Friday, November 21, 2008

So, about that market (again)

When I teach about the Great Depression, I try to convey to my students as to how that tragedy was the consequence of a seismic shift in how business was conducted. It was a response to the maturation of heavy industry. Or, the logical outcome of an economy that had become truly proficient producing durable goods, and of a marketplace that couldn't maintain the demand to keep those factories running.

So, forty years from now as we analyze this economic malaise, what will the lesson be? I think, largely, we will look at this recession as the consequence of technological transparency in the marketplace. Since 2000, we as consumers have developed unprecedented means by which to see why we should be paying x price when buying a good. The way in which the internet allows us to see what price is fair and see what competitors are selling a good for has tremendous power to lower the prices of what used to be high-margin goods. Further, how often do we purchase now without the assistance of a salesperson who, by the way, cannot as easily upsell us on something we don't need. Heck, this laptop was purchased via a merchandizer's online ordering system: I ordered it, and never talked with a store employee until I was at the brick-and-mortar establishment to claim my box.

Couple this transparency with the irony that the technology that empowers consumers so greatly also costs jobs. Technology always works to devalue a worker. How many jobs have been made redundant by web-based tech. support, catalogs, and customer service?

There is also the great irony that in the middle of this decade there has been a keen increase in consumers' awareness as to how credit cards operate. Card users are becoming more wise, generally speaking. Fuse this with the evangelical zeal of consumer gurus like Bill Ramsay and the increasing tendency in my generation of two-income households to fold into one- or one-and-a-half-income households after babies arrive, you see a real slowdown in consumer demand.

There are too many good minds out there for this recession to last indefinitely. Yet our shift to a society in which face-to-face interactions between somewhat ignorant consumers and knowledgeable salespeople/employees becomes a thing of the past is a traumatic shift. And it will take some time for the rejuvenation to occur.

No comments: