Wal-Mart and the Internet Cheapen Everything

March 15, 2009


The fill valve on my toilet broke for the third time in two years.  I blame the Internet.  And Wal-Mart.

Our refrigerators used to last 12 or 15 years; today they last 7 before the compressor burns out.  We shrug as if this is how it has always been.  It has not.  Our collective desire for cheap is an enabler that allows Wal-Mart and others to trade off quality for price and in the process lower our standards of acceptance.  Likewise, thirty years ago our highly competitive newspapers were thick with articles and quality writing because, well, because they were competing on a level playing field with other newspapers.  Today they are vacuous and on the verge of extinction, unable to beat free no matter how much they cut their overhead.  A major paper is shutting down nearly every week.

The creep toward cheap was relatively slow and insidious.  So was the decline in the resulting product quality.  It is our acceptance of this decline that chews at me.

Wal-Mart and the Internet have led this race to the bottom.  It’s a disease.  The first symptom was the societal shift toward diminished quality because it made products more economical.  Cheaper plastics.  Thinner metal.  Smaller sizes.  Fewer parts.  The Internet forced the print media to compromise as well.  Less research.  More opinion.  Fewer sources.  Poorer writing.  We sat back as the competitors to these low-cost suppliers lowered their costs – and reduced product quality – in a futile effort to remain competitive.

In the end, the only fill valve that I can get for my toilet is from the same manufacturer that made the last two.  I don’t expect the next replacement to last any longer than the others.

There will always be a few boutique stores and BMW-like merchandisers that put quality first; some of us will be willing to pay for that quality.  But for Everyman, Wal-Mart and the Internet will reign, churning out product that would have been unacceptable a generation ago.