Elegance is Dead. Stanley Marcus, a giant of retailing who gave provincial Dallas a touch of panache, reminds us all that quality is an uphill, Don-Quixote battle against the economics of the 21st century, where fineness is not on the minds of purveyors or customers. In Quest for the Best, he elegizes: “The best, in many instances, may not be as good as it used to be, but once manufacturers and retailers realize the size of the market for the best, they will get smart enough to make best better — not elegant, for elegance is dead.”
About Neckwear. The necktie is as good a metaphor for the end of elegance as any. Mr. Marcus explains how manufacturers have stinted on fabric or substituted lightweight silk, and the merchant who cares has to be on guard against these unseemly tricks. But who really cares? In much of the West, the necktie is regarded as a noose, a burden never to be worn lightly. One night, in a restaurant outside Scottsdale, I saw waiters gleefully chopping ties in half to the chagrin of the hapless suits who dared to wear real clothing into the eatery. The necktie and elegance are affronts to our present culture.
Abuse the Customers. Assaults on the customer, however, are not mere whims of a few small businesses, but are the calculated strategies of some of our largest and most successful companies. Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV; www.southwest.com ), our only profitable major carrier, makes every flight an ordeal with bad seats, difficult ticketing, no interline arrangements for baggage, etc. Weary travellers refer to it as a “cattle car.” Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT; www.walmart.com ), and particularly Sam’s which is its warehouse unit, makes it hard to find merchandise and has narrowed the selection, eliminating most of the finer items. At Sam’s, you pack your own, if there happen to be any beat-up cartons up front. Meanwhile all the world still titters at Microsoft’s self applied euphemism — Microsoft Works (NYSE:MSFT; www.microsoft.com ). Needless to say, it doesn’t, but Microsoft uses its market position to freeze out applications that would. Each of these companies, while admirable in a number of ways, uses monopoly positions to offer an inadequate product, which they combine with cheerful advertising and indoctrinated employees who tell you black is white and all is wonderful. Many, many companies abuse customers, but it is most instructive to see our biggest and best try to gain operating leverage from customer neglect.
Caring More. As Mr. Marcus makes clear in his book, modern economics make it very hard to render quality, much less elegance. Yet Paul O’Neill, our current Secretary of the Treasury, made employee health and safety the centerpiece of his turnaround strategy at Alcoa. It is possible to succeed by caring for people. A few companies, certainly some of the enterprises we counsel, are growing in a surefooted way by caring more than the next guy — and always caring for the next guy. Perhaps it is not a very good strategy over the long term to treat your products, your employees, and your customers like commodities.
(William Dunk is head of William Dunk Partners, an international consulting firm, in Chapel Hill. For a description of William Dunk Partners, Inc., see www.globalprovince.com/williamdunkpartners.htm