Ubiquitous Obsolescence and Ephemera

March 21st, 2012 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

A lot of years ago when I was the editor of a grocery magazine, I wrote a feature about throwaway products. By today’s standards, it would surely fall into a rant.

The point was that our readers made a lot of money on items like disposable razors. These non-foods or HABA (health and beauty aids) as supermarket and convenience store folk call them are where the margins are. Overall, a grocery may average a profit margin of under 5%. Contrast that to, say, software companies that may have margins of 45% to 95%. Profits on toiletries are among the highest in the stores.

So when use-and-toss products like razors, condoms and such sell, store owners do little capitalist dances.

My concentration at the time, convenience stores, even measure inventory turn differently. They think in terms of square inches and not square feet. Turns per inch per month determine what they stock, which is why you likely won’t find your favorite brand of this or that unless it’s among the most popular.

This is also one of the reasons they put certain small, high-margin movers on the counter by the cash register. For those, they get paid twice. As impulse purchases at POS (point of sale), these items give great returns. Moreover, manufacturers want that space and turn level as well. For that, they pay an RDA (retail display allowance), which to many not in the biz would seem like a bribe to have the best position.

By the bye, when I was covering grocery, the best seller and highest turn per inch per month in convenience stores was rolling papers. When you gotta have ’em…

As so many posts here, this circles back to bicycles.

In my article decades ago, I waxed richly on my grandfather’s straight razor, as well as his long marriage. He was not into disposable anything if he could help it. Years later, I had a huge shock in the early days of PCs when my $1,300 24-pin dot-matrix printer malfunctioned. A Toshiba repair shop guy said sure he could fix it, but he noted that it was the chip welded into the motherboard. That would cost $900 to $1,000 to replace. A newer, much quieter, more capable and reliable model sold for about $500. It was the old almost-working-paperweight cliché. With regret at being wasteful and trapped, I handed it to a tech training school to fix or cannibalize for parts.

So this week, I found myself locked into the more fragile, higher tech replacement routine, this time for bike pedals and cleats.

I’ve used Shimano SPD cleats and pedals for eight or nine years on my road bike. The cleats were small, ugly, steel and damned tough.

A week and a half ago, one of my pedals came apart, irreparably, on a ride. The spindle and pedal separated. I managed to keep squeezing my shoe toward the crank to keep putting the pedal in play for the 10 miles home. Going up the steep hills was, shall I write, exciting.

Those pedals are so 20th Century. Shimano, among the others, has moved on. The bike shop didn’t have the old style, but I was able to order the newer version from the cycling cyclops Nashbar/Performance/Bikes Direct. (Pic note: I claim fair use from a cropped image from the box to show non-cyclists what a pedal looks like today.)

Modernity brings:

  • Easier clip into the pedal
  • Quick kick out as needed
  • Slightly lighter pedals and cleats
  • More comfortable, less noisy walking on the cleats (I tend to bring light mocs and swap out for beer bars)
  • Plastic pedal body covers
  • Plastic cleats

The instructions make it plain that I’ll be replacing the cleats and covers. It may only be once a year or two for the cleats, but like any good disposable product, new, improved, better means also costlier.

I bought spare cleats when I got a new pair of road-bike shoes that did not come with SPD ones. Those cost me $11. The list on the SL style models is around $30. A discount is about to $25, plus shipping or full price at a bike shop.  At every two years, replacement amortizes at about 4¢ a day, ride or not. In contrast, the much longer lasting old metal style might be in the range of 0.3¢ a day.

Those are still small beer in the world where people routinely buy a coffee for $2 or $3. On top of that, I estimate that I’ve put between 50,000 and 60,000 miles on that bike and that original set of Ultegra pedals. I don’t think anyone should say Shimano made a poor-quality product. I sure got my money out of the pedal that finally broke.

There is no metal equivalent of the new cleats. Were there to be one, it would surely damage the pedals with use — much more expensive replace than plastic cleats.

Here I am, again an alter kaker in a new world. Life in fact insists on going on, bringing me with it.

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