Sunday, April 03, 2016

A service economy

An economy based on stuff cannot last. This was obvious to a few people several decades ago, but in a society where success is measured by money and possessions, the few early adopters of more simplified lifestyles were simply plowed under by the economic and social trends of the 1980s.

I am no Mother Earth News cover boy for self reliant homesteading. I believed the grid could be saved. I believed that some level of consolidation was actually beneficial. There isn't enough land and water for every individual to establish a subsistence farm anyway, and not everyone has a green thumb. We'll always be trading skills to complement whatever each of us might lack.

When the majority of people buy fewer things and make them last, manufacturers need to retool their thinking as well as their production lines. Manufacturers are notoriously slow to do this, but the realities of cash flow bring it to their attention eventually. The nice thing about the bike industry is that no company is too big to fail. If one or more of them make bad judgments about the near and farther future of bike riding, other companies will rise to provide the products that real people in the real world want to buy.

From the "ten speed" boom in the 1970s through the mountain bike boom of the 1990s there were a lot of companies providing small-to-medium lines of product. The industry consolidated around the collapse of the mountain bike boom, so now we have a handful of companies with bewildering product lines offering immense variety under a few big brand names. Not every company is huge, but the biggies try to use the weight of their name to make their offerings in a small niche seem like a better choice. It actually makes product research harder for a consumer, and harder for a retailer who cares for consumers, to figure out what the best choice might be. And Big Bicycle caters to big dealers. They depend on that faltering model, moving large quantities of product outward from the factory and harvesting dollars inward. We'd all be better off if they did collapse.

Mass manufacturing and marketing just creates mass quantities of rubbish. I'm not talking about the long run, either. Consequences accumulate blindingly quickly these days. From the factory floor to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch might be only a matter of weeks or months. Perhaps not so much for bike stuff, but even there it's a challenge to keep something going for more than a couple or three years.

The emerging economy sells experience. This is true whether the experience is wolfing down a Big Mac or taking a Viking River Cruise. The economics of experience are trickier to manage than the bean counting of manufacturing and distribution. There will still be products involved. But the underlying principle is that the average person will be better off owning less and doing more, and saving a little money for later, which means that, overall, less money circulates at a given time. It will all circulate eventually. Think of the overheated economy of stuff as suffering from high blood pressure and all the ills that go with it, and the experience economy as the leisurely heartbeat of someone moderately athletic.

The experience-based economy makes us all entertainers and hosts and counselors and healers and teachers. It makes us interact. It brings us together much more than the acquisition of money and stuff ever did. I'm not the warmest guy you'll ever meet. Probably nearer the other end of the spectrum, actually. Even so, I would rather help someone than hurt them; help them and get them the heck away from me, but help, nonetheless. So the idealized experience economy does not have to turn us into a uniform mob of hugging hippie freaks. Fear not, and forge ahead. And if you like hugging hippie freaks, that's fine, too. We each groove in our own way. The experience economy has a place for all sorts.

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