Tag Archives: blogs about business

fast fashion

Fast Fashion Discounts The Environment.

By Chris Warren.

My daily “uniform” is jeans and a t-shirt, unless it’s warm out, then it’s shorts and a t-shirt. Heck, I don’t even own a suit. I’ve never been a dress up guy. The closest I get to dressing up is some nice shirts and jeans picked out by someone with a better sense of style than myself. It saves me money, and my wardrobe does not turn over that often. I did not realize until recently that my non-participation in fast fashion had an environmental as well as practical benefit.

Fast fashion is an industry buzzword that means to churn out inexpensive, trendy clothes. Instead of new styles being introduced two or three times a year, clothing is continuous stream of new designs that flips every month or so. By speeding up the clothing design & production process and lowering the price, retailers calculate that there is more profit in selling several less expensive items than one big ticket item. Therefore, the faster a garment becomes obsolete, the sooner consumers can be sold something else.

If a shopper buys a $500 dress, they expect it to last a long time, both in style and physical wear. But if you can sell them a $50 dress that is essentially a clone of a prestigious brand, they don’t care so much if it is out of fashion after a few months or even if it is cheaply made. It’s not going to be around that long anyway. They will buy a new dress four, five, six times or more every year to keep up with fast fashion. By the way, this scheme is used on men’s clothing too.

That’s how fast fashion brings in the money, and shoppers are taking the bait. Six $50 dresses cost the consumer a lot less than one $500 dress, and the retailer makes at least as much if not more profit. There is an added bonus: Getting the customer in the store six or more times a year (as opposed to one or two) is more opportunities to upsell other products.

Very few plots to vacuum out consumers’ wallets have been as effective as fast fashion. As a marketing strategy, it’s brilliant. Normally I would leave this alone and let capitalism run its course. This time though, the environmental impact of fast fashion cannot be given a pass.

Cheaply made clothes that are discarded frequently and replaced with more cheaply made clothes equals lot of unwanted clothes, not to mention the energy, resources, and sweatshop labor needed to produce and transport them to market. The Council for Textile Recycling estimates that the average American throws out 70 lbs. (31.75 kg) of clothing and other textiles every year…and that estimate is from 2009, well before fast fashion became fashionable!

Only a small percentage of this material is recycled, donated, or otherwise put to another useful purpose. What’s worse, the fabric is almost entirely synthetic and will last decades in a landfill. The unintended consequence of fast fashion is millions of tons of waste every year. The clothing industry is paying only vague attention to this issue, making token efforts to promote environmentally responsible practices.

Unfortunately, fast fashion is a marketing tactic that creates an artificial need for a what is essentially a throwaway product, without much regard for the impact that product has on the environment.

While many will (correctly) lay responsibility at the feet of the retailers and manufacturers, the consumer is a willing and equal party to cramming last month’s fashions into the landfills. I think I’ll hang onto my five year old  jeans and go about my very unstylish life. I may not look like the latest big thing, but the Earth will look better for not having so much of my old clothes buried in it.

playboy

Playboy Dresses Up To Compete.

By Chris Warren.

It was barely a blip in the headlines when Playboy announced late last year that it was eliminating nudity from its eponymous magazine and website. The very first safe-for-work version is out this month. Some commentators attributed this change to new social mores among young men, namely, modern males are less tolerant of objectifying women than their fathers and grandfathers were. It’s a new age of awareness, the commentators opine, and Playboy magazine is simply being trendy just as it has for six decades. Nudity is soooo 1970s.

And for anyone dumb enough to think that neo-feminism made Playboy put something on, let me be the one to slap you back into reality, or at least try: Playboy is keeping up with the times, but not for the reasons the Politically Correct class wants us to believe.

The truth should come as a surprise to no one except ditzy feminists who are daft enough to think modern guys are tapping into their inner Oprah, and perhaps also ultraconservative Christians who think the spirit of Jesus moved across the land and erased natural male proclivity for wanting to look at boobs.

Anyone who ever took a high school marketing course knows that you can’t sell something everyone else is giving away for free. And apparently, someone over at Playboy was paying attention in their high school marketing course.

Twenty First Summer’s official position on pornography is, although it does not make the world a better place, it nonetheless is and should be protected as free speech when it is both produced and consumed by consenting adults.

I’m sorry to disappoint conservative Christians and ditzy feminists, but Playboy going clean has nothing to do with any newfound gender sensitivities or religious revival. If anything, the proliferation of pornography is greater than it ever was, thanks to the internet.

It’s not at all lost on Playboy that there is no incentive for anyone to pay money for porn anymore. As a result, those who still read Playboy really are doing it “for the articles.” Dumping the Bunnies will bring more focus on the writing. The articles always were and continue to be well written, insightful, and thoughtful. Now they will be read without the distraction of sex imagery.

Here’s another reality slap: Playboy editing out the skin is an admission that that the market demand for porn is greater than ever. A lot of guys (and I do mean a lot) who would not consume pornography if they had to buy it over the counter now have that barrier removed via the internet. And they don’t even have to pay for it! Both the embarrassment factor and the expense has been totally eliminated.

Twenty First Summer’s official position on pornography is, although it does not make the world a better place, it nonetheless is and should be protected as free speech when it is both produced and consumed by consenting adults.

What does it say about a society when Playboy, the magazine that inaugurated the “adult media” industry, stops producing the very product that made it famous because the product was such a success that it is now ubiquitous and free? If there ever was an example of being a victim of one’s own success, Playboy would be it

Of more importance than the easy availability of pornography are the reasons why there is such a high demand for it in the first place. Most emotionally stable men will incidentally look at porn because, well, they’re men. Call it a “crime of opportunity,” if you will. Others go through great trouble and expense pursuing a sexual fantasy through pornography to fill an unhealthy void in their real lives.

For the latter, no amount of skin will ever really satisfy their pathetic and destructive fantasies. Reality check number three: Playboy magazine is a business, and not interested in being a psychological crutch. There is no longer much profit in fulfilling unhealthy male fantasies (strip clubs notwithstanding), so Playboy is moving on. It would be great if the men whose pathos built the porn industry could themselves move on as well.

business advice

Business Advice From A Real World Grunt.

By: Chris Warren.

Every year around this time the internet starts buzzing with business advice for job applicants, presumably in response to the annual release of college graduates who now need to turn their degrees into paychecks. Largely out of the mix is wisdom on how to thrive and get along after you are in the workforce.

I think I’ve learned a thing or two in all my years happily plugging away at the same company. I’ve had more bosses than I can remember; some of them were pretty classy, some of them were tasteless jerks. I managed to have a good working relationship with all of them even if I may not have liked them personally (or vice-versa) or agreed with their management decisions. I’ve reduced my success down to a few simple workplace behaviors that you won’t find suggested anywhere in the glut of internet wisdom.

Don’t make the boss’ phone ring. In the over twenty years I’ve been on the job, my boss has received a random call from someone  saying I’m awesome on maybe two or three occasions. But if I screw up there is a nearly 100% chance somebody will squawk loudly about it.  The average supervisor takes dozens of calls every day from people with problems. You do not want to be the reason for any of them. When someone calls your boss to talk about you, it’s almost never to give compliment.

Always give a response. If your boss or a coworker walked up to you in person and asked you a question, you would not silently turn around and walk away, then come back and answer the question a day later. Treat emails/texts/voice mails as a personal interaction. In a era where there are fewer face to face conversations in the workplace, it’s sometimes not clear when or if a message was received. Immediately acknowledge receipt of electronic communications, then commit to keeping all involved parties updated until the issue is concluded. Do not make the boss, or anyone, have to guess what’s going on to the point that they make your phone ring.

When someone calls your boss to talk about you, it’s almost never to give compliment.

Be a Yes Man/Woman. The best thing about this behavior is that it can be incorporated into any of the others. It’s about always finding a way to say yes to all requests. To be clear, I’m not talking about being a doormat or a “management suck up.” Being a Yes person means your default should be to find a way to make things happen, not to squirm out of it. Send everyone away better than they arrived, even if the Yes you give them isn’t exactly the one they wanted: “I’m sorry, I don’t have the information you need but I forwarded your request to another department that I’m sure can help you.” A compromised Yes is always better than a no.

Hand out bonuses. Doing the minimum required is fine and will keep you out of trouble, but no one ever got a promotion or raise by doing the minimum. Bonuses do not need to be big, huge deals. It can be as simple as completing an assignment before being asked or taking extra steps that were not part of the original assignment: “I ordered the toner cartridges you wanted and noticed that we were low on paper too, so I included it with the request.” Bonuses are pleasant surprises and show others that you care and have attention to detail. When done properly, they are a big payoff for little effort.

Do not take advantage of others’ ignorance. I work as an electronics technician on communications equipment. The job requires specialized high level skills and few people outside my field fully understand what I do. It would be easy to get out of difficult tasks by making up technical reasons why they can’t be done, and most people would not initially know I’m hustling them. I don’t use my knowledge as leverage to avoid undesirable assignments because it’s dishonest and wrong. All lies, including small ones, ultimately return to their origins. Taking advantage of others on any level has no lasting benefit and in extreme cases can end careers. Never, ever do it.

It’s easy to overlook that getting the job is only a small part of a much bigger picture. Giving one’s best effort long enough to get through the hiring process is not hard compared to developing attitudes and behaviors that will need to be strong for an entire working career. There is nothing deep or complicated about the Golden Rule of treating others as you would want to be treated yourself.

Requiem For Radio Shack.

By: Chris Warren.

As this blog has discussed in the past, many classic American businesses are disappearing in an economy that is supposed to be jumping back to life. The losses are sad for nostalgia but also bring hope because times change and for every business that goes extinct a newer version takes its place and gets a shot at becoming a legend. In theory, it’s a zero-sum game.

Radio-Shack-logo2

That Radio Shack is soon going to be on the register of lost legends truly bothers me. First, because it was a key player in my choosing to go into electronics professionally, and second, because it has no replacement. It is the only one of its breed; there is no fresh contender coming up behind it. For now Radio Shack is still open for business as usual but no one is fooled by corporate prophecies of a big comeback. Depending on which financial analyst you want to believe, Radio Shack has between one and ten months’ worth of operating capital and no viable course to profitability. We are in death watch mode. Founded in 1921, yet another thread in the colorful fabric of America will almost certainly go the way of the vacuum tube and Betamax tapes.

Radio Shack was once a wonderland of electronic components, parts, tools, batteries, kits, how-to books, wire, connectors, and everything else. As a young person I would stop at “the Shack” at least once a week, oftentimes more, eager to drop my paltry teenage income on electronic goodies. If not for the readily available supply of raw materials for my hobby I might have ended up being an insurance salesman. It was the only place in the world where I could get a PNP transistor at 3:00 on Sunday afternoon. And I often needed one, among other things. I’ve built transmitters and power supplies and countless experiments entirely from parts purchased off the shelf at Radio Shack. They sold me the very first test instrument I bought with my own money–an analog multimeter. Long before I ever saw the inside of a college engineering lab I had a strong electronics education from “Radio Shack Tech.”VintageRadioShack_Storefront

The sad reality is that the quirky retailer that helped me turn a boyhood fascination with electronics into a lucrative career as an adult has been on a slow slide down for years. The world moved on and Radio Shack didn’t keep up the pace. They’ve tried reinventing themselves as a computer shop, a consumer electronics repair vendor, a high end audio dealer, a cellphone emporium, and most recently, on-site smartphone & tablet computer repair. None of it stuck. The Best Buys and Amazons of the world rolled right over them. The last time I shopped at Radio Shack was half a decade ago to buy a specialty electrical connector. What used to be hundreds of square feet of cool geek stuff had been shaved down to one tiny little section in the back. It wasn’t fun anymore. The exciting vibe I knew and loved was gone.

I hate to admit it, but I’m part of the reason Radio Shack is on the way out. Better & cheaper sources for supplies came along and I took the bait (hellooo, internet!). No one makes money selling single diodes and capacitors anymore, much less from a store in a mall. Did I let an old friend down, or did the old friend let me down? It’s a trick question: Old friends sometimes drift apart and it’s not really anyone’s “fault.” I’m not sure if anything could have saved Radio Shack. They served their market well since they early days of electronics and there is nowhere for them to go. Maybe in that way it’s not even their fault they are in terminal decline. It’s just the natural cycle of things. Before my old friend passes on, I want it to know generations of geeks are grateful for the fun and the education, and in an unknown number of cases, supplying the seeds for what would grow into a fulfilling career.

Behold Costco, Warehouse of Wonder.

 

By: Chris Warren

If you’ve never shopped at a Costco, there’s a real good chance you know someone who has. The warehouse retail behemoth has over 76 million individual members (that’s roughly 25% of the entire population of the USA) and almost 7 million business members. The sheer volume of what Costco has in stock is a microcosm of the United States. Nothing is small there. The soap & detergent section alone is bigger than many entire retail stores. Pallets of produce, display freezers large enough to drive a truck into, and rows of electronics stacked so high, a fleet of forklifts are needed to keep them in order. Costco is one of the most profound business success stories of modern times and has a public image that is the envy of corporate world. It has a “This is America! Big! Big! Big!” vibe to it.

Not that long ago, Sears was the store everyone shopped at. Whether you needed a pair of shoes, a washing machine, or a power drill, Sears could meet every desire. It was the only place where you could get your teeth and your car and your watch fixed all under one roof, then pick up a new suit and a toaster on the way out. Their Christmas catalog was legendary. It would arrive around Thanksgiving, which seems quaint by today’s standards since Christmas sales now start on Labor Day. As a child I would eagerly pour over the pages checking out all the cool toys, trying to calculate how much I could get out of my parents.

Through a sad confluence of bad luck, a bad economy, and bad management, Sears is now a shell of its former self and barely squeaking by. Generations of American families filled their homes with Sears products. Now it’s hard to find someone who has even set foot in a Sears store lately.

Costco has become the new place for everything. Judging by the traffic outside, it seems everyone wants to go to there. All that is missing is a Statue Of Liberty in the parking lot calling all the huddled masses. As we enter, we must first stop at the Costco version of Ellis Island where the attendant checks membership cards and clears immigrants for entry. Formalities settled, we pass through a door and behold the amazing bounty opening before us.Costco-Logo

It’s hard to think of a warehouse store as “cool.” They are warehouses after all, set up for utility and efficiency. There is nothing elegant or plush about the place. From the bare cement floors to merchandise displayed in the same shipping boxes it arrived in, to harsh bright white overhead lights, they’ve purposely omitted the frills to give customers, excuse me, members, a good deal. Even the food court has a certain generic cafeteria-esque quality about it with bench seating and plain stenciled menu boards.

After going well out of its way to assure an austere shopping environment Costco perhaps unintentionally established itself as a cool place to buy stuff. There is a catch: You can’t shop there unless you’re a paid member. It’s hard to wrap my brain around the twisted logic of paying for the right to shop, but there must be something to it because through membership fees Costco pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars every year without selling a single item.  As a member myself for many years, I’ve been sucked into the vortex too.

Home Depot or Target would be laughed out of business within a week if they ever dared charge admission. It must really burn the nerves of other retailers that they struggle while Costco not only thrives, but consumers cheerfully fork over their cash just for the chance to walk through the door. There’s more to it than the simple concept of offering deals that offset the cost of membership; Costco has that certain unidentifiable something that makes shopping in a warehouse cool. Heck, they don’t even advertise or have a public relations crew. They don’t need it. Employees and customers absolutely love the place with a cult-ish devotion and it shows.

On a recent Costco run with a friend, our carts were piled high with canned vegetables, two pound bags of chips, bottled water, frozen stuff, everything. Oversized shopping carts and flatbeds are standard issue. There are no hand baskets. No one goes to Costco for just a few things. We never spend less than $100 each and need my pickup truck to haul it away. We don’t get to do this very often, so we load up while we can. Eighteen checkout lanes are open and every one of them has a long line behind it. Employees move everyone through with impressive efficiency. The crowds may be large but Costco has a way of making it less crazy than it appears. The system works and we are done quickly.

On the way out we hit the food court: $2.50 for a huge slice of pizza and a drink. Where else can two hungry guys chow on pizza good enough to make us forget it came from a food court, plus free drink refills, for five bucks? My buddy is not originally from the United States and thinks it’s the the most kickass experience ever. He loves this! If you ever want to impress a visitor from a foreign country, just bring them to a Costco.

Watching a famous symbol of Americana such as Sears slide into what is probably terminal decline is difficult. There’s no gratification when luminaries fade, especially when it involves a lot of paychecks. It’s certainly possible Sears will bounce back, and I hope it does, but the trajectory it’s on is not encouraging. There is something to be positive about: Fresh and new follows the old and flagging. It’s all just part of the cycle. The huge crowds of enthusiastic Costco shoppers provide the appropriate metaphor: There is always another big idea waiting in line to become the next business legend.

The Empowerment Tree Has No Fruit.

By: Chris Warren.

About 8:00 this morning a crew of five guys with two trucks and a wood chipper showed up at the building I work in and began cutting down several dead trees that had rotted to the point that they had become serious safety hazards. After a few near-misses with falling branches and over two years of nagging management to do something, I felt like I finally won a small but long-fought victory. My employer’s primary concern is the bottom line and since the only occupants of the building are myself and the 10,000 or so square feet of electronic communications equipment that I maintain, my repeated complaints were not taken seriously until the trees became a legal liability.

I want to think my situation was a one-off, a slip through the crack, a bureaucratic oversight…whatever you want to call it. I’ve been in the workforce long enough to know that not only was is it not a mistake, it’s not even unique to my industry. Consciously blowing off small stuff until it becomes big stuff is common practice at pretty much every big company.

I have a close friend who owns a successful small business. It’s not a franchise, it’s not an established operation that he took over, and he did not get started via some millionaire investor gushing over him with fat checks. He is an average everyday person of modest means who built the business from an empty storefront by himself with his own money. Nothing gets past this guy. He is there every single day and knows what happens within those walls down to the tiniest detail. If the building needs repair, or supplies are running low, or a customer has a complaint about their experience, he makes things happen. No problem goes unresolved for very long.

The difference between my friends’ situation and mine is the length of the chain between the executives and the average workers. My employer is an international behemoth with hundreds of departments and layers of management. They are far removed from me and my problems…problems they largely created. In a way I sort of understand where they are coming from. When you are near the top of a huge worldwide corporation, you can’t get personally involved with every dead tree or missing box of supplies. That stuff is usually delegated to empowered underlings, which would be fine if the underlings actually had the authority to take action.

“Empowerment” is a nauseating buzzword that should have been retired with the fax machine, yet this zombie just…won’t…die. What irritates me so much is that the word comes standard with a heavy dose of condescension and insincerity. The person using it always sounds like the love child of a campaigning politician and a greasy-haired TV evangelist. If everyone is empowered, then why can’t anyone get anything done unless someone else signs off on it? Why does someone who is “empowered” have to beg for two years to get a tree cut down? Most of the time my boss agrees with me and would let me have my way if people above her would allow it. Telling subordinates that they are independent thinkers and can autonomously solve their own problems is one of the biggest lines of crap ever spoken by any manager.

Dilbert ©Universal Uclick
Dilbert ©Universal Uclick

One of the reasons my friend’s business is so successful is because the buck really does stop with him. He is the top of the pyramid. Every screw-up is solely his burden and there aren’t any credible ways he can claim he didn’t know. The smaller the pyramid is, the fewer paths there are for management to insulate themselves from what happens below them. In a big corporation, high level managers can to a degree play the ignorance card and blame disasters on subordinates or let their legal team deal with it. In that regard, executives at large companies don’t want to know too much detail about daily operations. Maintaining an element of plausible deniability has its advantages even if it does cost money and create big hassles for others.

A favorite joke in my organization is that if the place were competently managed, half of us would not be needed there. It’s one of those “be careful what you wish for” reality checks. Every cursed moment I have to take out of my day to fuss with a clumsy computer system, or hunt for tools & supplies that should have already been given to me, or deal with a dangerously rotten tree, is time I’m not dedicating to what I was hired for and genuinely enjoy doing: keeping the big-buck electronic communications equipment on line. At the same time, I know that as an hourly rate employee, all those cursed moments ultimately end up on my paycheck and extend out the deadline for legitimate tasks, thus perpetuating the need to keep me around.

Sloppy management helps create jobs where they might not otherwise exist, but there is a tipping point at which the cost of incompetence threatens the effectiveness of the entire organization. As much as we may not want to admit it, low level workers like me benefit from goofy business methods, with the caveat that the scheme works only if the stockholders don’t notice. It becomes a daily conflict where we resent the aggravation of working within a system of insanity while secretly hoping it never goes away.

To use another clichéd buzzword, the “takeaway” is that we best get used to it. There is not going to be any great enlightenment that causes management to admit the little people were right the whole time. There is not going to be any executives’ humble repentance followed by the sweeping changes we’ve all dreamed of. A sad reality of the modern workplace is that most big corporations make money by accident. The only thing I hate more than the hapless corporate decisions I have to put up with is admitting that without them, it’s very possible a lot fewer of us would be working there.