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James Surowiecki Promotes Myth of Consumer Empowerment in the Face of the Crapification of Almost Everything

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There’s nothing like getting a missive from the alternative reality where neoliberalism works and all consumer problems can be solved by more diligent shopping (and remember, since we are all consumers first and citizens second, the corollary is that pretty much any problem can be solved by better shopping).

The current sighting is a story in the New Yorker by James Surowiecki, The Twilight of Brands, that tries to tell us, in all seriousness, that companies now have to be on their toes because consumers are more vigilant and less loyal. He starts with the backlash against yoga clothes maker Lululemon when quality fell sharply, and states his thesis:

It’s a truism of business-book thinking that a company’s brand is its “most important asset,” more valuable than technology or patents or manufacturing prowess. But brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos. “Absolute Value,” a new book by Itamar Simonson, a marketing professor at Stanford, and Emanuel Rosen, a former software executive, shows that, historically, the rise of brands was a response to an information-poor environment. When consumers had to rely on advertisements and their past experience with a company, brands served as proxies for quality; if a car was made by G.M., or a ketchup by Heinz, you assumed that it was pretty good. It was hard to figure out if a new product from an unfamiliar company was reliable or not, so brand loyalty was a way of reducing risk. As recently as the nineteen-eighties, nearly four-fifths of American car buyers stayed loyal to a brand.

This is utterly backwards. The reason “brands have become more fragile” does not not reside in demanding, disloyal customers, but in short-sighted corporate behavior. Surowiecki does point to the early 1980s as the beginning of the sea change, but the driver was a shift away from businesses focusing primarily on good old fashioned success in the marketplace (via matching product quality/price attributes versus customers needs, improving manufacturing processes, looking for new product/technology opportunities, etc) to focusing much more on financial results as the key determinant of success. That orientation arose as raiders, later rebranded as leveraged buyout firms, and now private equity, took over companies, sold unproductive assets, piled on debt, and pushed hard to wring out costs. While many companies were so fat that a lot of overhead could be reduced without affecting production and marketing, the pressure to reduce costs soon moved into areas that involved manufacturing and product quality. Companies began subtly, and then more overtly, lowering product quality and running on brand fumes.

And even though Surowiecki talks about quality, it’s important to remember that branding is about consistency: you are providing a consistent set of product attributes at a certain price level. Dollar Stores is a brand where everything costs a dollar and you can find a broad range of merchandise. That’s a straightforward proposition. Volkswagens (the old beetles and iconic vans) were light-weight, simple to maintain, no frills cute cars at a modest price.

What Surowiecki is talking about is that consumers are engaging in a long-overdue and largely futile backlash against the crappification of almost everything. I’m not a car buyer, but I understand some high-end brands like the Lexus and Prius have stayed true to their consumer promises. But the trend overwhelmingly is the reverse. Let’s give some examples:

Consumer white goods. Washing machines, dishwashers, and stoves all used to be good for forty years absent a leak-induced short or other unusual mishap. Now you are lucky to get ten. I have a little no-name brand gas stove that the astonishingly capable cleaning woman I had when I moved in pronounced to be good. It is. I’m sure you can’t find an inexpensive gas stove that comes close these days. Similarly, in the days when I was more flush and a tenant destroyed an Electrolux, I bought another good (but not as good) vacuum cleaner, a Miele. The engine crapped out in eight years, one beyond the warranty. And remember, I live in a small New York apartment, so it was not as if this machine got heavy use.

Tools. Readers lament in comments about how Sears Craftsman tools were terrific and the current tools under that name are poor imitations and it’s hard to find anything comparable to the old Craftsman line.

High end clothing. In my old days in investment banking, I dressed to look the part. By the mid 1990s, the deterioration in women’s clothing was evident. The tailoring and materials were markedly worse. I regarded shopping a chore rather than fun, and so tended to shop like a man (I have a uniform so I am very focused and am normally able to case the very short list of stores that carry my sort of thing in minutes to see if there are any candidates) and used to find my brief furbishing missions efficient and more pleasant than I anticipated (I’d either score quickly or not waste much time). As everything got subtly shoddier, I had to look wider and would not find things I liked.

And I’ve had this confirmed by people who actually like shopping and are serious about fashion. For instance, one stylish LA matron (A list on the charity circuit in her younger days) has a tailor altering her clothes. He worked at Hermes for 30 years and says the quality of the materials and the manufacturing is markedly worse.

Mid range clothing. In the winter, I live in cotton turtlenecks, black jeans, and pullover sweaters. Cotton turtlenecks have been systematically cheapened over the years. The length is shorter (and I prefer a hip-length shirt, both for warmth and to tuck more securely into pants). They are uniformly more fitted (which I don’t like), which uses less fabric. The turtlenecks themselves are shorter (I had a huge and unproductive argument with Land’s End when they shortened the necks by one inch and have never bought from them since). The cottons are thinner weave.

Mattresses. Josh Kosman, in his book The Buyout of America, discusses at length about how the private equity ruined mattresses. Once the industry became a duopoly, the incumbents could foist crappy products on customers with impunity. Two sided mattresses (which last longer, not just because flipping them lets you wear both sides, but flipping is also better for the mattress for reasons not particularly worth explaining) were replaced with one-sided makes. Customers have been migrated away from spring mattresses to foam, which are cheaper to produce (Kosman has even more examples of how mattresses have become a Soviet-level product). Yet the prices are higher in real terms despite the degradation.

But apparently Surowiecki lives only in the Lexus/iPhone market and has somehow managed to miss how the overwhelming majority of manufacturers seem perfectly willing to adulterate their good and risk consumer rejection. But since so many are willing to join them in the race to the bottom, the Lululemon-esqe rebellions are few and far between.

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157 comments

  1. kristiina

    Oh, yes, this I can relate to. Visited Poland in the nineties, and there were shops that carried such low-quality nasty stuff I would not have touched anything with a ten-foot pole. Thought: this is what poverty looks like. Now there are chain stores in Finland that have that same kind of disgusting junk. Poverty has come here. Seems there still are pollyannas who do not notice any difference. Now I try to buy as much from people who make stuff themselves and make myself. Takes some creativity, and certainly takes the convenience out of consuming, but can’t take the anger from buying the junk anymore. The whole thing is just caving in, looks to me.

    1. jonboinAR

      I’ve worked a blue-collar job my whole career. Mainly wore Levi’s 501′s to work. Before that I’d worn them to school. For about 35 years they were exactly the same cut, material, stitching, at ~about the same price. Well, when I got married about 10 years ago my wife switched me to other, cheaper brands. She thought they were a better deal. I argued briefly that Levi’s were worth the extra money (“The material’s so heavy they’ll stand up by themselves when you first get them.”), but as long as she wanted to do my shopping for me (yes!), I was good with whatever she got me.

      So! About 6 months ago I get a bug up my rear and insist she get me some 501′s. “They’re a better deal!!” So she does. I try them on. ” What the…!!! These aren’t Levi’s!!” These modern Levi’s 501′s are some cheap, flimsy knockoffs made of a thin material that don’t even have the same cut as the old ones as far as I can tell (I don’t have the same “cut” myself so I’m not completely sure on that).

      Sure enough, they’re made overseas now. I did a little on-line research. It seems that several years ago Levi’s sold its looms to a Japanese company and began importing its jeans. I guess their long-term sturdily dependable consistency had had to do with them weaving, cutting, and stitching up the fabric all in-house. Well, for a long time they had at least one loyal customer (many others besides me, I’m pretty sure). Not any more. I’ve bought my last pair. If I’m doomed to wear cheaply made jeans they’ll be for the cheapest price. Levi’s doesn’t exist for me any more!!

      Aside: The on-line tale that gave me the what-happened-to-Levi’s story said that the company that Levi’s sold its looms to was selling its jeans for $200+ a pair, retail. Levi’s hasn’t changed price, really, they’re about $40. They just aren’t Levi’s any more.

      1. diptherio

        On jeans: during my college days I took an int’l development course, from which I recall the account of one factory worker in some far-off country telling how one day the shop manager had come in and told everyone that they were going to have to work extra hours for less pay. The company for which they were making jeans was on the verge of bankruptcy, apparently, and could no longer afford to pay 25 cents an hour. The woman described how the workers all agreed, because they felt bad for the company and didn’t want it to go out of business. The company? You guessed it: Levis (IIRC, the woman’s account was from the mid-to-late 90s)

        And speaking of the lies of the makers of leg-coverings, I recieved quite a shock when I tried to purchase a pair of corduroys in Nepal. I took a pair of my 32/32s to the dressing room…and couldn’t even get them over my ass! Turns out, when they make pants in Nepal they actually make a 32 inch waist 32 inches around. In the US, as I discovered upon taking a tape measure to my American 32s, a 32 inch waist runs about 35-36 inches. Liars!!!!

      2. bulfinch

        That’s what’s remarkable to me. What used to be a baseline standard in durable goods has now become a boutique benchmark with a concomitant price. Everything from organic produce to cotton clothing to cookers.

        Tools: Snap-On are still pretty decent, and mostly manufactured stateside, no? I do know you can buy good vintage tools on ebay. I do.

        Stoves: There’s whole cottage industries centered around restoring and re-enameling old gas cookers.

        Clothes: There’s a tide change under way. Fashion wear was never great quality, it was just luxurious. But younger people who buy vintage or deadstock clothing are getting a taste of what older quality control standards were like. Levis and Jockey and Keds and all these great American brands were making astounding products with high utility and durability, not to mention iconic style.

        In the meantime, you gotta stockpile. I know know, all the pop psychologists you know are going to tag you as a hoarder, but it’s not the case. If you find something you like, manufactured to a standard you appreciate — buy a lot of it. Period. I’ve got five pair of good denim jeans with the tags still on, there whenever I need them.

        I remember Paul Newman on Jay Leno a year or two before he died. He started to lament his canvas topsiders, citing how they weren’t made anymore (not made the way tney were, anyway), and that that was something really too bad. Leno swatted it aside to talk about something dumb, but I remember thinking how I’d seen Newman in photographs throughout the years wearing a kind of uniform. I think he’d stocked up.

        1. jonboinAR

          I used to get really good jeans in the 90′s being clever like that. Every time I was in a mall I’d head straight to the Gap, to their clearance rack. I’d look there for jeans in my size. I didn’t care about the style. About twice a year I’d find 2-3 pairs in my size. They’d usually be 10 bucks. I’d buy all of them. I wore mostly Gap jeans from a few seasons ago, mixed with my 501′s, for several years. Then those outlet malls opened up all over the place, and my source dried up. They had started sending my supply of Gap jeans to the outlets for $29.95. It was good while it lasted.

      3. Mike G

        This.
        I had a pair of Levi’s I bought around 1994 during a bout of fitness-enthusiasm, then put in storage for a dozen years after I gained a little weight. When I lost weight again in the late 00s I dug the old pair out again. The contrast with new Levi’s was shocking — thinner denim, cheaper and flimsier-feeling in every respect. They even did away with the copper buttons that were one of their unique features – now it’s cheap aluminum with a veneer of copper on the front. No more Levi’s for me.
        I guess there’s no reliable way to quantify brand deterioration on a spreadsheet, so the mercenary MBA mentality will go for the corner-cutting shortcut every time.

  2. nwterry@gmail.com

    I’m an anti-consumer and shops generally nauseate me. Lots of stuff has gone to pot as Yves says, but I also grew up fixing things all the time, from darning socks to putting a new engine in the car. Much current stuff is more reliable because the technology involved is – moves from values to transistor and solid state. Prices are down in real terms despite the long-term attack on wages and to such an extent that repair is often not worthwhile. I agree on clothes and the term crapification. I’m not sure we are revolted by the products so much as the advertising and lunacy surrounding them. I’m almost certainly wearing something made in a dire sweat-shop at this very moment. Much of the quality we’d like built into a brand (or retailer) would be the assurance of fair wages, decent conditions and so on. With 1 in 5 women frightened to open the door unless wearing make-up, the stuff has me counting the number of beagles, rabbits and whales tortured and killed in the production, and what kind of vapour-head I’m looking at so influenced by dire adverts. Lord knows how we started eating fast food brands. Market segmentation no doubt ensures the servicing of the segment that buys crap. The reduction of liquid assets in the bottom 50% from 14% on 1980 to 1 % now has made that segment very large. We only have enough cash to buy rubbish! And what of the role of, say, Microsoft in brand domination when the rival Linux is free?
    Mates in engineering design tell me they build in the crapification much as the old planned obsolescence. This is particularly true of textile fabric manufacture where there are plenty of cheap fabrics that won’t shrink and none to find in actual clothes.

    1. bulfinch

      But at least you *could* service the stuff…and it was probably worth servicing.
      Good luck selling that Apple gadget on Ebay 30 years from now. Meanwhile, your user-serviceable music amplifiers and analogue watches will still be selling.

      1. Kaleberg

        Actually, Apple products hold their value surprisingly well. I’m always shocked at the cost of MacMinis and old iPhones on eBay. In ten years, it will probably be junk, but an Apple computer will hold its value a lot better than a Gateway, Lenovo or Dell.

  3. tyler

    Not to mention politicians. Sure, you’ve still got your few that follow their buyer’s orders, but what’s the deal with these rogues who defy the Chamber of Commerce and shut down the government?

    1. fresno dan

      exactly right. We have two political brands – democrats and republicans. Its hard to argue that either one provides value. Supposedly, consumers (i.e., voters) have all sorts of choices – communists, socialists, greens, libertarian, etc, etc. Yet just as coke and pepsi, two virtually indistinguishable colas take up 99.9% of the supermarket soft drink aisle, we have the same lack of choice in our political marketplace…

      1. Ulysses

        You just boiled down nearly all of the meaningful analysis of the U.S. “political system” to be made in a very few words! A shining star of succinctness, sir. Congratulations!

  4. Mike R

    What the rich boys have done to mattresses is criminal. They bought out well known and respected names (Sealy for example) and proceeded to cheapen the internals. Primarily it’s the springs. I am convinced the world has been flooded with cheap spring metal; stuff that relaxes and loses its shape. A “higher end” spring mattress we bought only two years back now has deep depressions (permanent). I’m convinced a bunch of PE folks have gotten filthy rich while the rest of America literally has a terrible sleep experience night after night. What has happened to our societal values?

    1. hunkerdown

      Society is socialist. The only valid values are market values. That’s part of what identity politics and cultural imperialism are all about.

    2. Lord Koos

      This whole business model of taking a revered American brand name and raping it seemed to really take off in the 1990s, when I first began to notice it. As a musician, I saw a lot of well-known, formerly quality musical instrument brands begin to cheapen their products and send the manufacturing offshore. In addition, people are copyrighting old musical instrument brands from the 30s, 40s, and 50s and putting out new crap with these names on them. There was a time when these companies would never have attached their names to such garbage instruments… but it’s been a race to the bottom for some time now. Brands are now meaningless in many cases.

      I also notice food products becoming degraded — brands such as Progresso soup, Picante salsa etc were ruined after the multinationals bought them out, they immediately cheapened the ingredients and destroyed the integrity of the brands.

      In fact this is the real argument that inflation is here… stuff not only costs more, the products are smaller and shittier. Almost everything you use around the home now seems like it’s built to fall apart.

  5. Hugh

    Consumer empowerment is an oxymoron. The whole idea behind consumerism is consumption, that is selling us stuff that we don’t need, and often don’t want. Consumerism is not about empowerment but disempowerment.

    1. digi_owl

      And notice how no politician with a sense of self-preservation will touch the flip side of the consumer, the industrial worker. It is all consumers this. consumers that, were before it was workers/citizens/voters. Whenever i hear a politician, or CEO for that matter, say consumer these days, i envision a cow slowly grazing its way to slaughter. that is what most of us are to those on top, cattle ready to be slaughtered once we have maxed out all our credit.

  6. McMike

    Oh my god don’t get me started. This piece is the perfect complement to your other article about the hollowing out of the companies themselves by a focus on financialization, accounting gimmicks, and raiding via various compensation, fee, and share schemes.

    The “crapification” is the hollowing out of their products. All of this is third-stage simulacra. The products and services are no longer even passable imitations of what they claim to be. (In the fourth stage, we just hand over our money and get nothing in return at all).

    It’s not just clothes and power tools. It’s insurance and food for God’s sake. Insurance is now not-insurance. Food is now not-food. (40% mislabeled ingredients; genetic frankenfoods; processed industrial food; a full year without meat inspection!).

    I call it brand monetization. You start out with a thirty year reputation for quality, then a PE firm buys the name, and then spends a few years seeing how long they can string along old customers with progressive cheapening, and they attract new suckers, er customers, who used to be locked out by price, with lower prices and downward marketing. Pretty soon, the power drill is not a power drill, but an expensive yellow door stop.

    This is papered over in part by making it impossible to comparison shop. Features, models, prices, packaging, gadgets and geegaws, outlets…. they swirl around in an intentionally incoherent ever-changing whirlwind.

    We are at the stage where they barely pretend to do what they claim to do. i.e. clothes that fit like clothes and stand up to a wash. or tools that work out of the box and keep working more than a month. Read the amazon reviews of just about anything electronic, intended to perform a tool function, or with a battery. Every negative comment has the same experience, half the time the thing simply refuses to work, if it is even what was shown in the picture when they bought it.

    We are in the realm of companies that do not bother to build themselves, putting out products and services that do not bother to do what they claim to do. We are fulfilling the old line about capitalists hanging themselves. Given full reign, the rich have gutted our economy voluntarily. We will soon become a soviet caricature of itself, no one left who knows how to do anything, no companies left to do it. And it will be the rich who got us there.

    1. McMike

      It is enraging most importantly because you cannot opt out.

      If you have a brand that still follows the old rules, it WILL be bought out and destroyed. If you find a product that seems to work, it will be crapified. If a company accidentally puts out something that works; they will discontinue it within weeks.

      Insurance is mandatory, you cannot opt out of the system of paying for coverage that will be denied under policies that will be canceled. You cannot choose not to bank. The large food makers are continuously working to ensure that smaller upstart food producers are driven out of business – buying some types of food products direct from farmers is a CRIME.

      Even if you devote a tremendous amount of energy to ferreting out quality products, finding things that work for you, making your own alternatives, retrofitting tools, having clothes altered, etc. it is a full time job. You drive all over town. You order stuff online and return 90% of it and try again. And you still end with a bag full of garbage.

      I found a shirt that fits and the fabric feels ok. So I ordered a couple more in different colors. It came in two shipments, made in two different countries, and were clearly of two very different fabric types and processes. The companies do not even bother to pretend to be consistent.

      1. j gibbs

        All true and enraging. My personal solution is to buy as little as possible, nothing whenever possible. A favorite example is the men’s cashmere sweater. I have one from Brooks Brothers, dating from 1990. It has finally developed some tiny holes beneath the arm but is otherwise fine. OTOH, those you now find in any store begin to pill and disintegrate within 30 days. And let’s not forget the soft drinks made with ‘high fructose corn syrup’, whatever the &*^$ that is.

        By the way, what’s with these “long running scripts?”.

        1. Vatch

          I’ve noticed the long running scripts, too. In IE9, I can stop the script, but in Chrome I get the “Aw Snap!” message, and after I reload the page, the same problem recurs a few seconds later. On the weekend, I was unable to load the Links 2/7/14 page in Safari for the Mac. It’s frustrating.

          1. diptherio

            Site usually loads fine for me, if a little slow, but this morning I keep getting an error message about a non-functioning script. I’ll have to look at details the next time it happens.

        2. McMike

          Re Script. Almost always, that’s one of the web ads malfunctioning. A pop up or something that’s buggy.

          See, they can’t even make decent malware anymore.

          1. hunkerdown

            I think the revelations of the past eight months or so comport with the observation: Sure they can. Just not for you.

        3. digi_owl

          Reminds me of a anecdote about marketing from Cory Doctorow.

          At some point a marketing genius at some laundry detergent company came up with the idea of marketing a detergent that would actually make clothes newer. The chemists and engineers tried to explain that this was physically (as in violating the laws of thermodynamics) impossible, but got nowhere.

          So what the chemists came up with was a enzyme that ate the frazzled ends of thread. This would make the garment seem new when it came out of the wash, but would in essence eat up the garment over time.

          Lets just say that marketers is right along lawyers and politicians on my list of people to ship off this planet wholesale.

        4. Yves Smith Post author

          Someone in comments inserted a malicious script in the early AM. When I was back up and saw complaints in email, my tech guys sorted in out in a few hours.

          The script affected only this post and seemed to mess up only certain OS/browser combinations.

      2. Massinissa

        The most annoying thing (ok maybe not) about modern right-libertarian types, is that they always talk about buzzwords like ‘market competition’ and ‘choice’ in capitalism making it superior to any possible non-neoliberal alternative.

        Are we looking at the same capitalism? Because I dont see either.

        Oh and they always bitch about coercion, and act as if you can opt out of capitalism somehow (Things like, “If you dont like the job, get another one LOL!”), as if capitalism has no coercion at all. If I can opt out of capitalism besides moving to Somalia, I havnt figured out a way to do it. It isnt truly possible to opt out of this goddamn system.

        Note: Not saying the author is a libertarian, mind you.

        1. digi_owl

          I have run into more than my fair share of those over the years.

          Either it is “don’t like it, don’t buy it” as a cure-all (sorry, not ready to join the Amish just yet), or “that’s not capitalism, thats some other -ism” (in that case, the soviet union was not communism).

          1. McMike

            The really annoying thing is the “no true scotsman” defense.

            Every example of a industry that captures regulation, subverts competition, makes war on its customers and employees, and becomes otherwise onerous and rent seeking is used by the Libertaritards as an example of how everything would be fine if the government stayed out of it.

            It’s the government’s fault these companies become sociopathic. And if government got out of the way, the invisible magic market fairy would induce them to play nice all by themselves.

      3. Nathanael

        Indeed, I have spent an enraging amount of time finding the “good stuff”. TheInternet helps. Most of the good things are made by one-man shops and won’t be bought out or stopped until the founders get old or die, but that happens regularly. And it’s *expensive*.

        We’re thinking of getting all our good clothes custom-made by locals at this point (we can afford it).

  7. 12312399

    add in food, the chicken in the canned soup of my youth didn’t contain soy protein isolate.

    the sad fact is that “the market” for most goods typically doesn’t care about quality….the market shops solely on price and what’s on sale at the mega-lo mart.

    Cutting out the over-engineering in a product is too tempting for a spreadsheet-driven, quarter-to-quarter world.

    1. jrs

      I believe in many cases this is American’s fault, not the fault of some vague neoliberalism or something. Americans historically don’t care about quality, other countries care about quality much more (you can say this is the result of marketing or what have you, but whatever it’s the result of, it’s ture nontheless).

      Now people living on the edge of desperate poverty can’t afford to care about quality, they often have to shop at Walmart etc. And you can blame neoliberalism for growing poverty. But there is a long history of even Americans who can afford to care about quality not caring about it. It’s just not in U.S. culture to prioritize quality. Bigger but not better.

      1. lambert strether

        I don’t agree with that at all. All the American-made products people are remembering are evidence that (some) Americans did care about quality. My forty-year-old gas kitchen stove that will never wear out, for example. The issue is how they became, er, disempowered.

      2. Patricia Shannon

        There is a certain amount of truth in that. I read comments several years ago from a home-builder who immigrated to the U.S. from Europe. He lamented that where he came from, he built houses to last for 100 years, and peole valued this. In the U.S., they didn’t care if they were built real well. Maybe one factor is mobility, that people don’t see themselves living their lives in the same house & passing it down to their children.

  8. McMike

    Here’s a challenge: name one national-brand good or service that you buy and are consistently satisfied with the quality, consistency, and overall experience.

    One thing: clothing, food, tools, furniture, air travel, insurance, electronics, office paper, music CDs, banking …

      1. Klassy

        I was about to say Scotch tape! It is a brand that I will choose over generics. I’ve been disappointed by others far too often.
        But, the funny thing is that I read an article in WSJ about 3M and there focus on R&D and this says it all:
        Though Mr. Thulin generally gets good marks from investment analysts, there is a hint of frustration. “3M clearly has more of a long-term focus [than many publicly traded companies] and less desire to please investors every quarter,” said Shannon O’Callaghan, an analyst at Nomura Securities International. “That’s admirable up to a point, but when do you acknowledge the expectations of the equity investors and finally give them what they’ve been looking for?”,

        1. OIFVet

          Funny how that pretty much mirrors the “critique” Costco gets from investors unhappy with the unconscionably “high” wages it pays its employees. As if $21/ hour average is super great, though it sure does seem great compared to what Walmart and Target pay.

      2. McMike

        Hmm. I have found declines in packing tape, duct tape, and strapping tape.

        Packing tape is the worst. I usually waste half a roll trying to get it to feed evenly across its entire width. Strapping tape is almost unusable for the same reason.

        Sticky notes seem to still be good sticky notes.

        And don’t get me started on office staples (I use Swingline, not 3m). They can barely penetrate 3 sheets of paper without failing. I can remember 20 years ago cramming a whole stack of papers into a Swingline 747 stapler, and giving the thing a good whack and it would work. No more.

    1. meadows

      I scour Salvation Army and Goodwill for decades-old stuff (like clothes, fixtures, housewares made in USA.) I’m sitting on an overstuffed chair from the 1940′s that I’ve had re-upholstered twice. We buy locally sourced food. I ride my bike to a family-owned hardware store and purchase made in U.S., Germany or Switzerland tools. One can find old Craftsman Tools at pawnshops. We have a 4KW PV array on our roof. I make my own cider and hard cider from scavenged local apples on a cider-press I built from recycled stuff… 200 gallons this year. We have a veggie garden. I grind bulk wheat for our flour. (we live in a city)

      Wait, there’s more!

      I’ve cut my own hair for years. I’m 61 and have never had a resume and have no debts. Our investments are in munis so we don’t give half of every dollar to the Feds for militarism.

      It can be done.

      1. McMike

        Ha. Using less and finding old stuff doesn’t count.

        Although it is the only path to sanity these days.

        It’s why I have three sets of tools. I buy new tools, but can’t bring myself to get rid of the old stuff.

      2. jrs

        Are you self employed? Or just work the type of low wage jobs where they don’t require resumes? (nothing wrong with that if one can manage).

        Because hard to live in this society entirely without money.

    2. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

      Smith & Wesson. ;-)

      But I agree, Yves, I have some mid-range brand dress shirts that don’t even seem to go a year before the collars and cuffs are frayed and it’s time to rag-bag ‘em. They were replacing the same name shirts I had that went through all of law school and years after and which finally wore out after nearly a decade of service.

        1. McMike

          … but only because they refuse to sell the copmpany out. There have certainly been offers.

          Watch for them to capitulate once Chouinard dies.

      1. Duck

        Patagonia was the only one that came to my mind too. This is a case where the exception proves the rule.

    3. Dan

      5.11 brand clothes, BlackHawk comes close. These things just don’t wear out, I tell you. It’s basically tactical gear with cargo pockets and stuff, but I swear, it’s almost impossible to rip.

    4. Brooklin Bridge

      Makita continues to make good electric hand tools. Hard to say how long that will last. Don’t get them from Home Depot or Lowes (except the hand drills) as they are not exactly the same; often they have been “custom” crapified to sell cheap. Same thing with their airless spray guns and the like. Get them from local companies specializing in tools or online from places like NorthernTool.

      Note that DeWalt was purchased by Black&Decker and this is – of course – a trend. Often, when a company like Black&Decker goes over to the dark side, it will buy up any competition that is still selling quality. This accomplishes two things at once: 1) Squeeze dollars out of the crapification process 2) Eliminates unmanageable competition. DeWalt is still better than the B&D “line”, but it has gone down hill quite a ways from it’s days as a self contained company.

      ViceGrip (self locking pliers) has been crapified since the 1990′s. It used to be one of the icons of American quality (the Peterson family wanted to “cash out”), and this trend is actually rather tragic to follow. There are sites (or used to be) that follow the number of tools still made in USA, and as of a few years ago, and even then they were few and far between.

      1. jonboinAR

        Ever since DeWalt popped up in the ’90′s selling modern looking cordless drills they’ve been sort of junky. Before that they sold kind of old, boring table saws and drill presses or something like that, didn’t they? Probably lasted forever.

        I haven’t bought tools to speak of since about 2000. But all through the ’90′s Hitachi and Makita, both Japanese companies, set the standard for high quality modern, up to date power tools (and power tools were evolving pretty rapidly at that time.) I have no idea what’s good now, having left the trades.

    5. Yves Smith Post author

      OK, having said that…

      Oreos are still the same as in my childhood, ditto Q-tips and Band-Aids.

      New Balance still makes good running shoes.

    6. Barry

      LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, Land’s End, Cabela’s, New Balance, State Farm
      (note – I sometimes disagree with the *design* of a particular item of clothing, but it’s uncommon that the design is clearly cheaper)

  9. Tony Wikrent

    It would be interesting to gather examples of what we might call “anti-branding” – experience with a brand or company that are so bad, the “consumer” decides to never buy or interact with that company again. One example in the comments above regards Levis. I had two hand power tools – jig saws – from Black & Decker crap out within weeks of buying them. After a rechargeable flashlight and a rechargeable drill, which actually provided a few years of service. I have vowed to never buy anything labeled Black & Decker ever again.

    I also now try to avoid complex manufactured items from China. All the Black & Decker tools I checked are made in China. Unfortunately, so are a lot of other brands. And the ones that aren’t are usually made in Mexico. There are a very few that are made in Taiwan.

    The crappification of goods is a hidden cost of the corporatist “(not)free trade” regimes created by GATT, NAFTA, WTO, etc. I once was having my vehicle serviced, and in the waiting room there were some magazines directed toward the professional auto repair shop owner and manager. The cover story on one was about the problem of counterfeit parts that simply will not work, no matter how correctly installed. The feature was led off with the story of a shop which ended up changing the thermostat in a customer’s car to solve overheating. This is a standard, relatively easy, and inexpensive repair. But the thermostats manufactured in China apparently could not get right the simple bimetallic spring that is the central component of a simple engine thermostat. I wonder how many economists who defend and promote “free trade” are even willing to consider the huge additional costs such defective goods impose on the economy.

    1. Skoot

      ‘It would be interesting to gather examples of what we might call “anti-branding” – experience with a brand or company that are so bad, the “consumer” decides to never buy or interact with that company again’

      In the late 80′s I graduated high school and planned a summer-long solo hike on the Appalachian Trail. I went to EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports) and explained exactly what I was going to do, and that I’d need a suitable backpack. They sold me a Kelty.

      A month later on the trail the straps stitching began coming undone. Every night I would darn it back together with dental floss by flashlight. After a few weeks (I only hit a highway crossing with access to a phone every few days) I had the store that sold me the pack send me a pair of straps off a Jansport, and I retrofitted them on to the frame.

      While I felt EMS had done as good a job as I could have hoped for supporting a defective product, when I finished my hike I made a point of returning the pack to the store and demanding a refund. They gave me store credit, and I bought a down sleeping bag with it.

      I still use that down bag. But I never – and will never – purchased another Kelty product.

    2. jrs

      Best Buy pretty much. Or Worst Buy as I’d call them. Ok they are just a retailer and not a manufacturer and the products are not much different than carried elsehwere but they are just horrible horrible service. Horrible.

    3. Someone

      Dell. After the hell my mother went through with her last computer purchase (including, but not limited to, the predatory “customer service” rep telling her that despite her warranty she could not get her problematic brand-new computer repaired or replaced but was instead required to buy another new computer from Dell), no one in this family will EVER buy ANY product from Dell.

    4. Nathanael

      “It would be interesting to gather examples of what we might call “anti-branding” – experience with a brand or company that are so bad, the “consumer” decides to never buy or interact with that company again. ”

      Home Depot. McDonald’s.

        1. hunkerdown

          Someone blogged recently on why masculine aggressions are a problem in communities in which women are under-represented. Informal user support shares many of the same dynamics with regard to pressure per unit area.

          Sadly, I tend to recommend Windows to non-power users precisely because I don’t want captives to support.

    5. hunkerdown

      Comcast is a good one. Content-based interference, exclusive franchises with municipalities and landlords, placing Fox News as the only news channel in their basic lineup, and their general anti-net-neutrality stance. The very minute a competitor got a cable run in my area, I would have switched, but a few weeks before that I ended up moving house and switching anyway.

      When relocating, “who are the local cable operators?” is the first question I ask after “how much are you letting it for?”

    6. Lori

      “I wonder how many economists who defend and promote “free trade” are even willing to consider the huge additional costs such defective goods impose on the economy.”

      Well, the US Chamber of Commerce underwrote a propaganda film about the perils of the counterfeit goods trade.

  10. weinerdog43

    Yves, I love the term, ‘crapification’ as it embodies so much with what is wrong about corporate America. Not to pick on Lands End, but after they were bought by Sears, the quality deteriorated noticeably. Do you think that Fast Eddie Lampert buys anything there? Meh. It’s good enough for the plebes I guess.

    I’ll happily pay extra for a high quality, long lasting product; but I won’t pay extra just because it has a famous brand attached to it. (I’m talking to you Brooks Bros.) Maybe we could start making stuff here in the USA again?

    1. duffolonious

      Too bad about Land’s End. My aunt (who’s in -or was- retail) made the straightforward statement that their quality _will_ go down after being bought by Sears.

      Sears was known even in retail as cheap corner cutters (seemingly worse than the usual). Again, probably figured they could cash in on the brand. I’m sure there is a model that gives these guys a way to calculate how much they can wring out of people before the brand dies.

      1. PeonInChief

        I wept when I heard that Sears had bought Land’s End. I knew what would happen, and it did. If you read the reviews of various products that you used to like, you’ll find that everyone writes something like “this is much flimsier than the ones I bought two, five, ten years ago.” And they now only sell full sheets in sets, which irritates me no end, as I use a full sheet on the bottom and a queen sheet on top to minimize the covers-thieving wars. But LLBean is no better. A few years ago I purchased two polos for my husband. They were great–good solid fabric, fit well, almost stylish. I should have bought ten of them then, because a couple of years ago I went back for more. Bad cut, flimsy fabric, very disappointing.

    2. Patricia Shannon

      KMart used to be a decent store, decent quality with decent prices, but it was spoiled when Sears bought it. Last few times I went there, I didn’t buy anything. Cheaply made junk, few if any clerks. Depressing aura.

  11. zephyrum

    James Surowiecki is the reason I discontinued my subscription to the New Yorker. Had they diluted his misinformation occasionally it might have been tolerable, but his taint cast a stink over the whole magazine.

    1. Klassy

      He can be bad, but I am not sure that he is in the same class as Obama hagiographers Hertzberg and Remnick, or Jon Lee Anderson, or Jeffrey Toobin.

  12. Banger

    I don’t quite agree with you on some of what you say. Many products are better quality and many are various degrees of worse. Clothing is far worse today than it was a few decades ago but it is also far cheaper and easily replaced. High-end washing machines are pretty good though not so easy to repair as are cars, on the whole. For upper middle and upper class people shopping has never been better–for the lower and less connected lower classes they often can only afford increasingly more shoddy goods. Consumer culture, like everything else in our society, is ordered by class.

    As for Craftsman tools they are total crap today and have been for a long time, particularly power tools. Those of who use tools know what brands to buy and you pay twice or more for the tool and get five times the quality.

    1. j7915

      Maytag is not what it was. Cadillacs may, just may be made on their own assembly line. VW cheapened their Jetta, their Passat made in Tennessee is a cheaper version of what is sold elsewhere, the trunck lid sounds like a very cheap tin can when it losck on the first closing.

      Reminds me of the Ford ads of long ago, the steady comparision with RollRoyce clocks or the traffic cop who mistook a Ford (grill) for a Mercedes’.

      Like the GOP trying to change their message rather than their content. Of course the PV’s and PE’s are the Romney bots.

      1. ex-PFC Chuck

        I’ve had a relationship with a small mom and pop Maytag dealership not far from my home, and come to know the proprietor quite well since I do as much of my own service and repair work as possible. He’s always been very helpful. When I come in and describe a problem to him the cause of which is not obvious, he’ll offer suggestions as to what has likely failed. For example when I had a leaky dishwasher he suggested I replace a rubber gasket that was a part of the soap dish assembly on the door. I never would have looked there, but sure enough that fixed it. When an appliance finally reached the end of its life I had no hesitation about buying from him instead of going to the big box down the road. A year or two after Whirlpool bought the Maytag brand I was in the store for some clothes washing machine issue and when he laid the part I needed on the counter he piped up and said I should hang on to the unit I have as long as possible since the new Maytag models had done away with the core drive assembly that had been so successful for decades. I certainly appreciate his candor. He’s near retirement age and I suspect the business will be a hard sell because, besides the difficulty of a mom and pop store competing with a big box, he’s in a difficult location.

    2. McMike

      I asked the appliance guy at Lowe’s where was the price point when the actual working innards change (as oppose to merely finishes and features).

      He looked at me like I was from Mars.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Really good question. Some of the smaller “independent” outlets will actually tell you the answer but they too are difficult to trust completely as they often have their brand that they are trying to sell.

        Generally, the really high end stuff is considerably better all the way through. But it’s also simply beyond the pale for anyone who has to ask. There is still an upper range that homeowners can (often) afford that is of “comparatively” good quality but the results are not consistent and you rarely get anything that will last more than 10-15 years.

        One interesting answer I got is to look for stuff that has little or no computerized parts or chips. This exists on both the low and high and high(er) lines. It can actually mean somewhat longer lasting on the higher and very high ends. I’m not positive of this. It sort of makes sense. But the problem is the only way for someone without a lot of specialized tools and knowledge to find out is to buy the stuff and compare.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          Note that I’m finding the net harder and harder to use as a tool for product/service quality research.

    3. DolleyMadison

      are you kidding me? my third washing machine in 7 years is broken beyond repair and I went “high end” (startted with Whirlpool duet, then GE then LG) on the last one…my dishwasher broke after 2 years, the stove after 4, and even the paintbrush I bought this week – the nicest one they had – began to shed into the paint after a few minutes of use. EVERYTHING is crap and NOT any cheaper which is how the destruction of the jobs making these once durable items when made in America was sold to us.

      1. jonboinAR

        In our 10th year of marriage, my wife and I are on our 3rd microwave and 3rd DVD player. When we all switched to DVD’s in the early “oughts” I was using a VCR player that was from the mid-80′s. It worked great.

      2. Nathanael

        Washing machines: get European models. Front-loaders ONLY — all top-loaders are junk now. Electrolux builds OK stuff.

        Dishwashers: I’ve done very well with Fisher Paykel, but they’re finicky (don’t open them while they’re running).

        Stoves I haven’t researched yet.

        DVD players: they’ll all break quickly. All of them. Get a computer drive, they’re cheaper to replace.

  13. Chris

    An entire website designed to fight this kind of thing:
    Two families compared:
    An oldie but still goody.

    http://verdant.net/families.htm
    “The new items the Ables buy are treated as though they have to last a lifetime. For example tools are carefully oiled, instructions, warranties and receipts are filed alphabetically in a flex folder by store name. If an item is later sold or traded, having all the paperwork enhances its value. Any item that does fail gets returned to the store where it was bought. The Ables are merciless when it comes to this. If something fails, they take it back. If they don’t need the item they take it back. If they bought too much of something, they take it back. Before they buy anything they check to make sure that there is no restocking fee. “

  14. Gerard Pierce

    @Ives,

    Everything you said here is completely true, but you might note that this is part of a larger process. When a company is acquired, they start by reducing the quality of the merchandise. Some of the time this takes two or three rounds of crappification because going instantly from the old quality to the new would be too obvious and all that is really needed is to get that one or two cents per share on the bottom line.

    Related to this is the crapification of customer service. Case example was when Dell dumped a customer service division that took 20 years to build in favor of a foreign company that couldn’t deal with a computer arriving DOA.

    At the same time, there are all of the standard accounting tricks that allow a crapified company to pretend that the numbers work.

    And after two or three rounds of the above, the company is reduced to lying about the results. This usually happens just before the whole deal is sold to someone else who repeats the process with whatever crap is still viable.

    1. McMike

      When you make something for five cents and sell it for fifty bucks, you can stand a very high return rate and still make a profit.

      Truth is, most people don’t bother to return this stuff. They just shuck it in the trash and shuffle on. They they go back to crap-mart and buy the same thing again, hoping against hope that this time will be different, if they notice at all.

      1. Gerard Pierce

        True but — it doesn’t always work that way. Way back in the 1980s or so, Xerox bought Diablo, the maker of a daisywheel printer. The Diablo weighed about 50 pounds, mostly due to cast iron built in as part of the base.

        Xerox got rid of all the cast iron, replacing it with 1/8″ stock aluminum sheets. After shipping 100,000 or so units, Xerox found that the reason for 50 lbs of cast iron was to neutralize the very high shock of the carriage return.

        The new improved Xerox version shook itself into junk within a week after installation.

        Xerox of course taught the rest of the computer industry how to trash their own product and make the customers pay the price.

    2. just_kate

      it’s also plain old greed. i worked for a well known clothing manufacturer in the early 90s which was privately owned. owner decided he could get richer by investing in the factories overseas in multiple countries which lead to no quality controls – major disincentive to reject poor quality. he rode his brand pretty much into the ground within a decade of that decision but retired quite nicely after the company went BK. while i was there we ended up selling an unbelievable amount of rejects to jobbers/secondary distributors: one year none of the jeans made in Kenya made it to our retail customers! watching the decline was so sad and thats what made me leave – they initially made really great basic clothes.

    3. Ulysses

      The masterminds behind this despicable process are, of course, “high-skilled” members of the managerial class! They are especially “skilled” at playing golf at the country club, and laughing when their limo’s tires spray slush all over the homeless on the street.

      1. James Levy

        I wish it were that simple but from my limited observations and the data I read these people actually work like demons compared to managers 30-60 years back. That is their bullet-proof vest: hey, I work 70 hour weeks, I am a go-getter, you people are just lazy complainers so STFU and take what we give you Their greed is amplified by their monomaniacal work ethic. These guys are not out on the golf course at 4:30 on a June afternoon anymore, or at the watering hole from 1:30 on on a Friday afternoon (when my father was in banking back then, you could never get the regional officials on a Friday afternoon; they all went out for lunch and drinks together and never came back). They eat, sleep, and breathe making money. This gives them credibility with the media and many Americans, and a bullet-proof sense of their own self-importance and entitlement to the vast fortunes they make.

        1. Nathanael

          They aren’t working. They’re stealing. They’re spending 70 hour weeks…. stealing. Not doing actual work.

          And that’s the problem. They’re very good at looting companies and leaving ruined shells behind.

        2. OIFVet

          I missed the part where they set aside some time to live a life. No wonder so many of them are cocked up sociopaths.

  15. Vlad

    This “crappification” is not something new. I remember as a child in the fifties that everything was American made and anything foreign made was thought to be crap. American manufacturers took advantage of this and started cheapening their products. And along came the Germans and the Japanese, in the sixties, with real quality products and stole market share in a big way. But it’s true that most brands today are running on fumes. I guess we might as well think like consumers because thinking like a citizen is a dead end.

  16. GlassHammer

    “But apparently Surowiecki lives only in the Lexus/iPhone market and has somehow managed to miss how the overwhelming majority of manufacturers seem perfectly willing to adulterate their good and risk consumer rejection.”

    Thou shalt not sacrifice profit motive in order to preserve customer loyalty. New customers can always be found or created if necessary.

  17. PeonInChief

    I’m a lower-income consumer, so I just don’t buy very much. The stuff just isn’t worth spending the money on it. We did buy a washer and dryer eight years ago, and the washing machine broke just after the warranty ended. (My husband suggested that it takes real engineering skill to make something that dies just after the warranty ends.) The repair was expensive enough that if it had been $50 more, I’d have told the repair guy to take it away and bring me a new one. I still use my mother’s Electrolux, but have heard that the new(er) ones are no better than Kenmore (which also ain’t what it used to be).

    Clothing is the worst though. As cotton prices increased, they didn’t raise the price to cover the increased cost. They made the stuff thinner. And it wasn’t just the cheap clothes producers. You’ll note now that almost all the summer cotton blouses require a cami, as they are so thin you can see through them. Those of us who live in hot summer climates are not amused, as two layers when the temp is 95 degrees is not comfortable.

    1. Nathanael

      With washing machines, there’s a secret: the breakpoint on quality comes between the top-loaders and the front-loaders. *All top loaders are junk*. Front loaders are bought by everyone who’s done their research, so the companies know that anyone buying a top-loader hasn’t done their research. Electrolux front-loaders (with a number of different brand names) are still OK.

  18. minka99

    I also made more money in the 1990′s and I have adapted to my new circumstances. In fact I now wear vastly higher quality clothing. It’s because of Ebay. Use measurements of your favorite fitting clothes and you can’t go wrong. (Sizes lie.)

  19. JEHR

    My beef is with packaging which gets smaller and smaller while the price of the contents seems to stay the same; for example, I used to buy laundry soap and used a small scoop to put it into the machine. At first I used only a half scoop; months later a full scoop was required and finally I am now using a scoop and a half. I wonder what the filler is?

    True of dry cereals and other packaged goods. I try to buy from the local producers whenever possible.

    I try not to buy fruits that are out of season where I live and I avoid snow peas grown in China! (I once read that Chinese use human feces for manure and I have no way to disprove that.)

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      This diminishing container size is an excellent example of corporate collusion or lack of any “real” competition since the size reduction always seems to happen almost simultaneously across the board. Coffee containers suddenly shrunk perhaps two years ago; bam, though the prices actually stayed more or less the same. Within a few months it was impossible to find one of the old sizes no matter what the brand (except for a few instances where the supermarkets sold their generic brand). Shortly thereafter, the prices went up.

  20. donna

    You might try Duluth Trading for clothing, which makes longer heavy knit shirts with pretty good quality. Also great for real work clothes if you do a lot of outdoor work.

  21. DolleyMadison

    Not to mention a gallon of ice cream that is isn’t and a pound of bacon that isn’t …evn girl scout cookies have shrunk.

    1. just_kate

      this really sucks for cooking – when a recipe calls for a certain nmbr of ounces (i.e. canned tomatoes) and the container has changed without you noticing – HATE THAT. plus having to do math to figure the best deal on TP as the packaging and formulas keep changing. is the person who came up with “desheeting” proud of themselves?

  22. Ed S.

    Interestingly, there has been a major renaissance in hand tools for woodworking (mostly brought on by the “crapification” of tools starting in the 1950′s). Chris Schwarz (noted writer) calls products at the “big box” stores “tool shaped objects”. He’s absolutely right.

    If you want to good tools (that will last, basically, forever) take a look at any of the following (or just look for the joy of seeing well-crafted products):

    Glen-Drake Toolworks (glen-drake.com)
    Bad-Axe Toolworks (www.badaxetoolworks.com)
    and the grand-daddy
    Lie-Nielson Toolworks (www.lie-nielsen.com)

    Not cheap — but built to last.

    1. bob

      One of the very good things about sears was their presence. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t the best quality, but you could drive into town and replace it pretty easily, under warranty.

      Now with sears closing most of it’s stores, they don’t have that anymore. For people off the beaten track, sears was a great store. They always had replacement parts, and catalogs for everything they sold. Big deal, again, if you live in the sticks. Instead of replacing the entire lawnmower, you could order a part for a 20 year old machine.

      I bought a weedwacker there this summer and almost threw it back through their window. Unpacked it and couldn’t get it started. Nothing. Spent a good 4 hours banging my head against the wall. Brought it back to the store(another hour, gone) and found 12 others in the back room that had also been returned.

  23. bob

    Coffee- No one sells a pound of coffee anymore. That and K-cups! AYFKM? $30 a pound for coffee? It should be delivered by juan and his mule for that price. Instead, it’s politely wrapped in plastic, ensuring that a once very bio-degradable waste is going to be around forever. Sort of like wrapping up dog poop in a plastic bag. GREEN…

    Clothing- Wool. I have a few older, real cashmere sweaters. Even at supposed “high end stores” I haven’t been able to find anything of comparable quality, at any price. $300 sweater? Junk.
    Also, it’s almost impossible to find real wool clothing anymore. Not expensive wool, but regular old wool. I finally found a hat this winter at an army navy store that is just plain wool, and it’s so much warmer than anything else. Most are made of some crap “wool” blend. Labeling laws? Do they even exist anymore?

    Dollar stores- If you look carefully, you can find very good quality things. It’s rare, but it is possible, and as pointed out takes a ton of time. It’s usually by mistake, probably odd lots that didn’t make the brand container ship.

    1. diptherio

      Coffee: yeah, at some point is seems like coffee went from being sold by the pound to being sold by the 14 oz.s I ended up switching to generic orange-pekoe tea. Sorry, Juan :(

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Fixed, a reader’s comment inserted a malicious script. Wasn’t sitemeter, that would affect all posts.

  24. Vatch

    Several years ago, the quantity in a box of Kleenex tissues dropped to about 185 tissues per box. (I think there had previously been 200 per box, but I’m not entirely sure). A few years later, they dropped to 174. Not long ago, they dropped the quantity to 152 per box. When the government calculates the rate of inflation, do they notice that this is really a form of price increase?

  25. OMF

    This went on in the Soviet Union for 80 years. By the end, people had to queue up to buy good that you couldn’t give away in the West.

    1. hunkerdown

      Ironically, the sense seems to be that Levi’s jeans of the time were better than legal tender in the USSR. Was it fashion or function or transgression?

      1. LifelongLib

        Yes, worked as a fisheries observer a couple times on Soviet fishing ships in the late 70s. Left my extra Levi’s behind at the end of each trip because the crews wanted them so bad. Levi’s were some sort of status symbol and could be sold for good money no matter what shape they were in.

    2. OIFVet

      Its amazing how capitalism got us crappy food in only 40 years (think Earl Butz). It really is a more efficient system, and there are no queues either!

    3. Kaleberg

      I often wonder who won the Cold War against the USSR. We have our own KGB now and a falling standard of living. The Bill of Rights has been shredded. That, and consumer goods are increasingly shoddy like the cheap stuff I used to buy from Germany (East) back in the 60s.

  26. Veri

    It is not only about crappification, but about pricing. Years ago, I bought a Delland it worked well. The last two times with two malfunctions in the graphics processor. The first timeDell used a 3-ply PCB board because some moron convinced Dell it would work. The card would overhet and one ccould smell the plastic. Dell acknowledged that they ad put out defetive product and thenrefused to replace unless one had purchased the extended warranty.

    The second time, the graphics chipset as soldered directlyto the board. Six months before it to sufered a mysterious error, called the dreaded Nvidia error 21. This was a eplacement for a Dell that ws purchased overseas.

    About he Dell purchased overseas? Built by Dell in America. With a discrete graphics card. Six hundred dollars after shipping costs and twenty-two percent VAT. Asking about a replacement, the Dell rep was surprised that they made that model, was not a ailable in The US despite being assembled in The US. And that the inferior replacement – US model – would cost $400 more in The US, after shipping, expected at twenty-one days.

    Many common products available even in developing Eastern and Central European nations are over-priced, difficult to find, and frequently inferior in The US. Or simply unavailable. The US, often, does not have the best products. Sometimes being years behind other markets.

    1. lambert strether

      It does seem like the elite is systematically disinvesting in the US on all fronts — except for a few cities where by no coincidence the elite rentiers hang out; chief among them Washington, DC.

  27. Veri

    If we had the same quantity, the price would be higher. The rate on inflation could posssibly be calculated on manufacturing Kleenex (as well as profit) at twelve percent over the last few years IF the price remained the same.

    Processed food quality has also declined to the point where it should not be considered food. Campbell’s Chunky Soup with Sirloin burger. Six years ago, I found it tastey. Now… won’t even touch the stuff. Quality costs and Campbell’s Soup is not anywhere near quality. I wouldn’t even feed it to a dog.

    If food quality remained the same with the attending rise in prices, one could expect that prices would be up to forty percent higher, with the resulting decrease in food consumption in an already starving US population. When Mexico raised prices on the basic tortilla by forty percent, massive riots broke out. Imagine reducing caloric intake in The US by forty percent or being relegated to affording only pink slime, for ninety percent of The US population.

    One thing Republicans do not understand about SNAP? It helps keep the lynch mobs somewhat mollified and politician’s necks away from a very public noose and lamp post.

  28. Bunk McNulty

    Way back in 1984 I bought my first bottle of Pilsner Urquell. The aroma took me back to 1960, when I was a wee lad. Mom and Dad took me to a pizza joint and ordered glasses of Miller High Life. That’s how strongly similar the aromas were. I actually called them up and heard my mother sigh: “Oh, it was good beer back then.”

    I had the dubious pleasure of having the same experience just a few days ago: My wife brought home some “organic” yogurt made with milk, gelatin, and cultures. The aroma, taste, and texture reminded me of what Dannon Yogurt tasted like back in the ’60s. The ingredient list has grown some since then.

  29. FluffytheObeseCat

    Yves:
    Linking the decline in a vast number of American brands to the raider take-overs is accurate — for many of the items that you and I “grew up” on. Some of the “fashion” and style changes that you deplore are due to manufactured consent, rather than natural taste changes. That manufacturing effort is driven by the New York/Greenwich money-maestros who’ve come to call the shots. (E.g. I have to beat my way through a website nowadays to get a Coach Classic purse. Their only focus now is the sale of logo-strew crapware to would-be trophy wives. The desire for cloth Coach purses among such creatures is almost certainly due to marketing…… and the fact that even they are below the salt nowadays. If they can’t pay for a Prada or Birkin, they’re one of the peons and just don’t know it yet.)

    This is what gets me: recently, even parts of the “upscale” side of our bifurcated consumer economy is exhibiting declines in quality. Another example: I have a 3 year old, brushed steel KitchenAid blender (from Williams-Sonoma) that is leaking at the base — the same as the Oster branded, Kmart item it replaced. Apparently the only remaining option for those seeking decade-long function is a >$500 Vita-Mix monster-machine.

    25 years ago the growth of brands like KitchenAid and Coach separated the working class from the professionals. Now, highly visible, madly expensive brands are developing for the rich……. and those steady “upscale” brands from the 80s and 90s are suffering from engineered declines. It is quite reflective of what’s going on with our culture at large.

  30. Hugh

    My crapification story is this. I bought a pair of shoes with what I thought were solid uppers and soles. It turned out that the upper had only a thin veneer of something looking like leather and after a season essentially melted and flaked away. So I got another pair of shoes. These had very solid uppers. I wore them a couple of months and the sole on one of them cracked in half. I am now on my third pair of shoes when in the past I would still have been on my first and I am wondering what was built in to fall apart on them.

    It is important, I think, to point out that the crapification of products is enormously wasteful of energy and resources we increasingly don’t have.

  31. Paul Tioxon

    Yes, many of us are now old enough to understand the old movie line about what’s wrong with America: You can’t get a GOOD 5 cent cigar! I could corroborate almost every story from Levis to appliances and mattresses. No greater testimony need be made than to go onto ebay or other auction houses that have banded together to sell on line to the biggest market they could ever dream of. One of my favorites is old/vintage electronics. Nothing better than Tokyo manufactured stereo equipment from the ’70s and ’80s. The brand names of today made superior products back then and the fanatic audiophiles wrote it up for slavishly followed equipment reviews. Even the popular mags like Rolling Stone and National Lampoon were loaded with stereo equipment ads which sang a siren song to males looking for that perfect affordable system to go deaf to while listening to Led Zeppelin. But I digress. Today, there are holy grail receivers that even at decades since production out perform the specs of brand new digital equipment. If you have old receivers and speakers and turntables, they don’t have to be high end tube hi-fi to still be desirable. Do the world a favor and put them out for sale at some neighborhood flea market, I promise you it will find a loving home. You can even donate the sale to support Naked Capitalism. And, it’s environmentally friendly to buy old stuff and keep it from the land fill or toxic municipal incinerator.

  32. Moneta

    Quality is hard to gauge nowadays so when I shop I choose according to where my dollars are going…. is it going to CEOs with big packages. Owners who spend all their money outside the country. Jerks. The process is quite productive because often I put the article back and convince myself that I don’t need it.

    I tailor my own suits and knit so those hobbies get me out of the stores. LOL!

  33. chuck roast

    Yo Yves:
    You hang at Baileys right?
    Go down to Freeport and get a good cotton pull-over (long) for 15 bucks.
    All the best.
    Chucky

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Haha, I buy my black jeans at LL Bean. Gap carried decent ones in the 1980s and then quit doing that.

  34. Peter VE

    This hit home with me. “Italian” bread from whole paycheck has sugar in it. Symptomatic of our whole culture. Sweetened up for the quick hit, but leaves you with a bad aftertaste.

  35. Allen Edwards

    Ms. Smith

    Reading your post generated the train of thought sketched below. I’d very much appreciate your reactions.

    First, I note the 1% has been marketing neoliberalism since the ’70s and believe this ideology has permeated the civil service to a large extent.

    Second, though my experience matches yours (i.e., quality has been falling), I believe the way BLS estimates inflation has been to take alleged quality *improvements* into account for some time now. The effect has been to lower the official rate of inflation.

    Third, an impact of that erroneous lowering has been to decrease the size of COLAs and other adjustments to the income of both public and private employees and retirees. The weight of the harm has been on the 99%.

    Fourth, the preceding has contributed to upward redistribution of income.

    Its mis-measurement has made “quality” an instrument of inequality. Conceivably, accurate measurement would have helped keep quality up and inequality down to some degree, without affecting inflation.

  36. Barutan Seijin

    Capital vol. I, chapter 6, footnote 14:

    “One example. In London there are two sorts of bakers, the “full priced,” who sell bread at its full value, and the “undersellers,” who sell it under its value. The latter class comprises more than three-fourths of the total number of bakers. (p. xxxii in the Report of H. S. Tremenheere, commissioner to examine into “the grievances complained of by the journeymen bakers,” &c., Lond. 1862.) The undersellers, almost without exception, sell bread adulterated with alum, soap, pearl ashes, chalk, Derbyshire stone-dust, and such like agreeable nourishing and wholesome ingredients…”

  37. Eureka Springs

    Can openers. Just yesterday yet another literally crumbled into several pieces in my hand. Must be at least the sixth can opener in 9 years. I’ve purchased cheapo at wal-mart and such as well as what I hoped were a bit more substantial in specialty kitchen stores. Probably over 50 bucks spent on a hand crank can openers in a decade.

    My swiss army knife/opener works best. I’m not buying another made for kitchen can opener for a very long time.
    Some US products which I have notably praised as of late.
    Carhart
    Nelson Pass
    Buck
    Doctor Bronner’s
    Toyota (trucks).

    My love of apple/mac is waning… has been for several years. Hoping for a new brand to rise through the neoliberal abyss.

  38. Kunst

    I have always bought Levis blue jeans. My wife recently bought me a pair online (waist size finally went up another inch, though I’m still fighting the battle) and I just realized that this new pair has only five belt loops. My older ones have seven loops. Yes, it does make a difference. However little this saved on production costs, I wish they hadn’t.

  39. nowhere

    Musical instrument industry story I read in a book about guitar amps: Aspen Pittman who was a salesman for Acoustic in the 70′s – successful amp company, their amps were used by many big acts and sold well to the “little guys” too – mentioned how their amps had a long heavy duty power cord and two big knobs on the back panel to wind the cord around. Result being no matter where you set up on stage you could usually reach an outlet without an extension and the cord was easy to stow and out of the way when moving the amp. At company meeting the question was posed “If we just put a short, cheap cord on we’ll save money on each amp and how many less will we really sell?” His answer being that we’ll sell just as many amps at first but with that sort of attitude we’ll be out of business in a few years. They were.

    Now, with virtually everything being outsourced it’s hard to find good quality or unique design even if you’re prepared to pay extra for it. Even if you manage to find it once, what is ostensibly the same product from the same company may be different the next time you go to buy it because of a change in suppliers. Since the majority of large brands which have a stranglehold on retailers are all doing this it’s pretty difficult to change brands and expect to get something better as musicians could do at the time of the Acoustic story I related.

    If you find something good you like, buy a lot of it if you can to last you into the future.

    My personal peeve was when Doc Martens started being made in China. The price didn’t drop much but the quality did and you know the cost to produce them dropped a LOT. Due to demand they still do produce a little in Britain but they don’t make it easy to get them. They’re impossible to find at most retailers.

    By the way, regarding the Smith and Wesson joke a previous poster made, you can find a lot of gun enthusiasts lamenting that many firearms manufacturer’s have suffered from the same decline as clothing makers.

    I used to like Cannondale bicycles. Whether they appealed to you or not they had a distinct identity and were made in the US. Now they’re owned by a conglomerate and their bikes are just produced by various factories to order.

  40. just an example

    I can testify, the crapification even extends to German bread. Needs to be in the oven longer at medium temperature, now quickly baked at high temps but for a short time. The result is a hard, sometimes black crust outside and heavy, wet and half-raw dough inside.

    Tailoring? What is that in the age of ‘Runway’ (TV series)? Even the more expensive and formerly reliable European brands don’t know how to construct pants/trousers anymore.

    Was duped twice lately in traditional stores in Europe by the label “cotton” on shirts, and there was no way it was cotton, it so turned out after the first wash. And just to save a couple of square inches of such cheap fabric, most shirts too narrow.

    My second Marmot rain jacket (same style, same size) was two inches narrower than the first. Fabric at wrist came apart after some months. The “style” had been changed slightly and everything more crappy.

    Oh, and the shoes: who can walk around in the shoes that they sell these days? This whole winter, there was not one single pair of boots that I wanted to buy. I will not buy anything that is of bad quality.

    Even the sneaker manufacturers, touting their “technologies”, don’t seem to know how a (in my case perfectly normal) foot looks and functions.
    Especially the clothing by the “sporting goods” industry is just a big bag of bull.

  41. 245yehd565

    As a student I use index cards to make flash cards for studying/memorizing.
    As of about 2011, they started getting so flimsy that I may as well use paper.

  42. Lori

    Certainly no discussion of the decline of branding would be complete without mentioning the “no logo” phenomenon identified by Naomi Klein.

    Also, non-heterodox economists, especially those into game theory, tend to think brands arose in the first place from “signaling theory.” I’ve always been suspicious of this “signaling theory” (along with other seemingly made-to-order bodies of theory such as “public choice theory”). Signaling theory seems to be a way to brush aside obvious inefficiencies by changing the criterion of efficiency.

  43. A Real Black Person

    This is an excellent topic. I wish that you could periodically revisit it, because it ties with everything you discuss here on this blog.

    Here’s what I think is going on.
    In order for the wealthy to retain power, they have to keep consumption at a certain level but without using up finite sources of natural resources. They are trying to maintain the state of constant growth. In order to this, they spend a lot of time(hence the 70 to 100 hour workweek mentioned above, which I think is a symptom of diminishing returns), figuring out how to substitute (substitution has been the capitalist rebuttal to resource depletion) current inputs and processes with cheaper, lower quality ones. Doing these things decrease the product cycle, which increases demand over time, allows growth to continue, and allows them to retain power. Sometimes, they don’t have a choice. Metals like iron and copper are more expensive nowadays because most of the high-grade and easily obtainable deposits were extracted when industrialization was still getting started and the stuff that’s left is of lower quality. But anyway, that’s they’re doing. It’s characterized as looting on this blog, ‘innovation’, in the finance/ ‘tech’ circles, and dumbing down movement by academics and cultural critics. The academics and cultural critics are probably right. The ‘dumb’est amongst us are being pandered to, because they’ll be more likely to accept whatever dreck is presented before them.

    The crapification trend will stop when it comes time to substitute things that are un-subsitutable because of depletion or overpopulation. I think one key input is energy–particularly oil. Oil -based products have been a major ingredient in the crapification process. Without plentiful decent-quality oil, current methods of crapification at their current scale would be impossible. Freshwater is another. I don’t think anyone would pay to drink dirty freshwater but I’m sure some enterprising hustler will try to sell dirty water to desperate people in the future. By the time the public realize a notable decline in their drinking water quality or the raw energy in a gallon of gasoline, the crapification phenomenon, i.e. substitution will no longer be able to hide the fallacy of perpetual growth.

    Today, it’s just the quality. Tomorrow, it may come down to grotesque substitutions of the Soylent Green variety.

    1. Blue Guy Red State

      Excellent analysis, especially the economics and the end result. ‘Crapification’ is what we’re doing to the planet in general, and to each other in the process. I agree that Yves should consider making this a regular feature on NC, since it touches everyone and everything.

      When we’ve run out of oil – or so close that oil and gas enter the precious metal price range – even the rich will struggle. By then the air and water will be bad enough that mere riches may be insufficient to guarantee anything anyway.

  44. JT Fournier

    I buy non-food items at thrift stores, dollar stores, and garage sales. When junk predictably breaks, I lose less money, and I don’t get that screwed over feeling that results when something expensive breaks after two years.

  45. Kaleberg

    We started noticing crapification in the 90s. Nike shipped production overseas and their shoe life went from years to months. Armani – OK, I’m a rich jerk – gave up on quality, even on their top of the line, not Armani Express. It keeps getting worse. We’ve lost faith in just about every brand whether we are shopping for cars, dishwashers, clothing, vacuum cleaners or hats. It’s kind of ridiculous that the triumph of capitalism meant that we now have to put up with Soviet quality goods.
    When Detroit crapified in the 1970s, they let the door open for VW, Honda, Nissan and Toyota, but we’ve run out of emerging economies willing to produce higher quality goods. Granted, with the ongoing economic depression, there is a chance for some disruptive restructuring. We shall see.

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