When Good Engough Just Isn’t

Mark Gibbs a regular columnist in the trade paper NetworkWorld recently wrote an article lamenting the current lack of quality in consumer electronics. I encourage you to read his article “Digital Lifestyle, Part II“. Not only do I agree with his analysis of this disturbing trend in consumer electronics but I would suggest that it could be expanded to other parts of our life. Americans have become comfortable with mediocrity. I like to call this phenomena the Wal-Mart syndrome. In a continuous effort to get more for less, which any physicist will tell you breaks the first law of thermodynamics, we have put up with increasingly shoddy products. Think for a moment about the products of your youth. Food usually came in glass, paper or metal packaging and I bet that eight track player you bought as a teenager will still work if you pull it out of storage, I know mine does. Now think about the CD player you bought five years ago, does it still work? Assuming it wasn’t supplanted by superior technology chances are it stopped working. How about your TV? Do we even attempt to have these “electronic appliances” serviced anymore? No, the answer is that we simply go any buy a new one.

I first verbally expressed these concerns after coming back from a shopping trip with my parents last spring where they were looking at digital camcorders. My mother was wondering why the prices for the models I was encouraging them to look from the camera store are were so much higher than those at a big box retailer. At that point I realized that what has driven me to “professional” grade electronics is the steep drop off in the past 18 years. Most mass market consumer electronics are just not built and tested in the way they once were. While the decrease in price has made these electronics available to people who would otherwise not have access to them it’s still hard for me to say
that’s a fair trade for the consumer.

The reason I call this the Wal-Mart syndrome is that I believe that discount retailers, and especially Wal-Mart, and largely responsible for this decrease in quality. We have come to expect products to be far less inexpensive than they have been in the past and thanks to pressure from retailers manufacturers have done just that. Certainly, manufacturers have streamlined their practices in an effort to decrease cost but you can only take that so far. At some point the manufacturers started making trade offs in quality to meet retail pricing demands. I feel this is a shortsighted move and flies directly in the face of the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra we all heard in the 1980s. Still more dangerous is that this acceptances of mediocrity is creeping into other facets of our lives such as our educational system. As Gibbs points out in his article there is an entire generation that believes mediocrity is acceptable. What will happen when these youngsters become voters, managers and CEOs? Think about all the times when “good enough” just isn’t.

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