A couple of months ago, my wife and I moved into a rental house while ours is being renovated. The experience has been educational on several fronts.
In terms of the neighborhood, it feels like we've stepped back in time, and in some ways we have. The house we own is on a large plot carved out in the 1990s, and we rarely see our neighbors. But the place we're renting is in a classic 1950s subdivision of ranch homes that sit close together, with sidewalks connecting them all. Mail is delivered right to our door, and neighbors have even stopped by to welcome us to the hood. Who knew people still did that?
But when we close the front door, the cracks in the freshly made-over façade are obvious. In the kitchen, brand-new appliances rattle and shake. Pull out the rack in the dishwasher and it practically falls on the floor. The doors on the refrigerator don't line up, and the icemaker is a joke. In short, we're surrounded by construction-grade stuff purchased at a big-box store. As a 21st-century manufacturer who stakes his company's reputation on quality, it makes me positively cranky.
Who makes this sh**, anyway? And what's in it for them?
The answer to the first question is, three companies, basically. When our rental home was built, there were many more, but they've been gobbled up over the years by companies that took solid appliances that were as satisfying as a baked potato and turned them into greasy chips that crumble in your hand: E----, W----, G----. The triumvirate reminds me of the superstates in Orwell's 1984. But what I can't figure out is, what do they imagine they're gaining by churning out this stuff? World domination? I don't think so.
They aren't making money on it, because they're constantly being squeezed by the big-box home centers of the world, where the products are sold. This leads them to continually cut corners in order to reduce costs in their pursuit of the almighty volume, which means that quality goes down the drain. Forget innovation. Forget efficiency. Forget simple competence (yes, an appliance can be competent). And forget about the poor schmucks (yours truly among them) who are forced to do battle with the products on a daily basis.
But those schmucks know when they've been forgotten and have an uncanny ability for remembering that fact when they go to make a purchase. So not only are appliance companies not making money; they're shooting themselves in the foot by courting the big box store, rather than the actual end-user of the product, whether it's a renter, landlord or homeowner.
Quality costs extra on the front end, it's true. And out of necessity, most people still make their buying decisions based on short-term budgeting. But once they experience a quality product that's built to last and not built to break, they're more likely to seek it out, knowing that the long-term savings will be substantial. And that's how brand loyalty is born.
This time spent in our rental house, meanwhile, is having the opposite effect on me. I know I'll never buy any of the brands I've gone mano-a-mano with over the past few months, even if it's their top-of-the-line, ultimate custom grade. Call it the trickle-up effect.
But for all my #%*!ing at inferior products over the past few months, there's been a positive side to the experience, too: It's confirmed my convictions about both the importance of quality and the dangers of short-term thinking, and having one's convictions confirmed can make a guy feel pretty good.