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  • Jennifer Marks

Thanks for nothing

If Jane Q. Citizen treated her guests the way many retailers treat their "guests," she'd be utterly bereft of companionship.

Jane would not offer a guest a foam pillow that smelled awful (even though she could buy it for $8.00 less than last year).

Jane's considerate, so she probably wouldn't offer her guest a gift that — while loaded with bells and whistles — was actually made on the absolute cheap. Jane knows that you can only knock so much cost out of an item before it frays on the first washing, bleeds all over the remainder of the load, and falls apart in the dryer.

If Jane's guest was so horrified that she complained about the substandard quality of the gift, Jane probably wouldn't instruct her valued guest to contact the manufacturer directly.

I'm still at a loss to understand how retailers claim they are "enhancing value" at the same time they are slashing the cost of goods sold. And, believe me, I don't envy them the chore. Pleasing Wall Street on a quarterly basis has got to be pure hell.

Which may explain in part why things have come to this pass. Because at the end of the day, it's the shareholders, not the "guests," who are being best served.

I know I'm tilting at windmills here, because obviously the shareholder formula is working. The mass of American consumers has chosen to put up with a lot of inconvenience in exchange for sharp prices on cool stuff.

That's where the trolley potentially comes of the tracks. The "stuff" has to actually hold up, whatever the price. Those ever-increasing margins that are being served up to Wall Street are coming from somewhere, and increasingly, it's product quality.

A trip to target.com is instructive. Read through the customer reviews in the bedding section. In many spots, the theme is "soooo great looking, but then it ... " pilled, pulled, bled, permanently wrinkled, or lumped up. (This isn't to bash Target. The customer reviews provide a true service, and the fact that they're unedited is to Target's credit. More retailers should follow suit.)

There is an ongoing conceit that an infinite number of global sources will continue to furnish infinitely more opportunities to fatten margins. I'd suggest that the race to bottom — in terms of acceptable quality — is pretty close to being run.

To that end, let's close with a target.com comment from Nicole of Buffalo:

"I got this as a bridal shower gift, but found that it kept getting snagged on my engagement ring. Also, when I washed it, the stuffing got clumpy. After 6 months, I bought a duvet cover from Pottery Barn and gave up on the set."

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