Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Quality... An Elusive Beast

This post was originally on my mind from recent events, but the following article on Effortless Gent prompted me as well:

QUANTITY, not Quality

While in my mind I'm sure the Count of Monte Cristo was a proponent of quality (look at the number of items he owned, from yachts to homes, all of which were "the best"), the argument for quality in our time becomes hard. When is a $400 pair of shoes really worth $400? How about that $25K vehicle advertised during your favorite syndicated television program?

This question is on my mind after the travel events I've been doing over the last three months. In June, anticipating 1) leaving for a one week business trip requiring more than my normal carry-on amount of gear, and 2) looking at what to take on an extended multi-month trip, I purchased a rolling duffel bag, costing about $30 (note: a soft-side bag was a mandated requirement). Nothing too big, but it looked adequate enough. Within the week, I had broken one zipper (self-repaired but only usable in one direction thereafter) and the shoulder sling buckles. Hmm...

I packed that same bag on my way out the door for my big trip. It was pretty well stuffed, and pushed the weigh limit of 70 lbs I needed to meet. On my first stop stateside, I convinced myself to look for a more durable alternative. At the store, I was drawn to a really heavy duty rolling duffel, three wheels, well constructed, but talked myself out of it due to price ($90) and color (green camouflage). Instead I purchased a more respectable black/grey rolling duffel for $50. It was bigger in capacity, and I felt it would fit my gear better.

Fast forward a few weeks. I drug that bag over some poorly paved parking lots and airport terminals, and sure enough, broke one wheel and completely obliterated the bottom canvas. As soon as I checked into my hotel, I went online, found the manufacturer of the three-wheel roller (S.O.C.) and ordered a tan version of their bag. My sister-in-law's Amazon gift certificate covered expedited shipping, but it set me back $110.

Rolling Load Out - Coyote Brown

It's easy to look back in hindsight and think "If only I'd spent the money on the right bag in the first place..." I've done so countless times, on a variety of purchases.

- How many pairs of brown shoes have I owned?

- How many cars did I purchase based on faulty reasoning?

- How many tech gadgets has this family gone through?

In the quest for quality, I believe one needs to ask several questions and understand the operating environment for prospective gear to best determine what basis you purchase on:

1) Quality is not always about cost:  In the marine industry especially, I found that dollar signs do not equal quality products. Sometimes the more expensive option is more durable, efficient, or user-friendly, but not always. Avoid the trap of thinking quality is based on price alone.

2) How long to I intend to keep this thing?: This question helps frame the decision and thought of pricing. For a bag, how many trips per year will you take and use it? If a bag can last you ten years, at five trips per year, then a $100 bag is really $2 per trip. Alternately, my $50 bag cost me $50 per trip. Those $400 double-monk strap shoes? If worn several times per week, and cobbled when necessary, may last you a long time and cost less that a "throw-away" copy costing $40-$50. Then again, a $50 pair that's taken care of can also last a long time, but may break down faster.

3) Am I getting $___ worth of utility or value out of the purchase?: I balked a lot at iPod prices in the mid-2000's. It simply seemed like a way to gouge customers; market something they don't really need and charge them a lot for it. But ultimately, people realized an important fact: the iPod did its function incredibly well. The same with Apple's Mac line of computers. Many owners say the same thing "It doesn't do everything, but what it does do is without fault. It just works." If you use that iPod or Mac every day, and really get a lot of use out of it, then buying quality matters. I'm about to pitch this "burner" laptop because the effort of changing hard drives again, and dealing with licensing of Windows, is more frustrating than the cost of a new travel computer. How many previous computers have I bought when I could have saved for that Macbook Air? Hmm....

4) What balance am I willing to strike for quality?: In the end, every purchase contains some compromise. Know what you are willing to budge on and what you'll hold ground for. In car buying, there are a plethora of options you are balancing. Maybe heated seats are a real want, but cruise control is a perceived need. If purchasing used, how many miles are you willing to trade for a feature? That un-optioned model with 5000 miles may be a competitor with the limited-edition rolling in with 15,000 on the odometer. If you're purchasing for a long-term relationship, how well will you deal without electric windows? How long will the difference be between 10,000 miles of lifespan?

Ultimately, everyone buys for their own reasons. Again, each purchase is in some way a compromise. But for those things we need to buy, consider the long term impact of the purchase and how quality factors in.