As you may be aware I have become increasingly more interested in adopting some of the philosophy more common to the field of preparedness, namely borrowing the ideology of examining and re-examining how much I need a certain product and assessing whether such an item would add value, use/benefit; both immediately and for the foreseeable future.
If you missed this personal transformation, don’t be shy – have a glance-over of the article posted at the beginning of the year: Why Prepping May Not Just Be For Those Anticipating The End Of The World….
One of the points raised there was, through adopting certain aspects of this mentality, how a consumer may realise that they have the power to not only influence the quality of the products that manufacturers/brands produce but that they can also start to address where an item is produced and in doing so, help to support local industry in the process.
As the saying goes: “knowledge is power” and of course by token, the reverse is true. If consumers resist informing themselves over some of the basic processes of manufacture, then they will see a reduction in power, unable to spot the well-made from the poorly constructed until it is too late to reverse their actions.
I am not suggesting everyone around the globe takes up courses to become experts in all areas of manufacture (I’m not stopping you from trying either!) but some of the basics, perhaps educating ourselves on core materials, the different properties and their applications – may be a beneficial way to start and a fun ongoing exercise to improve our knowledge.
Today, as consumers, we have all the potential to learn more at our fingertips, should we wish to delve in and do a little research. While our ancestors had regional knowledge, learned through trial and error, to go into the natural world and harvest the ingredients necessary to make medicine, clothing, food and tools; (something we are increasingly divorcing ourselves from) – a large proportion of us choose to become more in-tune with the results of technology’s evolution rather than familiarising ourselves with the pathways that brought us to this point. Within the realm of digital communication, it is not uncommon to simultaneously learn of tech achievements, as they happen, while also immediately being informed of how these advancements will materialise into consumer products.
Need For Need…
However, just as we are aware that the latest products on the store shelves are not necessarily better than those former models they replace, we also know that marketing often distorts the ‘real’ need for a new product in our homes/lives from the ‘perceived’ need. The next, new, shiny model from a celebrated series of products may not deliver this time around. So how can we tell the dud from the dedicated?
In order to have a chance of succeeding, we have to ask more questions. The fundamental flaw that many buyers fall victim to is that they do not recognise their purchasing power, the second false assumption that ensues is the belief that individual purchases only affect individuals, directly and for that moment. Very few consider some of the secondary effects of poor choice purchasing.
Buy Now, Pay Later…
Purchasing a bad product (by ‘bad’ we mean: of poor quality/durability or is unable perform its intended purpose) has a series of possible knock-on effects, some of these are short-term, while others last for a much longer duration. Allow me to address a few of the more common knock-on effects of purchasing ‘bad’ products below:
- Money spent on this (bad) product was money that could have been spent on or towards a more suitable product that would have fulfilled its role better (opportunity cost). It was a high ticket price item, the exchange/refund date has expired and your dissatisfaction with item became significant after this period. You will have to make other financial sacrifices to find a suitable alternative, or you will have to reschedule the plans that you had which revolved around this purchase.
- The purchase you made, born largely from impulse and hype from recent Ad campaigns contributed to the overall sales stats made by fellow consumers. You regret not researching this type of product more closely as some digging uncovered that there are superior products available, as it was a niche item this was not immediately clear. The net sales figures for the same product have demonstrated to the manufacturer/retailer that there is a high demand for this item, and the marketing efforts have given them an important edge over their competitors despite the gulf in quality that exists between this and their rivals’ efforts.
- Unknown to consumers, this product was a trial batch made overseas, outsourced to cheap labour to see if such a partnership would be beneficial for the future. The recorded sales appear to uphold the notion that this was a success, more overseas outsourcing is planned as a result of initial sales. It may be necessary for the company to question the value of keeping its home plants and factories running, such outsourcing may become a permanent business fixture. Jobs in the company’s native country may become under threat if the policy to outsource goes ahead. Other local businesses that thrived by their close proximity to this business may consider relocating or closing depending on the impact of this manufacturer scaling back its local production.
- The price of the item was remarkably cheap, had the company better gauged consumer opinion via accurate analysis – it would have realised that consumers would have happily paid more to make this product from higher grade materials at a higher price-tag. In doing so it may have further bolstered its public image for producing superior products.
- You came across a forum online complaining to the manufacturer regarding this product’s weaknesses. Some of the complaints bordered on the outrageous with limited understanding of the production process shown and therefore fairly outlandish ideas concerning improvements were thrown around. You have some solid knowledge on where the company could have improved, but time being a factor you move on without leaving a comment. You decide that you will just soak-up this bad purchase and not buy from this company again.
- The manufacturer has received some complaints, but the proportion of these when compared to sales processed are minimal. Quality of the product does not seem to be such a sticking point as some market forecasters had previously warned. Production will roll-on with further scrimping on quality being introduced later. Interestingly, competitors making rival but more expensive & superior quality products start to take note of the success of this lower quality producer. They begin to use this as the benchmark and are quick to follow suit swapping out more durable complex manufacturing processes for cheaper money-saving ones. Soon the whole sector of the industry including all the main players who produce their own version of the same product type follow suit and quality for this type of product depreciates across the board.
- Following on from 6) a new overseas competitor arises offering the traditional quality once common in the native country’s manufacture area. This ‘renewed’ product is well received internationally, fairly expensive and is an overall success. It blows the competition out of the water and puts these companies out of business for good. All native factories close and many workers are forced into redundancy. The local areas surrounding these businesses also suffer, the degeneration of these locales will take considerable time to rebuild, during the interim many locals will move in search of better job prospects which will set back regeneration of surrounding businesses even further.
The above 7 points show the possible, more extreme outcomes to a consumer’s ill-fated purchasing decision. The individual purchase does not by its own cause these, but when combined with even a few other sales (say during a company’s test sale period) it can contribute to making a decisive action becoming if you will, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Point 5) is significant as an example of how purchasing power can transfer into post-sales power. It is all too easy to become engulfed in the belief that your opinion is not relevant. However, the statistics for the value of consumer feedback is staggering. Many large companies spend a large amount of time, resources and money to determine how prototypes or first generation products are perceived/received by consumers. Focus groups, Alpha/Beta testers, bloggers, print & digital publications, social media etc. are all of great value for companies to learn what we think of their brand, singing their praises and well as discovering what we think of their products.
Constructive criticism goes a long, long way. It may be difficult to remain calm when you feel you have received an inferior product or service from a company, that you have been cheated out of your money or even just the disappointment as you had specifically saved-up for, or had chosen this specific model over another as a gift for a loved one. However, it can be extremely difficult for a company to see angry comments which quickly divert from the ‘fixable’ element (possible solutions to the failings of the product) and instead go straight for the jugular. Insulting, defamatory comments generally negate or drown-out any useful or worthy improvements proposed.
Pitchforks and Angry Talks…
Mob-like assaults of discontent on companies social media accounts are becoming increasingly more common. Twitter has (from a business perspective), mutated into a visible customer complaints platform. However, it is important to maintain perspective, even if you are angry with your purchase or product. Beware of social-media acting as an opinion-loop which in itself distorts the reality of the issue or problem at hand. As human beings, we love to feel supported by others. Social media should, however, in general, be viewed with a healthy amount of cynicism. Not only are there a wealth of fake accounts set-up to troll businesses but the platform for opinion often degrades into a case of the loudest voice winning and not the majority of user-experience.
Customers wishing to make sincere, valid points that surmount to constructive criticism beyond their dissatisfaction often leave such social media debates once the mob/trolls enter the fray. It is not only constructive-feedback-giving customers who know this but also the companies that are targeted for issues beyond their control and as such, they too will treat many of these hate comments with scepticism.
If you can divorce yourself from emotion as an unhappy buyer and propose the areas for improvement, even if you are in receipt of, or are in the process of pursuing a refund then this is an extremely useful and life-saving gift in business. You may wish failure upon the company, but as the other 6 points outlined above show, the fallout from the failure of a company to perform adequately or even well can be far-reaching beyond simply turning a profit. The negative outcome could manifest itself by contributing to greater unemployment levels within your country, city, community; perhaps even leading to a backtrack in regeneration for the wealth and services found just beyond your own front doorstep.
From Futility and Beyond…
The good news is that there seems to be a tangible awareness forming in consumers. While too many of us are content or oblivious to adding to our disposable culture, (high-street clothing fashion industry – take note for your huge contribution to excess material waste and human exploitation!) there is a noticeable rise in end-users asking important questions regarding products they consider purchasing, and more crucially, acting on the feedback to the queries that they put to the manufacturers/retailers.
Again, perhaps it is the cultivation and growth of the ‘prepper’ mindset that I explored before, but one key area of commerce that has seen some of the largest escalation of consumer fact-checking is the leisure/sports market, specifically the outdoor adventure sector.
Why this area specifically? Well, for starters the outdoor adventure industry is estimated to enjoy an annual turnover of $887 billion in the US alone, (according to website GearJunkie, April 2017), link below:
It goes without saying that this area is broad in scope in terms of products that fall under its umbrella. Some of the examples of products that constitute the diverse spectrum include gear for the following activities: hiking, fishing, hunting, prepping, EDC (every day carry), mountaineering, sailing, air-soft and orienteering. The rising popularity of these activities is not surprising given the steady increase in hours that we will spend working during our lifetime and where the retirement age where many of us live continues to be stretched further. The ‘always on’ aspect of technology is both blessing and curse and means that aside from feeling connected to family and friends stress can also become the dark cloud that shadows us all the way home thanks to our networked devices, social media and derived from any general fears that we harbour with the security of our and uncertainty for the future in general. The need, therefore, to ‘escape’ has never felt so pressing or welcomed as it now seems, and for those who subscribe to the activities that form any part of the outdoor adventure industry, seeking a healthy release from work-related anxieties and spending time in environments far removed from these are reason enough to gravitate towards such pursuits.
The appeal of going on an adventure combined with the fear of a more unpredictable world proves a powerful combo. As such many ‘adventure-seekers’ understand that their gear, (whether it be the humble sleeping bag, or a vehicle orientated first aid kit); may make the difference between life and death. So in many ways these consumers have been asking the all too important questions of whether their equipment is best for the intended job, whether it is of the appropriate material and how the products have been put together, on par with the needs of the military and desires of eco-warriors, the adventurists have been searching for these qualities for a very long time.
With the internet more globally accessible than ever, the exchange of tips, techniques and user-driven product recommendations are also at an all-time high. Which probably explains the surge in continued importance that these consumers are placing on retailers and manufacturers of their outdoor gear.
Having contacted half-a-dozen of the largest/most prominent online retailers of outdoor gear/equipment in the UK, their resounding (off-the-record) feedback substantiated the presence of a tangible increase in such questions being asked, with very little impression (when nudged to speculate) that this would decrease in the future. Consumers within this sector of the market are asking for information that has in the past, ordinarily been omitted from manufacturers’ product specs; information that once appeared unnecessary is now being actively sought. Requested info can cover anything from the type/compound of metals/alloys, in-depth breakdown of fabric compounds, the tensile strength of these, manufacturing techniques as well as the ease at which third-party parts can be installed.
There is also one last question that nearly always accompanies the release of a new outdoor product: Where is it made?
With a large proportion of western companies outsourcing to China, many of their products have their origin disguised. The cultural/national bias is not a recent development. Like it or not, as people we have stereotypes concerning other nations, these can fall in categories both imagined and experienced, however so many factors form our relatively knee-jerk summary of other nations and their cultural standing. With this in mind, we place a certain value on both ‘they’ (peoples) and what ‘they can do/make’ (products). So British products might be generally praised as being ‘highly innovative’, German as ‘mechanically excellent’ and American may be regarded as ‘ durable & dependable’. In contrast, Russia and China may have the reputation for producing ‘sub-quality’ products or prolific in creating poor imitations of western consumer items. We realise deep down that this is not the case, especially with China producing a huge portion of western company products and Russia showing great technical ability in its military development globally. But as consumers we rarely rationalise. It is far easier to passively affix the same stigmas/badges of honour to the country of origin where a product is made based on factors far removed from the things that they manufacture.
That said, with the explosion of China’s market, its artificial lowering of currency (to remain a more attractive prospect for overseas investment) as well as the nation’s land grab for all manner of natural resources, there can be little reason for the existence of certain products unless they are made overseas, or at least partially made there.
Aside from the Chinese-made ‘fakes’ and ‘rip-offs’ of established western brands which contribute to the detriment of global consumer perception, there is a great deal of quality inherent in a lot of what is being produced in China. This was a point that half of the online retailers of outdoor products wanted to stress in the correspondence that I had with them and this sentiment is supported across a multitude of brands in a wide range of consumer goods. However, it is important to consider the consequences of our consumption, factoring in the fallout of purchases we make that extend beyond the usual ratio of price vs. quality.
Perhaps this will change in the decades that lie ahead of us, however if we as western consumers are to ‘buy’ into Chinese made products and be proud of the workmanship instilled in these etc., then we will need to see our input positively affect not only the goods produced but also areas of significant concern including but not exclusively: the environment, fair wages for labour and quite possibly issues within the realms of political and social spheres in the same way that we feel it is our right to try to steer western manufacturers and business practices. It is somewhat alarming that the worldly, well-travelled Chinese, the large swell of vastly wealthy Chinese men and women who spend great lengths of time visiting western countries for recreation, specifically target the luxury branches of brands that are only made outside of China (despite the overwhelming majority of the same brands being made domestically in their homeland). So, if China’s consumer elite, when faced with the option to buy the same goods made there, or overseas (say in Europe as is happening) and they opt for the latter, it might leave the rest of us wondering, what is it they know that we don’t?
Born in the People’s Republic of the United States Of…?
So there may be some truth to the bias of selecting products that are made outside of China where possible. However, finding these western manufactured products may be harder than one might imagine. It all starts to become even more complicated when the same companies do their utmost to obscure the origin of their product.
If a western company is say based in the USA, but the product is made in China, then the company will tend to stress the American ‘design’ of the item in question, giving the impression that the product is also made in the US.
Things only get more convoluted when you start to question whether ‘made’ can ever be seen in the same way as ‘assembled’. A tool might be designed in the US, made in China and assembled in the US. The US company would likely stress the American input over the Chinese involvement and hence the waters only get muddier from the consumers perspective. However transparent the origin in question is or isn’t, as the 7 scenarios listed above illustrate, the origin is only one part of the conscientious approach consumers should be adhering to where possible so as to invest in the solution rather than adding to the problem.