October 27, 2005

Choices I Don't Need

by psu

Buying socks used to be easy. You'd go to the store, buy 6 pair of lightweight Smartwool hiking socks, and go home. Smartwool used to only make about three kinds of socks: thin, a bit thicker, and really thick. But, as with all successful companies, they have been cursed with the diversification disease, and we are all worse off for it.

For example, I bought socks at the new REI store in Pittsburgh the other weekend. My delicious thin Smartwool socks had worn out, and I was after a couple of new pair for the winter. So I picked up one pair of tan socks and one pair of black socks. To the naked eye, they appeared to be exactly the same socks, just different colors. But, after some use and closer examination, it was apparent that the tan socks worked better. After washing they did not stretch as much, and as such they stay on my feet better. The black socks are also already starting to pill and unravel after only one time through the wash.

So here is the thing. I went to try and figure out two things:

1. What kind of socks did I buy?

2. What was the difference between the tan socks and the black socks, so I know to avoid socks of the black type again.

It turned out that these two questions are nearly impossible to answer. Smartwool now makes so many different kinds of socks, and changes their names and types so frequently that there is no source of information anywhere on the planet that can tell me what I want to know. In addition, among the literally dozens of sock types that you find at the Smartwool web site, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between products of a similar type. They differ only in the most miniscule and irrelevant aspects of their design, or in the exact breakdowns of the material used to build them. Sock A has horizontal zig-zag stripes, and is 10% spandex, while sock type B is exactly the same, but sort of off-white and uses 5% spandex and 10% nylon. This brings up the obvious question: Who cares!?

Who is sitting around on their couch scanning the Smartwool catalog and thanking heaven and earth and whatever gods they worship that hallelujah Jesus above there is a pair of socks that is taupe with vertical red stripes that also happens to use just the right mix of wool, nylon, and spandex (as everyone knows, the right amount is 75% wool, 10% spandex and 15% nylon) and is also 2/3rds calf height? Meanwhile, someone else is relieved that they can get the same sock, only 10mm shorter.

Other examples of this insanity abound. Consider the Chuck Taylor basketball shoe. Back in the day, it came in white and black. Some crack-head dorks might have found blue ones in the gutter somewhere, but those people were just wrong. Today, if you go to the Converse web site you can find something like 500 different types of sneakers. There are low tops, high tops, boot length high tops, red, green, and blue ones, tiger prints, black leather ones, pink ones, Hello Kitty ones, and God Knows what else. Who decides that we need this? These are useless choices that serve nothing but the ego of the people in the marketing departments who smoke various hallucinogenic drugs and then turn over the product line on the basis of the resulting fever dreams.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here with one pair of comfortable socks on my feet and no way to find out how to get a few more so that I have backups for when these are inevitably discontinued to make room for the leopard print sequin-inlaid 25% silk urban lounge hiking socks that will come out next month. This is what the world has come to. When you find something that fits or otherwise works well, you are forced to buy five copies of it now because as a matter of routine, the ludicrously short product turnarounds of the modern corporation will dictate that the item will no longer exist by the time you need a new one. This is what I call my Fundamental Theorem of the Modern Consumer Society.

Life was better, and Smartwool was a better company, when all you had to choose from was thin, thick, and thicker.

Posted by psu at October 27, 2005 09:10 PM | Bookmark This

Oh, nobody needs all those choices. Except what if the only choice was pink socks and "Hello Kitty" Converse.

What, you don't like that? There are plenty of people who do. You might think that one choice is enough - as long as it is yours.

Posted by Robert 'Groby' Blum at October 27, 2005 10:07 PM

Is there any company that makes a good product and sticks with it? Is there something about _product churn_ that is more valuable to shareholders than repeat-purchasing customers with lots of money and a burning desire to buy reliable, time-tested products over and over again? It seems like every time I find a product I like and am willing to purchase year after year, its manufacture gets rid of it and finds some inferior substitute to earn my ire.

Take Eddie Bauer, for instance. Last year I discovered their Ultimate Cargo Pants. These cargo pants were, contrary to typical marketing practice of over-hyping, actually _ultimate_: solid construction, heavyweight fabric, roomy cargo pockets with inner sub-pockets (perfect for nestling cell phones), and amazingly handy _dual slant pockets_ on each side that kept frequently accessed cargo like keys and pocket knives separated from randomly accumulated cargo like receipts and change. As soon as I tried Ultimate Cargoes, I knew that I had been elevated to a new plane of pantsy goodness.

Naturally, Eddie Bauer discontinued them.

The replacement? "Complete Cargo Pants." What were they _thinking_? How can "complete" surpass "ultimate"? Do the "complete" cargoes have the dual slant pockets? Nope. It would seem, then, that they're somewhat deficient in completeness.

Fortunately, my standard policy of "strategic reserve" purchasing in the weeks that followed my discovery of Ultimate Cargo Pants netted me a total of eight pair -- three regular, three fleece lined, and two shorts (yes, they discontinued the Ultimate Cargo Shorts, too!) -- but when that supply runs out, I'm hosed.

If they had kept on making Ultimate Cargoes, I would have kept on buying them, probably for life. Wow, they lost a lot of sales.

But at least I'm not bitter about it.

Posted by Tom Moertel at October 28, 2005 12:04 AM

>Is there any company that makes a good product and sticks with it?

Levis and their 501s.

Posted by Mark Denovich at October 28, 2005 01:12 AM

This is some kind of boss battle allegory, isn't it?

Posted by Eric Tilton at October 28, 2005 01:59 AM

Socks? Socks?!? Let me tell you about toothpaste. I like plain old fluoride toothpaste, preferably minty tasting.

I go to the store, and am instantly faced with a choice: do I want gel or paste, with or without bleach, baking soda or not, kiddie or adult flavoured... I just want plain old toothpaste. Bleaching my mouth scares me. Baking soda tastes like crap. Now, the challenge is -- find the toothpaste I want on the shelf. The search usually takes me about 5 minutes. Once I finally find it, I buy 3 or 4 tubes, because the search is so painful!

Then I go to the next aisle in Target, and begin my quest for deodorant. Hey, looks like they randomly renamed all the scents again... Urgh!

Posted by Chris Colohan at October 29, 2005 10:27 PM

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