“Mass” was the economic drive of the last few decades.
Mass markets replaced national markets, which had replaced local markets. Walk into any city’s retail centers and malls a decade ago, and they looked identical.
Manufacturing automation and global supply chains made goods cheaper. Clothing, curtains, bedding, hairdryers, blenders … much of what we buy has become so cheap that we throw items away rather than repairing them. My seamstress, who has been in business some 40 years, cannot believe how poorly made clothes are today. And her comments refer to the pieces she is seeing, the ones worth repairing.
True, cars are more expensive. But based on their quality, longevity, and performance, they are a hell of a lot cheaper than their predecessors considering lifetime costs. And have you noticed that they increasingly look alike?
IKEA brought us furniture so cheap that furniture itself has become disposable, something unheard of in my parents’ generation.
Even education has gone mass – with courses you can take from anywhere, a trend the current pandemic has already accelerated — ditto healthcare with the advent of telemedicine.
As I walked through Macy’s the other day (mask on), the racks of clothing on sale made my stomach churn. Most of it of shoddy construction and price; all of it nearly identical. The volume of stuff ensures a lot of unsold items will go to Marshalls for additional discounts. The same is true at H&M, Zara, and, to a smaller extent, Nordstrom, where unsold items head to Nordstrom Rack.
Even luxury goods have proliferated. There are so many designer handbags in department stores that they have crowded out the hosiery section. And the bags go on sale! The luxury market itself is consolidating (with Tiffany’s soon to be acquired). That’s a sure sign that the desire for luxury is weakening, even if sales remain robust. (Purchasing “things” is where the wealthy are placing their money since “experiences” ended with the pandemic.)
There are signals things are changing and that “craft” is replacing “mass.” Craft is about attention to detail, about quality over cost, about working to make something better and better and better—versus, say, Oscar Mayer’s cheaper and cheaper and cheaper until their ham tasted like salty water. Craft is viewing your work as art versus time spent to earn a living. Craft exudes pride. Longevity. Standing out with unique approaches for specific needs versus a cookie-cutter approach that maximizes profits.
An appreciation of craft is why fewer well-made things will become worth more to a population learning to shop less during the pandemic. Craft may not replace mass entirely, but it will become an increasingly important opportunity for differentiation. Some examples follow.
Fashion has always been environmentally unsustainable (except for a few brands like Patagonia). Younger people—who rightfully care about the environment as they and their children will bear the brunt of climate change issues—are flocking to rental and resale shops, with a high preference for the better-made brands.
Etsy sells one-of-ones or one-of-a-few. Founded 15 years ago, this marketplace for crafted items reached revenue of $600M in 2018.
Craft beer grabbed huge market share from mass beer brands, so much so that the larger brewers acquired some leading craft brands to stay relevant. We can now drink craft distilled spirits and even cider.
Food is now a craft with chefs as celebrity brands. So are bartenders. Craft takes time. You don’t become a celebrity chef or bartender overnight. Practice, practice, practice, and continual learning are required, like music, basketball, or art. That’s the only way to get what is in one’s mind into one’s hands to produce something exquisite.
Sales of smaller food brands soared, with some acquired by the larger food manufacturers (e.g., Ben and Jerry’s, Healthy Choice, and Annie’s Homegrown). Each of the small brand successes took time to create something genuinely different from the traditional brands in their category. Unlike Macy’s, which renamed every independent department store it acquired and made each store the same, the big food companies are preserving the craft brands because they need the differentiation craft offers.
Brooklyn Brands brought “30 name brands of apparel, footwear, and accessories under one roof.” The brand promises a craft-like approach to product design and construction from a community where craft reigns not just in products but in niche ad agencies, restaurants, chocolate, and gift stores. Walking through Williamsburg (the Center of Brooklyn’s craft retail) reminds me of Europe, where independently owned stores still thrive.
Three forces drive our low inflation world: massive commoditization, a tremendous amount of buying power (other than in healthcare), and excess supply in most markets. The result is you must differentiate or die unless you can be the lowest-cost supplier in your category.
“Crafted,” as a brand attribute and promise, remains a fresh opportunity for differentiation in many categories.
How can your business become more craft-like and less mass-like?