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Costco: Portal To The Future

As rarely as possible I accompany The Wife to Costco (today’s goal was 17 feet of LED cool white C9 outdoor Christmas lights: $20 for two boxes). While The Wife did whatever it is she does I did my bi-annual wander up and down the computer and equipment aisles. I spent many minutes in front of the 9000 Watt gas generator trying to think of something that would convince The Wife that civilization is about to collapse (“I really think those Occupy guys are on to something!”) and would therefore make the generator a prudent $699 purchase. The Wife doesn’t really believe I’m qualified to operate power equipment (except, ominously, chainsaws) so the dream of being able to power a small country from my backyard was a non-starter and I eventually rejoined her at the bin of 7 pound wedges of parmesan cheese.

I did not leave Costco empty handed, however: not only did I buy a Griswoldian six boxes of Christmas lights but I experienced two things while I wandered that made me wonder whether a trip to Costco can help you see into the future.

Future experience one: as I strolled past the 6 pallets of sets of 25 pre-dulled kitchen knives I heard stilted dialogue coming from tinny, cheap speakers. I looked down to see a little boy, about three years old, sitting in the cargo area of a Costco shopping cart watching an animated movie on a small handheld device while his mother inspected a small deep freeze ($899). My reaction was as follows:

  1. A mother is in a store with a conucopia of visual and intellectual stimuli and yet has deliberately created a situation where e attention of her child is dominated by an electronic device.
  2. The mother does not seem interested in competing for the attention of her child.
  3. The child does not seem interested in anything except what is projecting from the 2.5 inch screen in front of him.
  4. If The Wife saw this she would comment loudly and critically about the parenting aptitude of the mother, the bleak intellectual future awaiting the child, and the decline in society’s child-rearing standards generally. We would then agree with each other that we would never raise a child that way, in the vehement manner of all couples who do not have children.
  5. Why does speaker sound quality lag so far behind picture quality on hand-held devices?
  6. The exotic, graceful curves of feline facial bone structure is one of the things that make them… cats. Why, then, do animators insist on drawing round faces for cats?

What didn’t occur to me until the next aisle is how ho-hum it seems that a child can watch a full-length, commercially produced movie – in better resolution than we would have experienced at the turn of the century on our TVs, by the way – on a device he can hold comfortably in his hand in the middle of a store. And nobody – except The Wife – finds this strange at all.

This started a train of thought that lasted until I spotted that 9000 Watt gas generator two aisles over: why is it that even though we are clearly living in the future it doesn’t seem very futuristic?

Obviously the future creeps up on gradually: we’re the frog in the slow-boiling pot of water. But futurists like to present a future world where everything progressed at the same rate, and that’s not what happens. That kid was watching his computer generated movie on a neato Jetsony thingamabob while he sat in a piece of technology – the shopping cart – that hasn’t seen a single important advancement in 50 years, in an environment that would be both absolutely foreign and completely familiar to ancient Greek philosophers. We get some of the future now and some of it later, and sometimes we don’t get it at all.

Aside: This is one of the reasons why I think Minority Report is the current go-to movie about the future. The famous overhead tracking shot in the apartment building shows a future world with a particularly honest combination of current world realities (basic architectural forms and household items, earthy human relationships) and powerful future technology (creepy spidery eyeball-scanning things). For all their power the future things must still compromise with a world that isn’t nearly as advanced as they are.

Future experience two: Costco might be one of the great canary-in-the-coalmine type places to identify items that are on their way to pure commoditization. I had this thought when I stumbled upon four pallets of pre-designed, pre-packaged tile backsplash. The Wife and I are habitual renovators who have done our share of kitchen and bathroom renovations, and we know about backsplashes in more profound ways than Kardashians know about professional athletes.

It used to be that when you wanted to create a tile backsplash you bought a bunch of tile and then painstakingly spaced them out on the wall, using plenty of mortar to get them to stick and spacing them evenly with little plastic pegs. At my house this meant a backsplash that looked like the your kitchen was listing to the left and melting in the middle.

Awhile back a very smart person took a bunch of tiles of different shapes, colours and sizes and pre-spaced them in a pattern on a 9-inch square piece of mesh. As a renovator all you had to do was pick your pattern and match the patterns in the squares of mesh together, then mortar them together on the wall. Voila: a pretty slick looking backsplash.

This change didn’t immediately change the backsplash business in the sense that you still went to a tile place or the tile section of a hardware store to buy, (originally) your individual backsplash tiles and (later) your mesh squares of backsplash tiles.

You can see where this is going. Costco now sells a variety of pre-designed, pre-packaged, easy-to-install mesh squares of backsplash tile. Their selection isn’t wide (yet) but the ones they have look pretty good. Someone, somewhere has realized that you can not only mass produce mesh squares of backsplash tile, but you can also mass-package and mass-distribute them. Until today I had no idea that Costco would even be an option when The Wife inevitably decides to redo the kitchen.

This wouldn’t have worked as well when you had to design and build your own patterned backsplash. Back then you had to go to a place that could carry and display a wide variety of different types of tile. But once someone began pre-designing backsplash patterns based on House and Home and Martha Stewart display homes, and those patterns could be pre-built on mesh, the commoditization of tiled backsplashes picked up a lot of speed.

My encounter with the pre-built backsplashes altered the rest of my visit at Costco. I spent the next 20 minutes assessing the long-term viability of whole service industries and distribution channels just by seeing what Costco had on sale. It doesn’t apply to everything – I don’t think many people buy hot tubs at Costco ($2999.00) – but, gosh, it sure applied to a lot of things I had never considered before.

If I’m in the tile business I’m beginning to get a little worried. I’m beginning to ask myself what I can do to differentiate myself so that when someone needs to renovate their kitchen they’ll come to me, even though my prices are a little higher and my hours kinda suck and most consumers don’t really have the skill or time or inclination to design their own backsplash. Sure, I’ll keep the high-end types – and goodness knows they’re profitable – but my market share gets smaller and smaller while I figure out how to rewrite my vision statement to keep me in business for another 20 years.

As a banker all of these questions sound vaguely familiar. Costco doesn’t do banking now but for the life of me I don’t know why: it’s not like membership-based businesses can’t do banking.

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