Soundview Executive Book Summaries

The Vanishing Middle of Consumer Goods

If you check in with us from time to time, you’ve probably noticed that I have a bit of a fascination with business titles that deal with consumerism. Part of the interest is rooted in the frequent observation that Americans today have more material wealth and technological convenience than any previous generation, yet they continue to be less and less happy. On another level, I always enjoy the consumer titles because I’m fascinated by branding and the unique combination of factors that can propel one product to the top while a similar one collects dust on store shelves.

In that vein, I was delighted to read this review of a new book by Kevin Maney, a writer for USA Today. Maney’s book Trade-Off examines the gap that exists in the modern world of retail. Customers are drawn more and more to two distinct sets of products. They prefer either inexpensive goods that offer convenience but not quality, or they splash their cash on high-end items that carry a certain clout or trendiness. Products that fall in between these two categories, Maney argues, are likely to be ignored by the majority of the buying public.

Maney is not the first author to tackle the widening gap in consumer goods. Michael Silverstein examined this topic in his book Treasure Hunt, a title we summarized. What’s interesting about both books is the notion that consumers of all income levels cherry-pick from both groups of products. Maney’s book seems to suggest that quality suffers in the pursuit of the lowest price. However, he also remarks that most consumers are comfortable with this idea. I suppose that more and more consumers are willing to live with the adage “You get what you pay for.” Something to think about the next time the person in front of you at Wal-Mart pulls an iPhone out of an expensive handbag before paying for discounted household items.


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