symbol, it could be argued that deception plays a large part in selling goods. Own a LV bag? You must be successful.
A strong argument against products being flashy and appealing has to do with the argument about “rich” vs “poor”. The Vanguard Retirement site which helps their customers invest and become wealthy cites an “authority” who states:
You can act rich or be rich. Few of us will ever be able to do both, and we certainly won’t get rich by acting the part.
Knowing the value of an item turns out to be more valuable than displaying your wealth to the world, and certainly becomes more important. In finishing, the expert states:
Happy people tend to live well below their means.
As with much of this discussion, that is another article all together.
Ties together with the previous point. Whereas this point would reason that some items become successful simply because it lets the buyer show off, as would a peacock in heat. As to whether there is value in that or not, remember that animals display this behavior to the success of the preservation of species. Not to say that you need a Louis Vuitton bag in order to procreate. Discuss.
One of the strangest phenomena of the twentieth century is the desire to be unique concerning goods such as automobiles and fashion. Some feel that being unique adds more value to your personal worth or level of “trend-setting-ness”. Obviously this is a wholly hollow act of futility. On the other hand, a large proportion of humanity responds to this feature. Here are a few quotes for you:
- “I discovered this band first.”
- “I knew them before they sold out.” (an entirely consuming additional topic)
- “Everyone is doing it.” (in a negative light)
- “That’s played.” or “That is so last year.”
You begin to see that there is a strong sense of desire to be different. …yet the same. Ever hear someone tell you about something they really enjoy (such as a new band) and for some reason you can’t seem to get yourself to try it based on factors such as “I don’t want to follow that trend. I’m not a trend-follower”, or “that sounds like something I wouldn’t like”, for the lack of a better reason, simply because it has already been “spotted”, “discovered”, or “found”? There is a strong desire for people to be “themselves” and no one else. I would describe this as an Anti-Lemming attitude. To me, it plays a role in item desirability.
Another example of this is the roller coaster appeal of Apple products. At one point, if you slapped an Apple sticker on the back of your car, people had a certain perception of what type of person you were… or could be. At some point you reach into the “I create the person that I perceive myself to be so that others may observe that in us” black hole, when in fact most people may not even care about your minute act of self-discovery and affirmation.
That discussion gets into the superficial and tactically explosive realm when discussing it with others.
Just two more
So all of the preceding points are interconnected and help us make continual decisions about the value of goods or services. In closing, the point of this article is to touch on two things that never leave my mind when considering goods and services:
When you head to a large family picnic at a public park or beach, do you bring your heirloom china? Well, I don’t. I think it’s not worth stating that things should never be discarded, but I would say there are a lot of items that we use everyday that fall in to a Disposable category.
The phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” has its place. Plastic sporks (spoon & fork merged), for example, should only be reused (if at all) so many times before they become unusable and dangerous (or just impossible to clean).
There are many examples that display the problem of Disposability. I’m sure you can think of your own right away.
- Should baby wipes be recyclable? Should they be made of a compostable material?
- Plastic Diapers vs Cotton Diapers (you wouldn’t believe the debates on this topic)?
- Should baby strollers be built so tough that they become a handed-down item?
- What are some of the preventers of items becoming heirloom-able? Will your son or daughter prefer not to use “…dad’s stupid, old watch. It’s so old and boring…”
- It can be expensive to create items that endure. “Nobody would pay that price!” (Another debatable topic).
- “But I only need it for now. Not tomorrow, next year, or ever again.”
There are consumer cultures that lay an ideal of quality upon objects that are ornately packaged, and it is considered to be a respect for a highly-prized object that (may) lay within. In the packaging industry, I’ve seen firsthand that pushing those buttons in consumers has been part of a formula for success in those markets. On the other hand, when a company presents its packaging as highly-recyclable and puts that consideration before any other, this move could prove rewarding on many levels, not just environmental.
When you purchase something that wears-in instead of wears out, you’d think it a smart buy. I’d agree. After having the chance to preview Gary Hustwit’s documentary Objectified in 2009 at SXSW in Austin, there was a Q&A afterwards and I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Hustwit about his purchasing experiences post-documentary. He stated that he prefer to throw everything out (obviously not ideally so, but that was his initial reaction) and to begin again by making smart decisions on what and why he buys any particular objects.
One of the many points of his film touched on a leather briefcase handed down and after repeated use, the bag became more comfortable, and thus more useful. What a grand idea that is. An idea that I try to carry with me when spending money.
I’ve watched this documentary with quite a few family members and have had some very long discussions about the topics the film touches on. One of the most effecting aspects of the movie is watching the actual production of chairs, pens, and other everyday items that we forget were created for our use. It certainly changes our perspective.
In closing, durability plays a role in the retail choice, as well as disposability. I try to be as cautious in my “buying” and “using” to help manufacturers and retailers to understand that there are places for both of Durability as well as Disposability. Hopefully there is a larger amount of intersection of Durability with Disposability than anyone thought possible. Surely you have your own mental formula for calculating worth, value, and usability of objects when buying them. Certainly there are areas in consumer goods where there is no better option than what is available. In these cases, there are other ways to be smart about what we purchase. Buying locally produced or grown goods is one of those ways.
I do my best to try and be as smart as I can about the usage and care of items. I’d assume there’s no need to explain the benefits of doing so. It’s obvious how large of a market that the “reusing of items” has become. See Craigslist, eBay, and more.
We have become a culture that prefers quick, easy, disposable, pre-packaged, and ridiculously packaged products. Whether it be for cleanliness, sanitation, packaging concerns, or ease-of-use.
Is it worth it? Can you hand it down later to someone else? Should you wait until you can afford something that will last? Only you can determine that.
I’m no expert at it.
UPDATE: October 29th, 2010
Wrote this article over many years now, and is the first article that I began writing for a blog. The topic keeps coming up in conversation with friends and family. It’s not complete now, nor will it ever be. Perhaps there’ll be a Part II. Who knows.