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Design, Throw Aways, Wal-Mart

It's interesting how iPods and Aerons always come up when it comes to "good design" but no one is crazy enough to talk about Wal Mart and design. 

Joel asserted as much himself in his previous article describing design that as a discipline it's focuses on a lot more than the aesthetic. 

But one of the things that is impressive to me about good design is invisibility. 

Wal-Mart is a perfect, but scandalous example of this.  No one wants to bring them up because it's not as chic as, say, an iPod, but when we are honest with ourselves it seems as though this "proletariet" design seems to contact us more than something like an Aeron chair.

How fashionable is it to talk about the design of throw aways, or the design of "just good enough?"  I think Visual Basic and Wal-Mart have a lot in common: they touch *everyone* (have a look at the POS (no pun intended) system at the next store you visit and chances are it was written in VB), but they don't jump to the front of one's mind when they think of (capital D) Design.

Is the Wal Mart throwaway an excellent example of design? 

Okay, how about this for a change of direction. What car do people pick out of a crowd for "great (capital D) Design?"  Audi? BMW?  But what car silently makes the profits of these vehicles like chump change (some boring car that *everyone's* got, like a Honda Civic).  By design?
David Seruyange Send private email
Monday, January 30, 2006
 
 
I would argue that Walmart's design is at best mediocre.  Ever try to buy something there?  Ever go there when other people are awake?  Ever have little children running completely insane in the store.  The narrow aisles are not a good design, particularly when compared to Target. 

Now, is there business model well designed?  Heck yeah it is.
Josh Volz Send private email
Monday, January 30, 2006
 
 
I'm missing something.

I thought Joel was talking about the design of products, whether tangible or intangible.  Wal-Mart is more of an experience, not a product.

Yes, many of the "rules" apply to both, but you don't really pay Wal-Mart for the priviledge of shopping in their stores (your sanity notwithstanding) and there's nothing about Wal-Mart itself that you can take home, stick on your bookshelf, and a year latter, take down and use it again.

I think you would do better to compare Wal-Mart against amusement parks like Disneyland, than against products like the iPod; i.e., is it easy to get onto the property? Are signs informative? Is the property clean and emotionally uplifting? Is the help friendly and knowledgable? Was your overall experience generally positive?
TheDavid
Monday, January 30, 2006
 
 
I think that city dumps are well designed experiences. You can find ANYTHING you need there - and completely free for the taking. What could possibly be better than that?
Art Wilkins
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
Actually I agree with David. Supermarkets are designed to induce customers to spend. Wal-Mart must be a perfect example of good design (I never set foot in any of them).

And be sure Wal-Mart spend some money on observing customer behavior and adapts the shops to compel more people to spend...

To get back to consumer goods. The iPod is a good example of Great Design. The end result is cool (beautiful) and functional. The issue here is, most gadgets get crammed with tiny buttons and thousands of functions most people will never use. The iPod is just the contrary. Simple to use, big buttons, and only a small number of, to the point, options.
GUI Junkie Send private email
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
Well, I've been in a couple of Walmarts and they are disorganized and smell badly of old people.  The only "design" of Walmart is they offer (mostly shoddy) products at very low prices.  That's it.  That's the ONLY draw.  Obviously it works well for them in a commercial sense, but there's nothing tricky or subtle there.
George Send private email
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
That is true George, but it works very well so it is a good design, right?
Scott
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
> The narrow aisles are not a good design

Trust me, they know exactly what they are doing. They pay for every square foot of floor space so want to maximise the amount that is used for actually displaying goods. More shelves = more product on display = fewer people required to stock up during opening hours (when they're less efficient because people keep stopping them to ask for directions) = more profit.

It doesn't matter that people prefer wider aisles, that isn't what they're interested in - wide aisles are fine if you want to give people the feeling they can take their time, browse, and enjoy themselves, but supermarkets generally, and low price supermarkets especially, would prefer you give them your money as quickly as possible.

So yes, they're "good design", you just have to know what the purpose of the design is.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
"you don't really pay Wal-Mart for the priviledge of shopping in their stores..."

Oh yes you do!  You pay them with every dollar you spend in their store.  Wally World also collects buko dollars when merchandisers advertise in their store.

Wal-mart does 2 things really well:

1.  They sell apples, milk, and xbox units really, really cheap!  Get it?  While I am there picking up a necessity at a great price, kids tug on their parents sleeve to buy them a toy in the next aisle for the same low prices.

2.  Wal-mart's traffic is a merchandiser's dream.  People flock to Wal-mart's corporate offices 2x a year to get their warez approved and purchased by Wal-mart so they can sit on wal-mart shelves.

You pay for it!  You pay for it everytime you walk in the door even if you don't buy anything.  How?  Easy!

I was talking to my best friend the other day and I said "You know that new lift jack you bought?"  He says, "yeah."  I saw it wal-mart for $20 less than what you paid.  Same model too.
Eric (another ISV guy with his company)
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
I'm not sure why Wal-Mart's products are seen as shoddy. At least for the price. Do't forget it's poor people who shop there. By definition, poor people (or people who grew up poor and still have that fear-of-having-nothing monkey on their back) are especially value sensitive. I'm not saying poor people are the economists' 'rational man' - they do waste money by gambling, on credit cards. But if I wanted to get the most sock-miles for my buck, I'd shop where a poor person shops.

I guess that's one way Wal-Mart is like Microsoft. Another is that WM is a technology company - it revolutionalized the supply chain with its technology (oh, to have worked in WM IT in the 70's). Furthermore it forced all its suppliers to follow its just-in-time inventory standard. By doing that its suppliers actually spread the WM revolution to other distributors (yes, over time, it lost its competitive advantage of being the fastest gun in the west and traded it for the c.a. of being the biggest).

As far as narrow ailes, I never noticed it (seems narrower ailes are helpful for people who are slightly near-sighted - to see the products on the other side). But then I've regularly shopped in Manhattan's grocer markets - now, those are narrow ailes!
Spinoza Send private email
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
When talking about what design is, Joel mentions constraints. I wouldn't say a Walmart is an example of great (or even good) design because Walmart does not take into consideration a bunch of constraints, only one: price. Walmart's job is to race to the bottom as quickly as possible by always selling for lower prices. Ain't nothin' wrong with that, but the quality of the products they sell is basically incidental.

Sure, maybe not everything they sell is shoddy; after all, it's hard to make a rubber band or fly-swatter which is extremely lacking in quality. But if you are in the market for an item and quality is of paramount importance to you, you don't go to Walmart.

A guy who runs a company that makes nice lawnmowers realized this and told Walmart to take a hike: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/102/open_snapper.html
JS
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
Wal Mart has nothing to do with quality regardless of who shops there.  People on the low end of the economic scale do not have the luxury of buying quality, they buy what they can afford.  So they buy low cost shoes and get as much use out of them as they can, then they buy them again for as little as possible.  If they could afford another 10 or 20 dollars for shoes they could get ones that last 3 or 4 times longer, but they can't, that is the curse of not being able to afford quality; you get to not afford it again and again.  Wal Mart requires it's suppliers to lower their costs each year, how long do you think quality lasts in that environment?  How do you think Levi's made today stack up with Levi's from 20 years ago?  Cheaper materials, cheapter labor, cheaper construction.  Where does the quality fit in?
Kero Send private email
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
The question isn't whether it's good or bad that Walmart sells low-quality goods at low prices. That's a different discussion entirely. Nobody is hating on poor people for buying cheap shoes, and nobody is expecting poor people to see the utility in a thousand-dollar lawn mower.
JS
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
>You pay for it!  You pay for it everytime you walk in the door even if you don't buy anything.  How?
You pay for it in higher taxes as walmart employees earn so little that they qualify for foodstamps and medicare. Many stores employee folks just to help the rest of their staff fill out welfare forms.

Thanks for that link, most companies are circling the drain by the time they realise that doing business with walmart has destroyed their business.
Peter
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
"it's hard to make a rubber band or fly-swatter which is extremely lacking in quality"

It's funny that you mention that since today I was asking why all these rubber bands are so lousy and the secretary said "I know, everyone is complaining about those rubber bands. I'm sorry. I won't get them at WalMart next time."
Art Wilkins
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
 
 
That is pretty funny, and pretty telling too. I tried to think of the most basic, simple, homogenous, un-screw-up-able thing I could, and rubber bands seemed like a good example. At least people have the option of going to Walmart and saving themselves a few pennies on a bag of rubber bands!
JS
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
 
 
"People on the low end of the economic scale do not have the luxury of buying quality, they buy what they can afford.  So they buy low cost shoes and get as much use out of them as they can, then they buy them again for as little as possible.  If they could afford another 10 or 20 dollars for shoes they could get ones that last 3 or 4 times longer, but they can't, that is the curse of not being able to afford quality; you get to not afford it again and again. "

This is somewhat true in that poor people have less money to spend.  Walmart gives them choices and that is important!

However, the second part is dead wrong!  I shop at walmart once a week and I'm not poor by the definition of poor nor am I rich but I am well off.  I also have a Cosco and Sams Club card.  Walmart is quick in/out for me and their prices are very low.  Example:  I was walking into a meeting the other day and this guy, I never met before, says "Hey, I like your jacket, is that an Eddie Bower?"  I smiled and said, no, $20 at Walmart.  He says, "Wow, even better!"  I buy most of my non-business attire from Sam's club: Socks, sweats, t-shirts, and even Levis.
Eric (another ISV guy with his company)
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
 
 

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