So here’s how business, any business, is supposed to work. A consumer has a need. A business goes “Oh, I can fill that need,” and then does so. The job of the consumer is just to need something, the job of the business is to figure out both how to fill that need and how to make money doing so. A good example of this is toilet paper. Need: Cleaning your ass. Business: Provide you with a thing (toilet paper) that helps you clean your ass. Profit: Cotton is cheap, and they sell toilet paper to you cheaply. Why is this a good example? Because you do have other options for cleaning your crack. In most of the world, they use a bucket of soap and water. Gross and unsanitary, but quite cheap. A more westernized version of this would simply be to take a shower every time you had a…movement…but this isn’t practical, and runs up your water bill. You could get a bidet, but again, sometimes you do your business at your business, and bidets aren’t free. Toilet paper occupies this happy middle ground where it provides a cost-effective alternative to the other options that entices you to use it.
So from my good example above you can probably discern where businesses can go wrong; not really solving a need, not differentiating their solution from others, their product/service isn’t cost-effective, or their product flat-out doesn’t work. Let’s stick with toilet paper here to explore what all of these things look like.
First up, not solving a need. Let’s pretend that tomorrow, a baby is born without a digestive tract. Everything after the stomach is just gone; the body has figured out how to use 100% of the garbage that we’re shoveling into it. Now, let’s also ignore what this poo-free baby might look like when it grows up and think what that does for toilet paper. It’s sole purpose is to remove residual poo from your poo chute, so that product is no longer serving a need in the new Ken-doll future. In this scenario, Charmin goes belly up. Cottonelle somehow stays in business because it’s better, but determining toilet paper superiority is an entire blog post of its own. No it’s not, Cottonelle is just superior. But the overall need for toilet paper evaporates. If there isn’t a problem, you can’t solve one.
Second, not differentiating your solution. Since we’re in pretend mode, let’s pretend that there exists a butt cleaner spray. It dissolves your skid marks from between your cheeks in mere seconds with a quick “pss pss” from the can. Now, in this scenario, toilet paper probably doesn’t go away, because some people will still probably prefer a good, old-fashioned wipe, but if this mythical devil spray were comparably priced, the business prospects for Charmin would be…wait for it…wait for it…wait for it…not good. That was shitty of me to do. The differentiation here comes down to what toilet paper offers: A quick, hygienic, cheap way to remove this morning’s breakfast from your posterior. Well, a spray would be quick, hygenic, and cheap as well, so what are you left with? A subtle difference between good ol’ paper and the new spray, and subtle differences don’t typically bode well for you business. More on that below. It’s important to note that Cottonelle would be fine in this scenario as well.
Third, cost-effectiveness. This one is easy to show. If TP were $1000/roll, would you use it? Me either, now pass that soap bucket, friend. No matter how good a product is at solving a need, it still can’t violate the cost-benefit analysis that we all do every day. If the cost of toilet paper outpaced the cost of surgically having a new ass installed every time you pooed, we’d all just do that instead.
I’m not going to talk about the last one here because if you don’t understand why businesses that make products that don’t work are doomed, then any pithy metaphor or comparison I’d use here isn’t going to help you.
Now, as with all life, there’s nuance here, primarily because all of these things are relative. As consumers, we have short memories and poor attention spans. We don’t like being bothered by things, so businesses are frequently able to shovel garbage upon us and we’re happy to have it. This is usually done via marketing. For all of you Christians reading this, let me phrase it this way; in the bible, Satan was just a marketer for hell. Yes, I said that marketers are Satan, because in modern business, marketing is a band-aid that covers the gaping wound of bad business. Nuance, relativity, Satanist marketers, let me weave all of these fibers together into a clearer tapestry.
Wal-Mart’s biggest differentiator for the longest time has been price. You don’t go to Wal-Mart to feel proud of who you are as a person, you don’t go there to get the best thing you can buy, you go there to buy a new t-shirt for $2.74 and car tires for $13.92 each. Sounds cheap, right? In fairness, they do have some really good prices on certain items, but they also do a great deal to manipulate our dumb human brains into thinking that it’s an even better deal than it really is. Wal-Mart manipulates the truth more than our current president. Why do their prices always end in random digits instead of the normal “.99?” To give you the (usually false) perception that they’re cutting the price to the bone. Ever see a sign in Wal-Mart, or anywhere, that says “Limit 3” underneath the enlarged price? Wal-Mart invented the concepts of the enlarged price and the arbitrary item limit so you’d think you were getting a screaming deal. Usually, both of those things are done for regularly priced items. See, Wal-Mart learned a long time ago that at a certain point, it’s easier to make you THINK that you’re getting a screaming deal than to solve the cost problems that prevent you from ACTUALLY getting a screaming deal. This is what I define as bad business.
Since I don’t know if you know me or not, I’ll share some brief personal detail; I’m a business nerd but also anti-capitalist. The business nerd part shares similar roots as the anti-capitalist part, which is that I’m fascinated by human psychology. A long time ago I realized that, as individuals, we mostly do what we perceive as being in our own best interest. For businesses, this means getting us to come back and buy their stuff. But there comes this inevitable tipping point where it becomes easier for the business to start pulling one over on the consumer rather than do the hard work of making a better product, or making it cheaper to produce. The flaw that I’ve always identified in capitalism is that it assumes this sort of utopic free market where consumers have a ton of insight into how a business operates and that businesses will be magnanimous, never using their resources to fleece the consumer. Except the world doesn’t work that way. Businesses have learned that when they get to the top, it’s easier to stay there by simply building artificial hurdles to prevent competitors from crowding into their territory. The most blatant example of this is cable television.
Now, I’ll give credit where credit is due by saying that building an underground network of cables is incredibly expensive and time-consuming, so the cable companies deserve some reward for undertaking that endeavor. But five years ago in San Diego, I had precisely two options for cable service: Cox or DirecTV. A city of 8 million people, and there were two options. Why, you ask? Because major telecom companies spend ungodly sums of money to make sure that they’re protected from competition. For those of you that don’t click that link, the number was over $87 million dollars in 2016. There’s precisely zero reason that there isn’t more competition in this arena. In San Diego, I should have a choice between all of the major networks, Cox, Time Warner, Comcast, Charter, and any smaller ones that may exist. Instead they’ve carved up territories, so I have precisely one non-satellite choice. Even today, my options are expanding via things like Playstation Vue, Chromecast, etc, but the cable companies are fighting them every step of the way. And I don’t blame them. It’s cheaper to spend $14 million greasing the wheels of elections with the promise of a nice fat lobbyist paycheck on the back-end than it is to, you know, actually develop a cable box that doesn’t suck while also costing $200/year.
These are the things I see when I look around at the goods and services that are constantly offered to me. I do see convenience in things like MP3 music downloads, but I also see the full picture. A decade ago, I paid $12ish for a CD in a store. The music clarity was higher, and the store, the company that made the CD disk, the company the printed the little booklet, the company that makes the case, the company that shipped it to the store, the musician and record label, and the myriad other related businesses all made money on that $12 CD that I then owned to do whatever I wanted with. Now, I STILL pay $12 for an album, but it’s a lower-clarity digital download that I only have the rights to, can’t share with friends in an easy manner, and there’s no physical infrastructure behind it. I felt okay with my purchase before because I saw why it cost so much. Now I just wonder why the fuck a worse product in every way save convenience somehow costs roughly the same (yes, I’m aware of inflation; it doesn’t explain the pricing gap to me).
So why did I write all of this? To use a shitload of rhetorical questions, apparently. I mainly want to try to spur critical consumerism. Don’t think of the product in front of you, think of what product you really, really want. Most of the time, we really want the thing being described to us by those
soulless fucking marketer pieces of shit marketers, but when you step back, you realize that the product isn’t that thing, it’s maybe half of those things, at best. But then realize that the price they’re presenting you is for that full thing that you’re not getting. Negotiate. Shop around. Try to be unemotional about your purchases. There are companies that make really good products. They usually cost more, but they’re almost overwhelmingly worth it. Use your hard-earned dollars to punish those people who are bad at what they do. Ignore selling points like “But it comes in 8 different colors.” These are the subtle differences that I warned about above. And be okay passing from time to time.
*Author’s Note: You can thank my wife for this post. She’s a minimalist, and I’m seven stuffed giraffes short of being a hoarder, so she’s cut certain things out of my life, such as my beloved CDs. This is basically the rant that happens in my head every time I
‘m forced to want to buy an MP3 album.