In his essay, “Quality”, written in 1911, the great writer, John Galsworthy, recounts the tale of two brothers. Shoemakers with their own shop somewhere near the end of the 19th century, they exemplify the issue of quality in Mr. Galsworthy’s mind. They knew each customer. They made patterns of the customers’ feet, cut the shoes to fit, had the customer try the shoes, and then adjusted the shoes as necessary to each customer’s satisfaction, offering to take the cost off the bill if the shoes or boots were not acceptable.
In time, faster, cheaper, and more efficient ways were found to make shoes and boots, and the little shopkeeper was, at the last, forced into barely being able to survive. Until the last, he insisted on making only the finest quality product, even as his customers deserted him for the cheaper product provided by the factories.
An interesting note is Galsworthy’s statement, “I ordered several pairs. It was very long before they came–but they were better than ever. One simply could not wear them out.”
My father was almost obsessive about quality. One of the first lessons I had was that most things should last a long time and serve you well. When he died in 1981, my mother gave me a pair of his boots that he had worn for several years. I wore them regularly and comfortably for several more years myself, and they did not give up the ghost until I had worn them for over 15 years. In the 1960’s, I bought a pair of pants at Ed White Clothiers in Pensacola, Florida. I gave them to charity in 1990 at the insistence of my wife. All my father’s tools are still in fine condition, at least the ones I have. His watch is fine, thank you, or should I say watches, as I have the pocket watch he carried since before I was born as well as his Seiko wrist watch. Of course, he was a watchmaker, so they don’t count.
While these may be extreme examples, they stand in contrast to the shirts I bought from Target two years ago, both of which had to be taken back because the buttons fell off within a few days of their purchase. Or the pants, also from Target, which rapidly became donations to a local charity because of the poor workmanship and overall lack of quality. Let’s not leave out the two rather expensive shirts purchased last year from Sears. They still fit reasonably well and are nice looking shirts…except for the sleeves which shrank and now miss my wrists by four or five inches. The leather belt I also purchased from Sears a few months ago is beginning to come apart. I have lost track of the number of watches I have discarded over the years because they simply did not last, but I am hard on watches, so maybe that doesn’t count.
Those are small potatoes, but a few years ago, my wife and I, who were experienced over-the-road drivers and truck driving instructors, purchased a Peterbilt truck for over $100,000. The name Peterbilt used to be synonymous with quality. In the first eleven months that we owned that truck, we were unable to drive for eight weeks because of repairs and mechanical problems. One of the most frustrating facts was that several times after the truck had been worked on by Peterbilt certified mechanics, we had to return to get something fixed that they had messed up! We eventually managed to force Peterbilt to buy back the truck under a Wisconsin lemon law, but not before we lost thousands of dollars and experienced months of frustration. Even more frustrating is the fact that, after talking to several other people who owned the same type of truck, we found that almost everything that was wrong with the one we had purchased was being experienced by other owners as well.
It is not in the interest of most manufacturers to condone quality. First of all, it is usually more expensive to build items of quality than to mass produce things that “will do”. If things last too long, many of these folks would go out of business. Watch carefully, and you will see that things change, often not for the better, but just so that we will be tempted to dispose of the old and purchase the new. The advertising media are always more than happy to earn their bread by reminding us that what we have that was new last year is now out of date and must be replaced.
After they have worked so hard to create a perceived need in the populace, is it any wonder that in order to maximize profits, these manufacturers have chosen to seek out cheaper labor and lower manufacturing costs?
And is it all their fault?
When we vote, and vote all of us do with our wallets (or debit and credit cards), do we cast our votes for quality products that we will be happy to use for years, perhaps even passing them on to another generation, or do we simply buy that which is the cheapest?
A small cautionary tale about buying cheap.
Years ago, I was a federal purchasing agent for the Texas Army National Guard. I, and the others in my office, were tasked with purchasing supplies for various military units in the Guard, many of which are now serving in Iraq. Part of our mission was to get the “best price possible”, and we were told to ignore issues of “name brands” which might be known for their quality. One day, the lady who worked at a nearby desk nearly jumped up in the air because she had just placed a large order for strapping tape at about one-half the expected price. She had saved the federal government, and the American taxpayers, a few hundred dollars.
A few days later, while working with one of the units, we had cause to use the tape she had purchased. It was worthless. It would not stick, even to itself, and shredded and fell apart. The tape was used to hold groups of field gear together in bunches for quick and efficient deployment of a combat unit. We wound up using about three times as much tape as we would have needed had a better (name) brand been purchased, and that does not take into account the rolls that became so snarled and shredded that they were simply thrown away as useless.
Things that last well often are worth the extra cost simply in the extra service they can provide over their lifetime…if we let them live that long.