Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In which Jared and I talk about commodities, but really it's just me

What's a commodity? Jared and I were discussing this. I've figured it out. This post might be full of highfalutin hand-waving and making up words that don't exist. Just pretend I'm a literature critic, and we'll all be cool.

Idea #1: things are not commodities. Is a paperback copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma (check it out, product placement) a commodity? You could say yes: it's always the same, no matter where you buy it. You could say no: it might have a lot of meaning, there's some art and some science that went into creating it, it's a valuable good. Let's settle this:

Things are not commodities. Requests are. Let's say a request can be commoditious (made-up word #1) or not.

Then a commoditious request is one that a relatively dumb robot could fulfill on a relatively idealized version of Amazon.com.

If my request is "I want a new paperback copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma", that is a commoditious request. A robot could do it in two seconds. If I say "I want to read a good book" or "I want something thought-provoking about the food system", a relatively dumb robot could not do that so well. If I want "a new Roomba," a robot could do that on Amazon.com; that's a commoditious request. If I want "something that cleans my floor the best," that's not commoditious (okay, that's kinda a crappy word*).

*oh zing oh snap no pun intended check it out shut up.

And it's a spectrum: let's say a robot would need a level of intelligence between 1 and 100 to fulfill a request. Then the commoditiousness of a request is 100 minus the intelligence of that robot. (Omnivore's Dilemma: he'd need about 2 units of intelligence to look it up on Amazon.com. That request has a level of commoditiousness of 98.)

If something is stylish or unique, that's less commoditious (a robot could not find you "a nice hat.") Less stylish, more commoditious (a robot could more easily find you "32W/32L basic blue jeans"). If something is hard to find (a Joe Shlabotnik rookie baseball card), it's less commoditious.

Why am I talking about this? Because Jared challenged my (and countless other White People's) love of mom-and-pop small stores. So here's my rationale: stores that fulfill less commoditious requests should be small businesses. Store that fulfill more commoditious requests should not exist. (Amazon.com, or another internet giant, should run them out of business.)

About the less commoditious requests: you want people who care to be behind these things. I want a bookstore owned by someone who likes books and who could maybe recommend me something, or talk about books with me. I want a bike shop owned by someone who knows bikes and who can advise me what kind of bike I should get, not because it maximizes his profit margin, but because I'll be a happier customer. I want to buy food from a farmer or a fishmonger or a baker because they care enough not to put industrial chemicals into their food.

The more commoditious requests? Let the robot shop for them, and let the robot send them to me. I just need a simple pair of scissors. I don't want to pay a bunch of shmoes to stock the scissors on the shelves and ring me up at the cash register and advertise in the Sunday paper. Economy-of-scale it up, send me a pair from the warehouse nearest me.

Other side notes that maybe I'll explore later or maybe not:
- Christmas gifts should be as non-commoditious as possible
- Wal-mart shouldn't exist at all
- People should strive for fewer commoditious wants
- and of course, why don't I apply this to FOOD and see what comes up. Bet it's snobby!


Gerrit said...

(Un)fortunately(?), robots are getting really good at finding things, especially when we don't ask. If we allowed all retailers to share all information about our purchasing habits at all times, things could actually be pretty great in a sense. Imagine if your local grocery store monitored the frequency of your consumption of various goods, and then had them prepared for you and shipped out automatically.

Or if Amazon and Netflix shared information, you would find out immediately that the movie is an adaptation of a book, and not only that, but here are some books that other people who liked that book/movie liked, and would you like those? Those things are getting pretty awesome. (Check out Netflix's effort to better its automatic recommendations)

Organic food is also pretty easy to sift out. It's basically the same as a brand preference, right? Coke, not Pepsi; free-range, not cage-fed.

The only time you might need a person is when you change preferences or enter a domain where you have no experience. But even then a survey might narrow down what you want pretty quickly. (like the 20 questions program!)

Dan Tasse said...

Agreed with most of your comment, except for food.

Organic, as it exists now, is not the answer. You can weasel around the "organic" laws a whole lot, and still get the "organic" label. The most glaring example: you can put up to 5% non-organic whatever-you-want in food and still call it organic. "Organic" really means "95% organic".

There are other ways the USDA Organic laws don't work, too, especially with factory farmed chickens, etc. "Free Range" means something crummy like "they have access to the outdoors" which means a little splot of asphalt outside the factory barn for a whole barn full of chickens, where none of them ever go because they're so accustomed to their battery-cage lives.

ALSO, some farms that should be labeled Organic are not, because the certification process is so laborious that only huge farms can afford it. An example: apparently you have to have a restroom in the slaughterhouse that is only to be used by the USDA inspector. If you have a small farm, with like tens or hundreds of chickens, there's no way you can afford that.

Source? I still have to cite the Omnivore's Dilemma (which makes me sound like a fanboy who has read exactly one book), just because it's the most coherent and concise dissection of why Whole Foods/USDA Organic is not enough.

Anyway, USDA Organic food, while still better than conventional grocery-store food, is not enough. Would a better labeling system help? What if there were TSAHAO (totally sustainable and humane and organic (and all the other good things and not tainted by big business))? Maybe. That might solve, for example, the atrocious farm conditions. But it probably wouldn't solve our expanding waistlines or our weird self-loathing relationship with ourselves and food. Amazon Fresh (where Amazon.com delivers groceries to you, just like books and movies) might even make it worse.

You start thinking of food as commodities, and soon there is no difference between a crummy grocery-store red-sphere tomato from New Zealand and a super awesome fresh heirloom tomato from a mile away. It's just "get me a tomato I can put into my body." You start eating only for taste, or only for nutrition... we've tried doing this, and it's not been working. We need to enjoy and appreciate our food, not streamline the process to shovel it down faster.

As a good counter-argument, streamlining the grocery store process would make more people actually go to the grocery store instead of just eating fast food all the time. I'm not sure where I stand on this one.

Gordon M McLaughlin said...

Hey Dan, it's been awhile since we have spoken. I came across your blog and found that it is both entertaining and informative - glad I found it! (FYI this is my first ever blog post so go easy on me)

I found your latest (and very non-commoditious) post to be particularly interesting. It made me think: Mom and Pop stores are actually "commoditizers." (figured I should contribute my own new word).

For example you walk into Mom and Pop's General Store with the request, "I want a good bb gun." But by the time you check out, Mom and Pop, through their product expertise, have helped commoditize your request. You make your purchase knowing that what you really want is, "An official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle!"

The Netflixish robots that Gerrit mentioned appear to provide a substitute to Mom and Pop's product expertise - by offering the input of "Other users who also purchased [that movie]..."

But I think there is another very important input in the commoditization process - sensory input. As an example when my girlfriend buys tremendously overpriced jeans she relies heavily on sight and touch. When asked to justify the $180 she spent on the jeans, she claims that they fit the best - something she only can claim to know because she tried them (along with 25 other pairs).

Many stores combine product expertise and sensory input to help shoppers commoditize their requests. My favorite athletic shoe store uses sensory input in conjunction with on-site expertise to improve the purchasing experience. A store employee (often trained in exercise science) will literally watch me jog and critique the fit of the shoe I have picked out. Then he or she will make a recommendation. Ultimately, when A) the expert recommends a shoe; and B) I decide it feels good on a test jog, then I can create a commoditized request. In effect, my shoe store is selling me a shoe as well as multiple inputs into the commoditization process (although even this has been scaled through franchising, see, http://www.fleetfeetsports.com/).

I wonder, is there any way for the Amazon's of the world to provide sensory input to consumers ... for now I'm with you Dan - if robots had to go get my girlfriend jeans they'd probably run out of robot energy from all the returns they'd have to make.

Gordon M McLaughlin said...

Just realized the last post would be confusing - it's Mike McLaughlin, but my name appears as Gordon... anyways, send me your contact details when you have a chance.

Gerrit said...

I don't follow it too closely, but I know there are "industry standards" for things like organic. A little like when someone uses a creative commons license, and so you know what you're getting into, Whole Foods could have a section devoted to foods that meet a certain category of sustainability.

And if Whole Foods could have this section, so to could Food.com. Or if a farmer's market would be good, farmer'smarket.com could be identical.

Wouldn't food shopping online free up more time to enjoy food slowly?

Dan Tasse said...

Mike: hi! Good to hear from you! I figured out your identity about when you mentioned your girlfriend... :)

Yeah, you're right. Part of the extra value you get from a small store is basically a pretty accurate human decision machine. But now that you know the exact brand of shoes you wear, you could just go on Amazon.com (or wherever online) and buy a new pair when the current ones wear out. But there's still something nice about going back to the same store, right? I don't know if there is or not. It's not like you're going to be friends with the shoe salespeople if you shop there once or twice a year.

And yeah, sensory input is a good reason to keep bricks-and-mortar shops around. But then, clothes-buying is inherently usually pretty non-commoditious, because you want something that looks good, and that changes and depends on you a lot. And, accordingly, I'd rather buy from small stores with a cool, unique selection (or secondhand stores!) than from Wal-mart or Target.

Gerrit: Yeah, it would be nice if there were a "super-organic" label that really meant something. There's "certified naturally grown" which is like small-farm organic, and I'll certainly buy that whenever I get a chance, but I don't see that in the Giant Eagles or QFCs of the world. Anyway, it'd help.

But as for the "less time shopping -> more time enjoying" motto... I mean, that hasn't worked so far. Computers save us lots of time, right, but we're super frazzled and always out of time. Maybe forcing you to slow down a bit, making the food-buying process a bit inefficient, is actually good. I don't want to get too new-age, but it might make you stop and think a little more, which is pretty useful in general.