Life on the Cheap…

Reading through the comments on Engadget’s article about Wal-Mart’s dvd rental service, I saw a few comments in support of Wal-Mart. It was interesting because the only thing that the supporters could get behind was price. Wal-Mart has the cheapest price on the cheapest products. I was listening to a radio spot on NPR about doing business with Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart demands a 5% reduction in prices year on year from their suppliers. The interviewer talked to a number of companies that supply product to Wal-Mart. They talked about the lose of control in their industry. A couple of the people interviewed were owners of companies that had gone out of business because they could not meet Wal-Mart’s price demands. Most of the business owners talked about the fact that Wal-Mart dictates the price they will pay.

Wal-Mart very likely has some sketchy employment practices as well. This article from Business Week makes no bones about the fact that Wal-Mart is a sketchy employer. Business Weekly does not question that there’s an issue but rather wonders at whether and for how long Wal-Mart will be able to stave off a public backslash. This Op-Ed article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the kind of exposure talked about in the Business Week article that will ultimately be the undoing of Wal-Mart.

When the bottom line is the only criteria by which we judge our society and the things in it, we will ultimately get exactly what we pay for. Wal-Mart has the cheapest prices. The quality of the products sold there is marginal, even for the name brand products they carry. The stores are typical in a hurriedly tidied disarray. Customer service is, for the most part marginal at best and down right rude on occasion. An exercise that clearly illustrates the difference between real customer service and bottom line customer service would be to go, in the same day, to Wal-Mart and then to Nordstroms. But my favorite illustration of the disparity that develops when all things are judged solely on their price is the houses we live in.

Over the course of my life I have had the opportunity to tear walls out of quite a few different houses and buildings. I always prefer tearing walls out of more recently built homes than old ones. In a house built before 1960 it can take two men using only hand tools (nothing that uses electricity) half a day to take down one wall. That does not count scrap out time. Just smash out the wall. In a house built after 1975 the same two men using the same tools can take out the same wall in a little over an hour.

Houses built before 1960 had 2 by 4 studs that were rough cut and clean grain. The stud measured exactly 2 inches by 4 inches. The studs were laid in 16 inches on center, sometimes closer. The covering on the studs was lathe and plaster. Quarter inch by one inch lathe strips nailed to the studs with approximately half an inch of space between each. Plaster was laid on the lathes. There was a quality of workmanship about those old houses that was amazing. It was interesting to examine how the craftsman put things together as we took them apart. Those walls were there to stay and did not want to be taken down.

Houses built after 1975 have processed studs that measure about one and a half inches by three and a half. The grain of the wood is very loose and the studs often have a lot of knots which reduces the overall strength. The studs sometimes have stress fractures that result from trying to force a warped or curved stud straight. The studs are laid sixteen inches on center and never closer save when it is required by code. Dry wall is the covering, usually three quarter inch but sometimes half. About half the time three or four good whacks at the foot of the wall with an eight pound sledge and the wall will swing up like a garage door. Nothing left then but to pull it down from the ceiling. Those walls can’t wait to jump out.

The craftsman of yester-year and the quality that they loved is hard to find today. No one wants a craftsman. Everyone wants production. Today it is always quality sacrificed for time and never vice-versa. The question is always how low a standard of quality to we have to accept in order to get the rate of production we want. The question is seldom if ever how much time do we need to allocate to this task so that it is done right, every time. Likewise, labor is a commodity to be managed in the interest of higher earnings. And then management scratch their heads and wonder at why employees balk at going the extra bit.

Maybe the criteria we should be using is, if you’re not willing to work there, do not shop there. At least for me this would mean a bit of a change in some of my habits. Based on this criteria I would never shop at Wal-Mart. I would never eat at McDonalds. Now, I would eat at the McDonalds of 1975. Back in 1975 McDonalds was one of the leading employers of high school students. Employers back then liked to see McDonalds on a college graduates résumé. It showed that the individual was able to meet high standards and work in a team environment. There are a number of grocery stores that I would not shop at. I would have to find new places to buy my clothes. I would continue shopping at Amazon and many of the online businesses I currently use. I would spend a lot more time in locally owned retail stores and a lot less time in national chains.

Those who knew the small towns of the 1950s and 60s long for a return to the society and culture of that time. They say it was a calmer, quieter, slower, friendlier place. I would guess that in order to go back to that time you would have to take all that was that time. I do not believe that the instant gratification of today can coexist with whatever it was that made people friendlier, warmer and more caring in the past.

There is a cost that comes in making the bottom line the final criteria of our society. Living life as produced by the lowest bidder. There is something to be said for Quality. I’d really like to see more of it.

And as for NetFlix vs Blockbuster vs Wal-Mart? I’m sticking with Net-Flix. But you already knew that.


One thought on “Life on the Cheap…

  1. Smittie,
    I am impressed at your leap of faith! I am also impressed with the love you have for your family. It is very pleasant for me to read about a man that loves his family so much. I wanted to wish you well at your new endeavor and will swing by to submit my support!
    I wanted to suggest to you that maybe in your spare time, you should be a writer or a columnist. I have not seen such talent and believe you could channel this into a living.
    See you soon and again, Fair Winds and Following Seas and a Yo Ho Ho with a cup of Jo!!!

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