Wandering the electronics aisles of my local big box retailer the other day (no names, but you can probably guess who) as Cost Center Two scouted new Xbox games it struck me that 95%+ of the stuff that they were carrying was just complete rubbish. Clunky laptops, CD playing beat boxes, bulky scanners, MP3 players, Blue-ray discs, wireless speakers, stand-alone monitors. Aisles and aisles of stuff that looked old, tired, out-of-date, cheap, and unlovable. I stood there for a good 15 to 20 minutes, wondering who might buy a $9.88 flip phone nowadays.
Waiting for CC Two to choose between a game where he’s a pimp in LA or one where he’s a killing machine on Cirnicus-IV, (Parenting Gods help me, for I know not what I’m doing) I didn’t see a single other person in the aisles, let alone taking anything up to the counter to buy it.
This was a Saturday afternoon; the prime retailing window of the week.
If I was a real alien, rather than just a resident one, I might look at this and think, what the Shayol (look it up) is going on?
Now, before I continue, I should point out that this was a huge, international brand name retailer, in the prosperous north east region of the world’s only superpower. And these were blue-chip brand electronics all manufactured in the last few months. It wasn’t as if I was in some crumbling retail empire in the back of beyond, in the days before the barbarians descend, looking at gear that was five years old and hadn’t sold.
As I say, what the Shayol is going on?
Hard to really know, but I would hazard a guess that what this little vignette illustrates is the logical end-game of the concept at the heart of the consumer society of the last 100 years; planned obsolescence.
Alfred Sloan’s idea, that to get folks to keep buying his General Motors cars it made sense to frequently change their design and features, has had an incredible run as the (pardon the pun) engine that has driven all sorts of industries forward; planned obsolescence, and the technological leaps (embodied in Moore’s Law) which have given substance to the idea that tomorrow’s product will genuinely be better and more affordable than today’s, have produced astounding results for supply and demand side alike; I bet you wouldn’t trade your 2014 mid-range GMC Yukon for a luxury 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88! And I’m sure Sloan’s descendants are always happy to stroll down Memorial Drive in Cambridge!
But the very success of planned obsolescence – of course supercharged by the disseminators of dissatisfaction on Madison Avenue – is now slowly but surely beginning to devour every product, everything, everyone, that isn’t “new”, “the next big thing”, “super-sized”, “the future of x”. Now, the product life-cycles of all sorts of items work to fashion industry rhythms; “this is the hot new phone for Spring”; “get our new Version 3 whole home speakers”; “wires are for losers”. Now, electronics that are still perfectly good, that work fine, do the job, that were only launched a few months ago, are old, tired, out-of-date, cheap, and unlovable. Sitting there on dusty aisles, watching their margin melt away, counting the days down to being shipped back to the electronics equivalent of Nouadhibou (if that exists and wherever it is; the Internets didn’t seem to be able to answer that one easily). Just like fashion, this year’s model is moments away from being last year’s model.
Why would anyone buy something if something better is going to come along in 10 minutes and if what I buy today is going look terrible in another 10 minutes time?
This is the fate every electronic product now faces, and managing this process, because of the pace at which obsolescence is happening, is seemingly a tougher and tougher act to pull off. I can’t imagine that the big-box retailer is terribly happy having to carry all that inventory, manage all that space, have all of those shelf stackers and cleaners and RFID technicians and supply chain logistics engineers focused on supporting stuff that basically nobody loves. That’s sort of nuts.
So, what happens next? How do those who have lived by the sword, not end up dying by the sword?
I’ve got absolutely no idea! Have you?
This whole dynamic is even more heightened of course by the Apple phenomena; Apple’s products are clearly so superior from every dimension to most other gear in the market that things that were ok-ish a few years ago are now simply DOA.
Undeniably, Apple themselves promote planned obsolescence; Cost Center One recently won her six month ground war to wear down my resistance to paying for her iPhone 6 upgrade, a mere 18 months after she had been “over the moon” at getting an iPhone 5. Her iPhone 5 had gone from being “sick” (how a 15 year old uses that word) to being “sick” (how a 52 year old uses that word) in, seemingly, the blink of an eye.
At the moment Apple are surfing these waves as well as Dane Reynolds (look him up) but one day, as George Colony still feverishly still imagines, Apple = Sony. http://bloom.bg/1BX5L4f
Maybe. That’s sort of a different point though; one, I’ll let Mr Colony continue to defend.
My point is simply to ask, is obsolescence obsolescent? Or does it continue to drive us forward and simply is what it is? If it is over though, how does it fall, and what replaces it? And if it’s not over how short can product life cycles be and sustain life within them? How can I, as a manufacturer or retailer, survive in a world of a few huge hits and a million awful misses? How can I, as a buyer, minimize my remorse and make a bed I can lie in, comfortably, for the foreseeable future? Or at least until next fall?
As I wandered the aisles the other day it all just didn’t seem to make sense. It felt like something that couldn’t continue as is. It felt like a model rife for re-invention. But it felt like an approach that is so ingrained, so established, with so much vested interest riding on it, that Band-Aids rather than open-heart surgery would be the only orthodox prescription anyone could recommend to put new pep into the patient. Anything else seems too big, too Marxist, too risky, to take a punt on.
A final thought; I, of course, can imagine how someone reading about how no-one could possible want a $9.88 flip phone nowadays and only high-end Apple products are any good might take exception to that point of view. A lot of people (here in New England and all around the world), for good and bad reasons, can’t or don’t want to spend a lot of money on these types of product. I fully acknowledge the situational specificity of my story. I say a little prayer each and every day thanking the powers that be, and all of the people who should take the credit (but none of the blame), for getting me where I am today (wherever that is).
But I hope that that objection, if that is what you’re feeling on reading this piece, doesn’t hamper you in following my point. Perhaps you’re better than I am at tuning out The Persuaders; perhaps you’re perfectly happy with your old phone, your old car, your comfortable old jeans, your cheap and cheerful glasses. If you are, good for you. Congratulations. I’m sure the money you’ve saved has been put to much better use. Perhaps a $10 dollar phone is an incredible thing; a wonder, a window into a world never seen before. If that’s the case, that’s terrific.
For the rest of us though, stuck on the upgrade treadmill, with economies (and everything else) based on growth generated by increased levels of consumer spending, planned obsolescence is probably here for a while longer, even though to paraphrase another song from the inspirer of the title of this piece, it might be something that was a fine idea at the time, now a brilliant mistake.
Having started with Elvis, and then finishing with him, it seems only fitting to leave you with these two links; play them back to get two different takes on obsolesce (planned or unplanned) written thirty three years apart.