Friday, January 11, 2013

“Just shoplift them next time; we’ll let you.”

Photo source

Previously I wrote several posts about how the corporations have been scamming consumers out of billions if not trillions of dollars every year through planned obsolescence in addition to the amount they’ve been scamming consumers through other means like deceptive advertising price fixing and many other practices. I cited sneakers as an example and how I would no longer silently let them continue to cut costs while they raise their prices and the sneakers as well as many other products they sell fall apart much faster than they used to.

(This was first posted on Open Salon July 11 2012; since then I have followed up on this more in a series of posts under the author tag A small sucess against planned obsolescence.)

The first one was Complacent consumers have few if any rights, which I wrote shortly after replacing a pair of sneakers that was only a few months old and declared that that pair or it’s replacements would last as long as they used to. A few months after that the Occupy Wall Street movement broke out and my recommendation for one of the tactics that they could try to draw attention to planned obsolescence and other corrupt activities by protesting these things at the cash register in Occupy Wall Street and Cash Register Protests. Then last December I wrote about how Loud complaints brings quick free replacements especially when they’re made during the Christmas rush. At that time I made it clear that I wasn’t going to tolerate their shoddy merchandise and demanded a free replacement and received it.

A couple weeks ago I did it again and received a second free replacement pair for the same purchase of sneakers.

They might have been reluctant to replace them a second time or even the first time if not for the fact that I made it clear that I was aware of their business practices and that they wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny if scrutiny was actually applied. I even wrote a page and a half “Consumer Declaration of Rights or Grievances” and brought some quotes from several books that clearly raise some doubts about the business practices that are routinely used (copies below if you’re inclined to use the same tactic). These could be used repeatedly if necessary when it becomes necessary to return other products that are incredibly crappy, which is now standard operating procedure.

While I was at it I may have reminded other people of how crappy their merchandise is and of the fact that they don’t have to take it anymore than I do. This could potentially include the workers at the store who aren’t responsible but when they ship jobs overseas they suppress local wages as well making them victims when they earn money then again when they spend it. It is difficult to return these things and let them know that you’re not going to take it anymore without taking it out on them but if it is done properly it can be done and they may appreciate it even if they can’t say so for fear of retaliation. Many of these cashiers are too young to remember when many of these products lasted four or five times as long as they do now; so by discussing it they may realize that they’re being scammed as much as us.

When requesting a replacement I told explained to three different people why I expected to have this replaced and even threatened to sue under the seventh amendment, which guarantees a jury trial if “the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars” and told them that if they used their first amendment rights to speak through deceptive advertising and campaign contributions and lobbying and passed these expenses on to the consumer without any honesty in the ads or influence in our own government as a result of the amount of money they spend lobbying, then I wouldn’t abandon my first amendment rights to inform people about it.

I began by announcing clearly and that they had an incredibly big problem with their merchandise; and quickly going on to say that they’ve been cutting manufacturing expenses to the bone while sending advertising and lobbying expenses through the roof and their products fall apart much faster than they used to. I informed the cashier that thirty years ago when a pair of sneakers was a year old the shoe laces broke and all I had to do was replace them and I could wear them for a second year; fifteen years ago when they were a year old they were falling apart; now they fall apart in no more than six months and I don’t put nearly as much wear on them as I used to. I went on to explain that over the same period of time the corporations have been consolidating into a small number of oligarchies and that they’re no longer even trying to do a good job providing good merchandise at a reasonable price.

The cashier said, “I’m just the cashier.”

I more or less knew that and informed him that there was nothing against him and that I would go to the back and request a replacement at the return desk. Frankly the point was that in addition to getting a replacement I would make some noise and let them know I would be speaking out if they didn’t at least cut back on their scams and it worked, the replacement sneakers are better quality.

I went through the same rant with the person at the returns who called the management who showed up and I ranted again when he got their and immediately agreed to replace it without argument. I also informed both these people that the first two pairs of sneakers started showing serious wear and holes after no more than two to four weeks and that the pairs that I used to be able to buy were in better shape after a full year when the only thing that fell apart was the shoe lace than these were after a few months. While waiting for the management I decided to read part of my “Consumer Declaration of Rights or Grievances” to the returns lady who didn’t seem to mind, especially since I explained to her that there was nothing against her because when they ship jobs overseas they suppress local wages as well and she was a victim of these scams too.

Oh did I mention that I was also carrying a sign that said “Stop Planned Obsolescence save receipts return crap;” and showed it to people while I was explaining my return to them as well as to some of the customers that I passed in the parking lot and even within the store.

Seemed like a good idea to me and there was little they could do about it if they wanted to. If they attempted to take a stronger opposition by bringing in police or the courts then I could easily argue that they pass the expenses for their speech to the consumers as a business expense and it would be highly unreasonable to do that and then outlaw consumer complaints at tax payers’ expense; if they attempted to do so then it wouldn’t be hard to inform the taxpayers of both the fact that their tax money is being used for the benefit of the corporations and to remind them of the corrupt practices the corporations have been using.

Of course they didn’t mention this presumably because they knew that it would have been more trouble than it was worth.

Or perhaps I mentioned it in my rant; it was certainly mention in my “Consumer Declaration of Rights or Grievances” which I started to read.

Some people might think this seems extreme or petty but if you consider how much they mark things up and the fact that merchandise is getting worse all the time while the prices continue to rise due to the fact that the corporations have consolidated into a small number of oligarchies it is perfectly reasonable and the foolish thing would be to do nothing and let them continue to get away with this enormous amount of fraud.

Furthermore one of the reasons that they didn’t put up any significant argument is the fact that they have such an enormous mark up and they can afford it. It would actually cost them more to dispute or risk ruining their reputation more than it has already been ruined than it would to replace the merchandise. If their markup wasn’t so enormous or if they actually provided decent merchandise then it might have been a different story. In fact one of the quotes listed below clearly indicated that the cost of manufacturing these products is only a small fraction of what they charge consumers which is why they fall apart so fast.

As I said it has been close to a month since I returned them for the second time and the new pair of sneakers are in much better shape than the previous two; which means that I may not have to ask them for a third replacement sneakers to match the quality that I received thirty years ago.

It’s tempting to say that this must be because they learned their lesson from my previous complaint and called up their manufactures and had them fix the problem.

Sounds good and it’s flattering to think that I made the difference but of course if it was just me they wouldn’t have changed anything and this is just one pair which is still only a few weeks old so there is no reason to believe that this is because of me. However I’m sure I’m not the only one that has been complaining since they’ve been getting worse at a faster pace over the last few years and there are enormous amounts of other blogs on this subject if you look for them.

I’m sure they’ve been having their customer complaints go through the roof although they will never admit it.

This doesn’t mean that consumers can relax and assume that they’ll start trying to do a good job from now on. In fact they’re still committing an enormous amount of fraud even if they restore some of the quality of their merchandise for a little while. In fact they almost certainly study consumer complacency so it is guaranteed that if we stop being vigilant then they’ll just be careful not to push things quite to the same extreme. If they maintain a slightly better quality without restoring all the quality they can go back to business as usual.

More needs to be done to change the trade secrecy or proprietary information laws so that people know more about the business practices they use. This includes the slotting fees that they charge manufacturers that guarantee that small factories have a hard time getting into the market can’t compete and have to charge more for their products. We also need to reverse the escalating advertising costs one way or another. If the typical retailer has to spend more on advertising than they do on their merchandise it is no wonder they can’t give consumer a good deal. When manufacturing plants were made in the USA they didn’t have to spend nearly as much money on shipping and distribution and there were more jobs so that the consumers had an easier time making a decent living and there are plenty of additional things that could be improved on.

Most people probably don’t want to go to more trouble than they have to in order to get good deals on their merchandise but if the objective is to help reform the system and inform more people about how corrupt it is there are other simple ways to draw attention to the problem and make the corporations think twice before steadily increasing their scams.

Imagine if a dozen people asked a variety of questions about the products that drew attention to them at the stores whether it was the grocery store or the department store during the busy hours to remind people that these scams are escalating. For example you or I could ask the stock clerk if he knows if they’ve been watering down the shampoo again or how much of each ingredient is in each product. When he inevitably says “I don’t know,” perhaps with a strange look on his face I could inquire about whether this is a trade secret or not and if he thinks that corporations should be allowed to hide their scams under proprietary information laws. I could go on and inquire about if they charge slotting fees or if they have manufacture representatives come in to stock some of their merchandise. And I could tell him that when they ship jobs overseas they’re increasing their shipping cost so they don’t have any savings to pass on to the customer. And I could add that this fraudulent behavior is all protected trade secrets thanks to the politicians that collect campaign contributions from the people that benefit from the secrecy.

Or I could make similar inquiries at the department store about why they use those screws in pots and pans that always start coming lose after a few years instead of more solid construction that enables them to last for decades if not centuries; or inquire about whether they put on an extra coat of paint at the auto manufacturing plant, while it can be done inexpensively, so the rust won’t start rusting earlier than necessary. All these things would be important for consumers to know when it comes to the quality of the merchandise they’re buying and with everything being mass manufacturing it would be much easier to make this information available easily, perhaps online. But the corporations keep it all secret, presumably because it costs too much but they don’t hesitate to add expenses when it comes to advertising that doesn’t improve the quality and pass these expenses on to the consumer.

Then, if this could be said politely and if possible without seeming to presumptuous, I could inform him that he just got paid by the hour to discuss the corruption that his bosses are involved in.

As I said they’re as much a victim as the consumers; and they may be interested in seeing reform as well preferably without retaliation for it; which is why they couldn’t be expected to act immediately but they might be more inclined to discuss it later or consider it when voting for the next corrupt politician when there are alternative parties available.

Many of the economists have attempted to justify this by claiming that if people didn’t replace their products as often as the economists think they should that it would be bad for the economy. This argument is seriously flawed when you consider what the purpose of the economy should be; it should be to allow people to trade services in the most effective manner possible so that people could get things they need to improve the quality of their life. This should mean that the economy should be based on jobs that improve the quality of life, not jobs that create waste without serving a purpose. If people have the products they need without replacing them then they should find more jobs that fill a need or if people’s needs have been addressed they should take more time off and relax. It would be foolish to say we should sabotage good products so that we’ll have work to do to repair the damage which is essentially what planned obsolescence does. Ironically even some of the critics of planned obsolescence don’t see this obvious flaw in this argument.

This isn’t a trivial problem; the math is easy to do if you figure a typical person pays between twenty and forty dollars for a pair of sneakers and if they have to buy three extra pairs every two years due to the shoddy quality of the merchandise and the fact that an enormous amount of bureaucratic expenses are being added on in addition to excessive profit then it clearly means that they’re paying and extra thirty to sixty dollars each year times 300 million people in the USA and this comes to 9-18 billion dollars a year in fraud in the USA for sneakers alone. If you add all the other products that are also being made shoddily to force people to replace them it runs into the hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars per year.

The reason that this has gone with little notice by most people is because they have done this gradually and at the same time they’ve been steadily increasing their advertising budget to convince people that they were getting more while the quality has actually been getting worse. Some of the most effective advertising has been those targeted to children starting at a very early age including ads in School and even Channel One which has been reviewed by Roy Fox who has found that it does an enormous amount of damage to the education of children and their ability to recognize how they’re being manipulated by ads. Advertising has been used to influence the education that children have been receiving and it is creating a large bias in favor of corporations for those that don’t take the time to scrutinize it.

If they continue with this trend the quality of their merchandise will continue to deteriorate while the effectiveness of their advertising continues to improve. Eventually the quality of their merchandise might be so bad that they may as well be trying to merchandise cowshit in a shoe box. No matter how much you spend on advertising you can’t change the fact that cowshit in a shoe box is nothing but cowshit in a shoe box.
This will be much harder for them to get away with if more attention is drawn to it one way or another; and since the mass media is getting a large share of the loot that is being scammed from people through advertising dollars it has to be done at the grass roots level. Since this only reaches a small number of people at any given time it may require a variety of ways of getting out the word.

Of course it would be worth getting out the word about other related things as well, including the fact that those that do productive work that benefit the consumers like manufacturing are paid much less than those that do work that doesn’t actually provide a benefit to the consumer like advertising. And on top of that they often have to put up with abuse as well. If any rational person was asked if they thought that someone should be paid more to provide deceptive ads than an person is paid to do work that improves the quality of life they would say no but if you look through all the spin that is exactly what is happening. This is why they might be tempted to say “Just shoplift them next time; we’ll let you,” if they understood all this; I had to make that up so that I would have a catchy title in addition to making what I consider a legitimate point. The last thing they want is to apply scrutiny to what they’re doing. It would cost them much more in profits if more people became more aware of this and stood up for their rights so if they can make this go away quickly and quietly by replacing the pair of sneakers that is what they do. If they can’t then they won’t be able to avoid scrutiny and their profits based on fraudulent practices would be dramatically reduced. The replacement cost of the sneakers even if they have to do it twice is still profitable when you consider the fact that they multiply their costs numerous times when charging the consumers as indicated by some of Naomi Klein’s quotes below from “No Logo.”

A written “Consumer Declaration of Rights or Grievances” probably isn’t necessary but if anyone does decide they want to use part of all of this in a similar return they’re welcome to it. Of course if it is for returning different items it wouldn’t hurt to modify it for those purposes.
Consumer Declaration of Rights or Grievances

Over the last thirty to forty years retail outlets, manufacturers and distributors have been consolidating into a small number of corporations that no longer provide customers with sincere competition. These remaining companies are often referred to as oligarchies; even though some people may not accept this term the results are the same.

These oligarchies have cut manufacturing expenses to the bone while sending advertising, overseas shipping, lobbying expenses, and campaign contributions through the roof. These expenses have been passed onto the consumers who have no other place to obtain merchandise; however influence with law makers or the accuracy of the advertising has not been passed onto the consumers.

The corporate media has also consolidated into a small number of corporations who collect their revenue from advertisers; therefore they have an incentive to look the other way when non-competitive practices are used. This means that consumers no longer have access to the information they need to make choices.

This is made even worse by trade secrecy laws or proprietary information that allows corporations to shroud a lot of their activity in secrecy. This includes activity that is clearly fraudulent or anti-competitive; or in many case it forces workers to compete with each other and even people that have no protection from human rights abuse in other parts of the world while the corporations avoid sincere competition.

The oligarchies have shut down quality manufacturing plants in the United States and replaced them with sweat shops half way around the world that are run by subcontractors. This reduces labor costs however it results in additional shipping expenses as well as the more complex corporate bureaucracy involved in dealing with more subcontractors and distributors; therefore there are no savings to pass onto the consumers, only inferior merchandise. Part of the way they get away with this is by using anti-competitive practices like the charging of “slotting fees” at retail outlets that ensure that small manufacturers that provide better quality merchandise have a much harder time getting any shelf space. This means that manufacturers have to pay for the amount of shelf space they have in the retail outlets and it clearly leads to higher consumer prices or virtual, if not literal price fixing.

Furthermore the savings that are obtained as a result of low labor costs come as a result of human rights abuses in the sweat shops. In addition to being unethical these abuses make it harder for the workers to make quality merchandise. These are often kept in secret locations, allegedly to prevent competitors from knowing how they compete; however investigators have found that the competitors are often in the same locations, clearly implying that the real reason for the secrecy is to keep human rights workers from checking working conditions.

The strongest evidence that the corporations aren’t providing adequate products or services is the quality of the merchandise and price, with reasonable adjustment for inflation, compared with what they provided thirty years ago before they consolidated into a small number of corporations that no longer compete properly. One simple example, which is used by everyone, is sneakers which cost six to eight dollars in the seventies and many outlets provided assistance trying them on. After one year these sneakers often required new shoelaces so they could be worn for a second year. Fifteen years ago there was no more service and the entire sneaker fell apart after only a year; now they fall apart in no more than six months even when they’re subject to less use. Furthermore it is now typical for the relatively inexpensive sneakers to start showing major wear after only two to six weeks and they cost at least three or four times as much, more at some outlets.

Furthermore marketing people are targeting children at a much earlier age, even in schools; and researchers, including Juliet Schor author of “Born to Buy,” Susan Linn author of “Consuming Kids,” Roy Fox author of “Harvesting Minds” and many others have provided significant evidence to indicate that this is seriously impacting the education of children that are often paying more attention to ads than they are to school work. We now even have annual “Black Friday riots;” it is hard to believe this isn’t related to the marketing to children after reading the work of these credible researchers.

A reasonable system would either create a sincere incentive process by restoring the competition that we had thirty years ago or finding another process. Regardless of what system we use we should not have secrecy laws that are designed to ensure that workers, consumers, and voters can’t access the information they need to make decisions. Allowing only one small segment of society to have the information they need to make decision in a sincere democracy is highly unreasonable. Furthermore marketing to children should come to an immediate halt, as recommended by researcher Susan Linn; and proprietary research into this should all be made public knowledge.

The following are some quotes mainly from Naomi Klein’s Book “No Logo”

The marketing world is always reaching a new zenith, breaking through last year's world record and planning to do it again next year with increasing numbers of ads and aggressive new formulae for reaching consumers. The advertising industry's astronomical rate of growth is neatly reflected in year-to-year figures measuring total ad spending in the U.S., which have gone up so steadily that by 1998 the figure was set to reach $196.5 billion, while global ad spending is estimated at $435 billion. According to the 1998 United Nations Human Development Report, the growth in global ad spending "now outpaces the growth of the world economy by one-third."

This pattern is a by-product of the firmly held belief that brands need continuous and constantly increasing advertising in order to stay in the same place. According to this law of diminishing returns, the more advertising there is out there (and there always is more, because of this law), the more aggressively brands must market to stand out. And of course, no one is more keenly aware of advertising's ubiquity than the advertisers themselves, who view commercial inundation as a clear and persuasive call for more-and more intrusive-advertising. With so much competition, the agencies argue, clients must spend more than ever to make sure their pitch screeches so loud it can be heard over all the others. David Lubars, a senior ad executive in the Omnicom Group, explains the industry's guiding principle with more candour than most. Consumers, he says, "are like roaches —you spray them and spray them and they get immune after a while." (p.8-9)

This slow but decisive shift in corporate priorities has left yesterday's nonvirtual producers — the factory workers and craftspeople — in a precarious position. The lavish spending in the 1990s on marketing, mergers and brand extensions has been matched by a never-before-seen resistance to investing in production facilities and labour. Companies that were traditionally satisfied with a 100 percent mark-up between the cost of factory production and the retail price have been scouring the globe for factories that can make their products so inexpensively that the mark-up is closer to 400 percent. And as a 1997 UN report notes, even in countries where wages were already low, labour costs are getting a shrinking slice of corporate budgets. "In four developing countries out of five, the share of wages in manufacturing valueadded today is considerably below what it was in the 1970s and early 1980s." The timing of these trends reflects not only branding's status as the perceived economic cure-all, but also a corresponding devaluation of the production process and of producers in general. Branding, in other words, has been hogging all the "value-added."

When the actual manufacturing process is so devalued, it stands to reason that the people doing the work of production are likely to be treated like detritus — the stuff left behind. The idea has a certain symmetry: ever since mass production created the need for branding in the first place, its role has slowly been expanding in importance until, more than a century and a half after the Industrial Revolution, it occurred to these companies that maybe branding could replace production entirely. As tennis pro Andre Agassi said in a 1992 Canon camera commercial, "Image is everything." (p.196-8)

This shift in attitude toward production is so profound that where a previous era of consumer goods corporations displayed their logos on the facades of their factories, many of today's brand-based multinationals now maintain that the location of their production operations is a "trade secret," to be guarded at all costs. When asked by human-rights groups in April 1999 to disclose the names and addresses of its contract factories, Peggy Carter, a vice president at Champion clothing, replied: "We have no interest in our competition learning where we are located and taking advantage of what has taken us years to build."

Increasingly, brand-name multinationals -Levi's, Nike, Champion, Wal-Mart, Reebok, the Gap, IBM and General Motors-insist that they are just like any one of us: bargain hunters in search of the best deal in the global mall. They are very picky customers, with specific instructions about made-to-order design, materials, delivery dates and, most important, the need for rock-bottom prices. But what they are not interested in is the burdensome logistics of how those prices fall so low; building factories, buying machinery and budgeting for labour have all been lobbed squarely into somebody else's court. (p.201-2)

….and the exploding number of export processing zones like it throughout the developing world — could well be the only places left on earth where the superbrands actually keep a low profile. Indeed, they are positively self-effacing. Their names and logos aren't splashed on the facades of the factories in the industrial zone. And here, competing labels aren't segregated each in its own superstore; they are often produced side by side in the same factories, glued by the very same workers, stitched and soldered on the very same machines. It was in Cavite that I finally found a piece of unswooshed space, and I found it, oddly enough, in a Nike shoe factory. I was only permitted one visit inside the zone's gates to interview officials, (p. 203-4)

And nobody is riding the culture-jamming wave as high as Adbusters, the self-described "house-organ" of the culture-jamming scene. Editor Kalle Lasn, who speaks exclusively in the magazine's enviro-pop lingo, likes to say that we are a culture "addicted to toxins" that are poisoning our bodies, our "mental environment" and our planet. He believes that adbusting will eventually spark a "paradigm shift" in public consciousness. Published by the Vancouver-based Media Foundation, the magazine started in 1989 with 5,000 copies. It now has a circulation of 35,000-at least 20,000 copies of which go to the United States. The foundation also produces "uncommercials" for television that accuse the beauty industry of causing eating disorders, attack North American over consumption, and urge everyone to trade their cars in for bikes. Most television stations in Canada and the U.S. have refused to air the spots, which gives the Media Foundation the perfect excuse to take them to court and use the trials to attract press attention to their vision of more democratic, publicly accessible media. (p.286-7)

Gitelson told them about the workers in Indonesia who earned $2 a day, he told them that it cost Nike only $5 to make the shoes they bought for between $100 and $180, and he told them about how Nike didn't make any of its shoes in the U.S. - which was part of the reason their parents had such a tough time finding work. "We got really angry," says Gitelson, "because they were taking so much money from us here and then going to other countries and exploiting people even worse.... We want our kids to see how it affects them here on the streets, but also how here on the streets affects people in Southeast Asia." His colleague at the centre, youth worker Leo Johnson, lays out the issue using the kids' own lingo. "Yo, dude," he tells his preteen audiences, "you're being suckered if you pay $100 for a sneaker that costs $5 to make. If somebody did that to you on the block, you know where it's going." (p. 372)

Naomi Klein’s “No Logo”

Senator John Sherman, the act’s sponsor, warned his colleagues that failing to curb the monopolies would give ammunition to those who railed against their power. “You must heed their appeal or be ready for the socialist, the communist, the nihilist,” he said. “Society is now disturbed by forces never felt before.” (written about the late nineteenth century) Peter Irons “The People’s History of the Supreme Court” 1999 p.243

The information that Naomi Klein gives about mark ups are limited and partially contradictory presumably because she researched things that are mostly kept secret and they don’t always use the same accounting practices. This means that it may need additional perspective and it may actually be even worse than it sounds. For example when she says they search the world for a 400 percent markup when it used to be closer to 100 percent this may mean a markup of their costs which could include shipping and distribution that doesn’t actually go to quality of merchandise and could be lower if they used local suppliers. Some of these expenses may be legitimate but it is difficult to tell when they keep everything secret and the fact that they do it in secrecy implies that most of it isn’t; otherwise there would be no need for the secrecy.

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