Frequently, I feel we are in a race to the bottom. Cheaper goods, poorly made, with customer service that is negligible.

My experience in retail shopping in the United States has not been particularly good over the last few years — and it has only gotten worse through time and perspective.

Let me outline the problems I see first, then I want to outline some of the outliers and possible solutions.


I have noticed an increase in products that can be “customized” or better, “personalized”.

This might be adding artwork, or picking the color for panels on an existing product. I place quotes around “custom” because the piece is not really custom. It’s an echo of custom, to be sure, but the actual product is still the same. It’s still the same grade of material, still the same shape and design.

It’s relatively easy with modern equipment to change out a panel on a shoe or a bag or add a graphic to a shirt or a shoe.

What is hard to do is add meaningful design changes.

Adding a pocket, or changing material type from cloth to leather. Or making a shoe that conforms more closely to ones feet. In a “Custom” model, the consumer gets some of the trappings of an actual custom product, but the product itself is still the lowest-common denominator of product — it’s still produced as cheaply as possible.

This model is borrowing from a long-tail model. It’s seeking to create the appearance of an individualized product without having to actual achieve individuality. the product can appear to be exceptional, but it is anything but.

When the Store is Not Your Friend

An interesting article popped up on Forbes — “How Modern Economics Is Built On ‘The World’s Dumbest Idea” — the idea that has led us as consumers down a certain path; that maximizing short-term profits has long term benefit for the company, has led us to a place where the consumer benefits the least from the company’s product.

Under this model, the salesperson ceases to be your advocate. The amount of money they can get out of you through sales will translate directly to their own survival.

To maximize short term profit, a company has to decide to make the least expensive product and sell it A LOT.

The greater the difference between the cost of manufacture and the cost to the consumer translates to greater short-term profits for the company.

The least amount of customer service offered to the consumer also means greater profit. Minimal return service policies, no repair policies, and no product guarantees add up to greater profit. Hiring floor people part-time, and on commission, also reduces the bottom line.

Under this model, the salesperson ceases to be your advocate. The amount of money they can get out of you through sales will translate directly to their own survival.

How Much Harm Can You Do?

Airlines, software companies, utilities etc. Companies that are ‘necessary’ to your home or business, have long employed a model where they seek to provide the minimum amount of customer care possible, banking on the consumers need for their service to keep them as customers rather than their exemplary customer service.

American Airlines, for example, has created a new class “Basic Economy” — basing this model on some other airlines similar models. Basic Economy does away with free carry-on bags, drink and snack service and torches any remaining leg-room. Making each one of these amenities a cost additional to the ticket. They are banking on the consumers thirst for inexpensive travel to off-set the increased discomfort. And they are banking on profits from easing their imposed discomfort.

Automated phone systems are based on the customers need to get information and play with how much frustration a consumer will put up with before trying another route. This can be technical support, calling a bank, any customer service line. It removes the necessity to have a first-tier of operators who can answer questions and field specific questions to specialists. It also locks the consumer into a prolonged interaction with an automated system, eating up the consumers time. This UX blog has a concise breakdown of how that frustration is built: The Seven Deadly Sins of Automated Phone Systems.

Piling on the frustration is the desire for data mining that increasingly is popular among companies. Buy a sandwich, or a pair of pants, and the consumer is asked to fill out a survey. While companies are working to remove as much overhead as possible (re: customer service) they still want to know that the consumer is not so pissed off that they will take their business to a competitor.

Increasing Corporate Profits Means Someone is Doing Their Job Well

What is not immediately apparent to the consumer is that every interaction, every product, everything a company does — is based on the decisions of other people. People motivated by salary, promotion, adulation — all the stuff that the consumer is motivated by. Those decisions look great on the company bottom line. However the math that makes up the bottom line does not factor in the customer.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, he uses a great case study: Airwalk shoes, and the advertising company Lambesis, who were able to drive sales of the shoe from 16 million annually to 175 million in 4 years. And then Airwalk revenue declined rapidly after that. Why? They decided to remove what was special about the brand — how it treated its hardcore customers — those customers who had built the brand.

Airwalk President Lee Smith is quoted on saying this:

“In the world of cool, it all works on word of mouth. Cool brands treat people well, we didn’t. We should have paid attention to the details and listened to our innovators who began telling us, you guys are sellouts, you guys went mainstream, you guys s**k.”

Removing benevolent human interaction from the equation of customer service does little more than make us more sour, more isolated and less comprehending of the mechanics of our world.

It also short-changes the power of both human interaction and the consumer’s pocket book.

There is value in offering excellent customer service. The customer is a company’s investor. When a customer buys your product, they are investing in your well-being — they are investing in your company’s future.

Real Damn Custom

I am a super strong believer in Custom — because Sidgl is mostly a custom shop. Also — and this ties back into the whole sustainability thing — sustainability is not just sourcing — its term of use. The longer you own and use something, the less you consume. Right? Simple math.

BLVDiercustom men's suits in Chicago, specializes in custom men’s suits.

If you make an appointment with them, they will spend an hour walking you through every detail of the suit. From collars to buttons to cuffs.

An hour!

Think about that in contrast to the standard clothing retail model!

Not only is the customer getting that time, but they are getting real expertise. This is not the salesperson listening to a private soundtrack on their headphones level of care. This is not the customer service rep who is told to keep customers on the phone for less than 5 minutes.

This is someone saying — you need something specific from me — and I will do my level best to make sure I provide that to you.

This is not the model taught in business classes. BLVDier is not maximizing quarterly profits. This is not even a Long Tail model — this is a model I call “Enough”.

The owners of BLVDier know a few things.

  • They know men’s suits extremely well.
  • They know that a cross-section of men need suits.
  • They know how to make a custom suit at a reasonable price.
  • Because they are a small operation, their overhead is lower.

They are able to sustain a business precisely because they are not trying to maximize quarterly earnings. They are simultaneously capitalizing on their own strengths and the desires of their customer base. To them, profit means being able to continue operations and to be able to continue to delight their customers.

Not only that, but Custom is extremely sustainable. Rather than having waste generated by producing multiple copies of the same suit. You lower that footprint by buying enough cloth to do the suit that has been ordered. A custom suit can also be more easily altered — allowing for the fluctuation of body mass of the owner. Remember those fused seams? On a custom suit, most seams can be adjusted and repaired.

True Cost of Goods

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Yvon Chouinard, Jib Ellison and Rick Ridgeway speak about the rise of the Sustainable Economy.

The problem is simple. It’s generally cheaper to buy the product that has a worse impact on its environment than the equivalent product that does less harm. Higher cost to planet does not translate to higher price to customer. Of course, this is due to the fact that businesses are rarely obliged to pay for the full toll their operations take on the world. Because many of these impacts have been hard to gauge with any precision — or to assign to individual businesses with fairness — their costs have remained external to businesses’ accounting.

The true cost of a good is based on its lifespan and its continued utility. If the consumer buys a dress that can last 10 washes before it needs to be replaced, and that dress costs 50 dollars — over the course of a year, they might need to buy multiple copies of that dress. Contrast that to a dress that might cost 150 dollars, but will last for multiple years, not only physically, but aesthetically. Which is the less expensive dress?

Add to that the true cost of manufacture: If the waste footprint is factored into the cost of the cheaper item, will it still be inexpensive? If the environmental factors are added into the accounting of the product, what is it’s real price? If your business model is to maximize your quarterly revenue, you do not want this tally.

Larger business will not move easily away from the quarterly profit model. What will drive that conversation is the changing habits of the consumer. What can change consumers habits is simple: delight. If a company can delight its customer through each stage of the purchasing and owning process, it can win.

— Ben Trissel

About Ben Trissel

Ben is the Founder of Sidgl, 4th generation craftsman and designer that believes in thoughtful design, sustainable manufacturing and functional beauty. Sidgl makes handcrafted bags that are designed to look good, feel good and above all function well.

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I am constantly in pursuit of my 3-goals for sidgl -- better design, greater sustainability and working with a community of like-minded individuals.  Join me as I explore this fashion revolution. --Ben


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