Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Failed Promise of Innovation in the U.S.

A blog in the New York Times led me to Michael Mandel’s cover story, “The Failed Promise of Innovation in the U.S.” in Business Week. In it, he asks whether the growth in innovation—and resulting growth in US productivity—was merely an illusion. Specifically, he asks:

“But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if outside of a few high-profile areas, the past decade has seen far too few commercial innovations that can transform lives and move the economy forward? What if, rather than being an era of rapid innovation, this has been an era of innovation interrupted? And if that's true, is there any reason to expect the next decade to be any better?”

He goes on to explain that much of the innovation and growth experienced in the last decade can be attributed to the bubbles in the financial industry. In a sidebar article, “Growth: Why the Stats Are Misleading,” he explains how calculations of import prices are misleading and, as a result, do not capture the true cost of items.

Mandel offers some long-term hope, explaining that some innovations touted ten years ago are still on the horizon, but implementing them has been more challenging than expected.

As a teacher of human performance technology, I find Mandel’s primary article illustrative of the challenges in measuring performance, and the sidebar a good illustration of ways to break down the numbers so the person reading them can determine the extent to which these numbers can be trusted.

Read “The Failed Promise of Innovation” at

Read “Growth: Why the Stats Are Misleading” at

Monday, June 08, 2009

Designed Against Repairs

In “Appliance Anxiety: Replace It or Fix It?” published May 27, 2009 in the New York Times, Julie Scelfo reports on the financial and logistical challenges faced by consumers of appliances.

On the one hand, approximately 1 out of 3 major appliances breaks in the first three years.

On the other hand, repairs are priced to make replacing the appliance more attractive than fixing it. One major reason: for just a few hundred dollars more than a repair, a consumer can replace the faulty device. The major culprit: prices for replacement parts, whose retail prices can be as high as half the price of the appliance.

And even if the consumer opts to service the device, getting someone to come is a challenge in its own right. So sick of visits that ended with “I need to get a part,” one frustrated consumer in the UK held the repairman hostage until he finished the job. (She admits she wasn’t proud of that.)

A Consumer Reports reporter cited in the article advises consumers to buy the simplest appliances because the more electronics and gadgets it has, the more that can break and the more expensive the parts. Having had just gone through my second faulty Cuisinart coffee maker with the built-in grinder that doesn’t grind, I’ll take that advice.

See the entire article at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/28/garden/28repair.html?fta=y.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The End of the Conspicuous Consumer, The Rise of the Focused One

In, “The Recession, Wal-Mart Style,” published June 7, 2009 in the New York Times, Stephanie Rosenbloom reports on “the new normal” in retail trends. A few noteworthy ones:
  • People are trading down on protein, from higher priced cuts of beef to ground beef and chicken if possible, cheese and increased carbohydrates if necessary. (My thought—the movement to increased carbs does not bode well for weight control.)
  • People are staying in more, as evidenced by increased sales for home theater, popcorn makers, and similar items for entertainment. “Consumers are trying to make being cooped up as painless as possible.” (Apparently, even though we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for our homes, and tens of thousands more to furnish them, we see spending time at home as a curse.)
  • People are handling more of their own simple repairs and maintenance, as evidenced by increased sales of fuel oil, and basic home improvement supplies, not only at Walmart, but also at Home Depot. (Clearly, these people must have the mechanical aptitude I lack.)
Even consumer behavior in store is changing; the executives cited in the article commented that customers go into their stores with lists and seem to stick to them, without browsing the rest of the store. A sidebar article mentioned in this one indicated that Walmart will be rearranging their stores to accommodate such targeted visits.

See the entire article at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/weekinreview/07rosenbloom.html?ref=weekinreview.