Skip to comments.(Vanity) The Cycle of Life, or, Those Who Know History Repeat It Too
Posted on 09/11/2011 9:07:23 PM PDT by grey_whiskers
Some observers have noted that history doesn't always repeat itself, but that it does tend to rhyme. This was first alleged about geopolitics, but it appears to be true in many areas of life: the cycle of economic boom and bust, climactic cycles, from La Nina and El Nino to glaciations, and even management fads ("Empty what's full; fill what's empty; and scratch where it itches.")
In particular, one can see such occurrences play out over time in the retail sector. When I was young, there were comparatively few chain stores, and most of those were regional, not national. (This was even in the days before "Malls" -- stores were typically grouped together in a town square, or in larger cities, along a block or two of storefronts, with each store specializing in a particular category.) Most often, when one wanted hardware, tools, or clothes, one would "go downtown" to do one's shopping, stopping at the merchants with whom one had established a relationship. If the manager knew you, they might even be persuaded to let you buy something "on layaway -- convenient terms!" Yes, this was before the widespread adoption of credit cards for the masses: I *told* you it was talking about history.
The exceptions to the rule were a few national chains: Sears, Roebuck & Co., Woolworths, Montgomery Wards (affectionately referred to as "Monkey Ward"), and K-Mart. These stores were "jack of all trades" stores which offered one-stop shopping.
As time passed, and the MBAs first began to infest corporate America, someone deep in the bowels of the accounting departments began to realize the possible advantages of consolidation. That is, instead of having each neighborhood with its own clothing, home repair / hardware, and appliances stores, why not combine categories under a nationally recognized BRAND, which would guarantee uniformity of stock, common policies, and lower the logistical costs and provide for discounts from manufacturers in return for a stable base of larger orders? And the customers would know exactly what they were getting, too!
Well, it sounded good to the decision makers; the more so as a similar model had already been underway in the hotel / motel business (Holiday Inn, of all people, was once a novel, cutting edge concept) and the restaurant business, particularly fast food (McDonald's and Arby's and Burger King made it; others like Hardees / Carl's Jr. were slower; others fell by the wayside and/or never made the jump. Fill in your own defunct burger place from your youth here .
And so in the late 70's, through the 80's and into the 90's, the tendency to conglomeration spread like a cancer metastasizing into the American landscape, casting a monotonous pall of deadly conformance across the land. (Isn't it funny, by the way, that the corporate suites like to tout the notion of "diversity" everywhere except in the real world, were you once had a strong local flavor which was half the fun of travel?) But a funny thing happened on the way to the conformity.
As this phenomenon spread, the Big Box stores flourished: and in their own way, they ended up supplanting the former national chains. Woolworths simply died, and dropped off of the Dow Industrial Average, to be replaced by Wal-Mart in 1991. Montgomery Ward went out of business in 2001 and now has only an online presence. K-Mart is still present, having acquired Sears in 2005.
Maybe the bean counters didn't notice it, maybe they hadn't thought of it, but volume discounts are made on...volume. This meant that in order to maintain their "low, Low, LOW PRICES!" the large chains had to maintain not only a stifling uniformity on the outside, but they had to limit their choices on the inside: only the highest-volume SKUs within any category could be stocked, otherwise the cost to order, ship, and worst of all, store and display the items would jump above the allowed ROGI hurdle spread. (Huh? They'd have too small a profit margin to allow for all the costs and risk, compared to the interest demanded by the bank to borrow, or the cost paid by the Fed to save.)
And, along with the uniformity of displays, customer service tended to take something of a back seat: when one is interested in customers merely as a metric of net dollars expended per category per square foot per hour, one is less interested in passing the time getting to *know* them, or to handle special orders. In fact, in order to handle the volume of exceptions, and make it easy to deal with customers from all *over* the fruited plain, standard procedures were made and enforced "from corporate" which got in the way of "the personal touch" so often shown on the advertisements. (Kind of similar to the way all diners, even ones in downtown Chicago or Boston, talk of "Farm Fresh eggs" delivered in bulk from the back of a truck in cartons of pasteurized goop or reconstituted powder. But I digress. The lies of marketing hearkening back to another time, are a tale for another time.)
And so, the large stores became the victim of their own success: in dealing with the masses of people, they forgot the profitability of the odd lot, the specialty order, the expert in a field who needed those hard-to-get parts. And, over time, one began to see the re-emergence of several other stores: the specialty store, and the "mid-range" store (say, Target). Each of these groups attacked different parts of the market: the specialty stores dealt with high-margin, low volume goods, and catered to individual customers. Target went after a niche of low prices, not as low as the K-Marts and the Wal-Marts of the world, and a better selection of higher-end goods, enough that the upper middle class might allow themselves to be caught dead there.
But here, too, another funny thing happened. The Bean Counters in management went after both the Big Box stores (Wal-Mart in particular) and Target. Wal-Mart has become legendary for its pressure on supplier prices, and its logistics: but they led the charge to drive suppliers to China, and out of the US, in the name of lower prices. (Quality was somehow forgotten.) Target, on the other hand, in avoiding a direct tangle with Wal-Mart on its strengths, found a large consumer base of its own and flourished -- so well, in fact, that the ever-present demands of Wall Street for growth drove it out of its original niche, and into multiple other areas not originally part of its product lines: baby strollers and cheap furniture and appliances and an increasing electronics and home decor section.
In fact, if you didn't know any better, Target is bidding fair to become...this generation's Sears & Roebuck!
The more things change, the more...you know the drill.
But there is one other major area of life in which this circumstance is repeating. This is that of the news and information market: where the old relationships were based on, if not exactly a monopoly of information, at least a Trust in the old Teddy Roosevelt sense. CBS, NBC, ABC, and the major newspapers had a stranglehold on which stories were covered (or not), the tone in which they were covered, and the metastory: who the predetermined saints and angels were going to be.
The first crack in the dam was Rush Limbaugh: but as he is primarily a radio presence, I shall not notice him except to point out that he singlehandedly revitalized the AM dial and gave rise to the nationwide phenomenon of "Talk Radio." It's no longer avant-garde; even Limbaugh's protege, Sean Hannity, celebrated his 10-year anniversary on Sep. 10.
The next crack was cable news and CNN, which got its big break during Gulf War I in 1991. Unfortunately, it was run by Ted Turner, and was only slightly to the left of Pravda. Fox News showed up considerably later, and like a GOP presidential candidate, ran right for awhile, but then veered to the center.
But the second, more important crack was the Internet, with Google, which allows people to search for information on their own (except, of course, if they're in Communist China and actually want to exercise any freedom like searching for Falun Gong); and numerous discussion groups and chat rooms and websites, devoted to every topic imaginable.
Ah, the wild freedom of the young web!
But good times don't always last, and neither do new paradigms. It is true that there are many bloggers on the web; many of whom are refugees from the print media, who are dying by a combination of hypoadvertisia and reader apathy. And the apathy is a combination of getting less slanted coverage, and getting it more quickly, (and now, with mobile devices -- anywhere one wants!) But -- the freedom to write what one wants, does not guarantee the big pockets necessary to go and ferret out a story live in real time: so bloggers remain fragmented and small. It guarantees nimbleness but reduces scope. And of course, blogging does not pay the bills as well as working for a major newspaper does, or a newsroom. (Empty what's full.)
The answer to this is obvious: advertisers want viewers. Viewers have left the networks for the web.
Ergo, advertisers have begun sponsoring popup ads on the web: as have others, such as organizations within the Old Media attempting to gain a foothold in the new markets. ("Fill what's empty.")
And, there are bloggers who attempt to use blogging as an method to "climb the ladder" to the big time: conventional radio and TV appearances.
As such, one can see bloggers occasionally flame out, suddenly veering to the left (Little Green Footballs) or heading all mainstream and conventional (RedState.com has suddenly gone for Perry in a *big* way recently). The old truism that "for access to the worthwhile interviews and people, one must toe the party line" is proving to be just as appropriate for the blogosphere as it was for the conventional newscasters.
It is interesting, that in many areas of life, what had been the "fresh, new, innovative entity" slowly grows as a victim of its own success, and begins to resemble that which it has replaced.
And to a certain extent, this is to be expected: the old guard existed to fulfill a certain need, and the fresh new replacement found a more efficient way to meet that need -- a new channel, lower costs, greater market sensitivity. ("And scratch where it itches.")
But when all is said and done, if they are fulfilling the same basic need, then it is likely they will end up looking similar to that which they once supplanted.
Because those who know history are often condemned to repeat it too.
Just the other night my better 1/2 and i were talking about the sudden lack of varity at Walmart now.
Thank you so much for your wonderful essays, dear grey_whiskers!
My sister actually *does* have 2 bird cages ;)
Great essay as always, grey_whiskers
Where did I see it? ... “It’s important to learn from our mistakes so that we can recognize them when we make them again.” ... probably a Cryptoquote.
(Vanity) The Cycle of Life, or, Those Who Know History Repeat It Too
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Very well done!
I remember my one and only visit to Chicago several decades ago and walking down the, “miracle mile” thinking it was just like any other bunch of chains stores and restaurants all over America. New Orleans was, “a place that felt like a place” but so much of our diverse culture of individualism has become like Lucy pulling the football away from Charley Brown; predictable, funny, and sad.
“No matter where you go, there you are.”
I enjoyed your musings and, if you ping, please add me?
I mourn the loss of the uniquely Scandahoovian feel of Minnesota.
I enjoyed your musings and, if you ping, please add me?
Thanks for the compliment! (I will add you.)
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