A world full of differentiated products is like a kitchen cabinet stuffed with a variety of vitamins. Although, they are good for you, too much of them may be detrimental to your health. It seems people in rich countries like the United States have an endless craving for variation, from SUVs to electronics to even simple products like ice cream, yogurt, and not to mention, Beanie Babies. No matter how many different versions of a product are already in the market, it seems manufacturers always have newer ones coming and consumers have an insatiable desire to buy them. It seems that the human mind is like a USB flash drive – even though it is relatively small, its holding capacity is immense. And it is upgradeable, too. A mind would be “a terrible thing to waste” except on silly products or services with no life-enhancing features whatsoever. For, if a mind is not filled with innovative thoughts, it will be inundated with freakish ideas.
To sell goods and services in intensely competitive, over-saturated markets, manufacturers have to be creative and consumers have to have two things: a desire to buy and ability to pay. We consumers hope that the second one poses no problem for us. The United States is after all one of the most affluent nations in the world. Even if you don’t have enough income and wish to purchase something you cannot afford, relax – you can still buy it. Borrowing comes to the rescue. Borrowing is an Ill-fated necessity for most contemporary consumers in America.
It seems that we have a zealous yearning for variations. Like the need for camaraderie, it might be in our genes. As we get older, the list of our material desires tends to get longer and longer. The costly symptom of this tendency is obsolescence and disposability, expensive indeed. We dispose of everything, from cheap to pricey items. Even books are becoming disposable – you buy a copy of a textbook at a hefty price this semester, it becomes outdated the next. Obsolescence is a costly proposition but it seems we are not concerned about it as long as we can afford it without too much sacrifice. Frankly, some of the things we buy don’t have any useful application or life-enhancing benefits. Some, in fact, may even be public nuisance implying that our welfare may actually increases if we get rid of them. But we buy them anyway simply because we are told that they are good for us. Or, maybe we have a false sense of well being.
Compulsive consumers want to buy the best of everything they at any price often irrationally. Their ever-expanding longing for consumption is indeed needed to subsidize the advertising industry. We pay for all the expensive commercials designed to tell us what is good for us, how we can put excitement back into our life, how to get rich quickly, why we should let our fingers do the walking, and what we should do if an erection lasts more than four hours! It is, of course, a well known fact that simplicity is more relaxing; however, we are told by greedy entrepreneurs that complexity is better for us.
To be fair, we should also mention that life without differentiated products would be boring and quite unbearable. How many times in a row you can eat the same food day after day, listen to the same song, drive the same automobile year after year, and mingle with the same dreary people without getting bored? Needless to say, I don’t want to give an impression that I am giving product differentiation a blanket endorsement. I really believe that there are two kinds of it: real and imaginary. The real ones are good, and consumers really will benefit from them and don’t mind to spend little extra to have them. The imaginary ones are those that confuse us. They are not worth the effort and the valuable resources they consume. How many times do you go to a grocery store and get confused, not knowing what type of breakfast cereal contains all the daily allowance of vitamins? Which brand of Aspirin relieves your headache faster? What brand of digital camera takes sharper pictures? Perplexing? You bet.
Before I came here for the first time, in the early 70s, disposability was an unknown phenomenon to me. We didn’t have such a luxury back home. My unfamiliarity with throw-away culture cost me embarrassingly back then. I remember one day I was walking on the street and I noticed a few nice clean clear plastic drinking cups on the sidewalk. I thought I was lucky because I had found them, not knowing that they were thrown away. I picked them up, took them to my room, washed them and stared using them. One day my next door neighbor who was also a naïve newcomer foreign student like me, knocked on my door. When I opened it, he asked me if he could borrow my plastic cups. I considered his request flattering and happily let him borrow the cups. He borrowed them all right, but never returned them. I didn’t want them back anyway because next day I found a few more on the same sidewalk.