Macro-trend: Quality over Quantity

I like to think in cycles. Many phenomena can be explained with cycles. Some of my favorite cycles are the product life cycle, the economic cycle, the water cycle, and bicycles.

Though there are an infinite amount of cycles describing the marvels of this world, some of the most useful in my experience have been those concerning human psychology in its many shapes and forms.

The cycle I’m hoping to illustrate today is that of quality and quantity: the two product characteristics seem to fight for market dominance all over today’s economy. To give a specific example, look at the retail industry.

Most people are aware of how difficult it is to succeed in the retail business. From manufacturing verticals to international shipment to regulations, it’s certainly not the most thriving industry.

The following paragraphs detail the change of the retail industry from a customer’s perspective. That customer is me. For a great more technical overview (slightly outdated), read this. For context, I was born in 1997, and this is likely not a full picture, but here goes.

During the 20th century, clothes shifted from made-to-order fashion to a ready-to-wear market. With the advent of the department store bolstered by advances in mass manufacturing, retail companies boomed into goliaths and made considerable profits selling mass marketed goods over the years. This transition was from quality handmade goods to vast quantities of factory produced clothing. Quality to quantity.

Let’s fast forward to the time I was in high school: 2011–2015. This time, I believe, was the beginning of the end of quantity over quality in retail.

Wauconda High School, a small suburban high school in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, was surrounded by larger and wealthier public schools, but for the most part I’d say I had an average American high school experience. So let’s talk retail.

By the time I entered high school, people had been wearing clothes from places like H&M, Kohl’s, Urban Outfitters, PacSun, and TJ Maxx for years. These clothes were stylish, cheap, and seemed to be modern enough to make us feel cool wearing them. Those who wanted to appear classy and older might wear Polo or Vineyard Vines. They were more expensive, but everyone chose them for their Sunday’s best.

These brands still represented sizable retail firms, but they were already trying to incorporate individuality and uniqueness into their styles: a minor shift to quality provided by these retailers of quantity.

Fast forward another few years, I’m in college in Los Angeles at USC. At the very beginning, I was surprised to see that the college students whose styles we had attempted to replicate during high school, were not dressing as I’d expected. Very few students showed off branded clothing with prominent labelling, the kind with which we were so familiar in high school. Instead, people leaned towards their own creative styles, or the styles of their peer groups- most of which tended away from visible branding.

Though the demographic at USC (lovingly referred to as the University of Spoiled Children) is more varied than people think, there’s definitely some concentration of children with wealthy parents. The students dress well, but still visible branding is atypical. The best of the best clothing is high-end because of its high-quality and exclusivity. If someone is familiar with the brand, they can tell, but labels loudly announcing the value of clothing are nowhere to be found.

USC is where I realized that retail consumers want more than just a cheap article of clothing. The values behind clothing and fashion have changed. The clothes you wear are a display of your personal style, your brand. People have realized this, and opted for clothing that resonates with them. Uniqueness is important. People are being mindful of where there money is going. They want products that will last decades rather than need yearly replacement. Quality and longevity are important. The market is willing to pay a higher price for clothes that fulfill these criteria. Quality is a theme of the marketplace again, and manufacturers are in for trouble.

The adherence to quality over quantity is reaching more than just the retail space. Another good example is the beer industry. Microbreweries have been creeping in on big beer for years. Anheuser-Busch has been struggling since late 2016. This change reflects a change in American consumer values, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

Pay attention to the macro trends. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. It might help be useful one day. And hell if it isn’t interesting.