Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ecologies and Monocultures

I came across a fascinating quote in the September 2012 issue of Independent Dealer (the official publication of the National Office Products Alliance). Hat tip here goes to Monique. The story, titled “Wall Street Analysts Slap Office Products Big Boxes,” says, among other things:

The big boxes’ overall total return over the past five years has been dismal at best, accordingly to Planes, with Staples posting a -46% return, OfficeMax posting -84% and Office Depot generating a -93% return for its investors.

That scatter of negative returns turned me nostalgic. It did. I remember our arrival here in Michigan in 1989. After every move, one of the things I always did was to scout out the nearest and most pleasing office supply stores. Here on the eastern edge of Detroit I found three such, each with merits in one or another direction. And I began to visit them as needs arose. They were all owned by small proprietors and, depending on location, also featured additional products entirely unrelated to office supplies: household items, knick-knacks, furniture, carpets, pet supplies, children’s toys, gardening goods, and so on. In all of them about a third of the space was office supplies. I got to know the owners, lingered to chat sometimes. They got to know me. One store began to purchase a product I wanted regularly. You get the picture.

A decade later office supplies disappeared from two of the three. The third one changed owners and, two years later, closed its doors. The appearance of a single Staples is the most reliable explanation. It got put down roughly in the center of the triangle my earlier suppliers formed on a map. Looking for a caring owner at that Staples is like trying to make conversation with a statue.

We’ve come to worship something called the Market; we call that worship Capitalism. But the real market is an ecosystem while capitalism is a kind of agriculture based on vast exploitations of a single crop. Healthy ecosystems feature great diversity, many, many small participants; here and there one will fail, but the ecosystem still keeps thriving. Huge networks supply them, not least wholesalers. The dealers are small, independent, and adaptive. Huge bargains? Never. The right products? Always. If not here then five blocks away. Interaction. Knowing the customer—and not by faceless computer displays of inventory change. Capitalism is, by contrast, destructive—and ultimately vulnerable. As is monoculture. It is therefore perfectly logical to be pro-market and violently opposed to capitalism. The market is just an aspect of community life. Capitalism? Edgar Allan Poe formed the image of it that I use: “While from a proud tower in the town, Death looks gigantically down.” With that you have another name for it.

In that same issue of Independent Dealer is some worry, more mutedly put than probably felt, that Amazon.com is massively moving into the office products category. Independent dealer? For how long yet? Unless those negatives pile up and form the proud ruin. But in that case, where will I buy my toner?

1 comment:

  1. I like your distinction here, markets versus capitalism. By the way, whatever happened to the concern over monopoly capitalism, shares, I might add, by Adam Smith?

    The one good thing I came away with after browsing through the Independent Dealer, was the sense that the independents may be fewer but those that have survived are lively as can be! Makes me recall Slater Sutton and think that I should call Gwen, see if they've survived the first decade of this new century...