Beds and burgers

What do a bed and a burger have in common?  Not much, at first glance.  You eat a burger and sleep in a bed, and certainly not the other way around.  (You might eat a burger while in bed, if you’re a slob, though.)  But they seem like two completely different products, because they are.

So, let’s be a bit more specific.  What do a bed and a burger have in common economically?

Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere.  That’s obvious: they’re both near-ubiquitous consumer goods.  Produced on a different scale, certainly–you’ll probably go through hundreds or even thousands of burgers between buying one bed and buying your next one–but (in the US at least) you’re almost certainly going to buy both during your life.

Oh, and one other interesting point: they both have to be made to order, because they will go bad if you leave them sitting out for too long.

What’s this, you say?  You think that’s wrong?  You say that the entire point of a bed is to leave it laying around, and that it can sit out for years and not go bad?

Well, so can certain burgers, but that’s beside the point.  The point is that Simmons, one of the biggest manufacturers of beds in the country, and therefore truly an expert on the subject, says that they need to be made to order.  And since you are almost certainly not an expert on the subject, you’re wrong.  (Even if you’re right because… well… it’s kinda obvious.)

Yeah.  Guess what I did a couple weeks ago?

When I moved down here, I found that it would be really expensive to try and ship my bed, and since it was the end of the year and there were ads all over the radio about major end-of-year sales at all the mattress places, I figured it would be worth the price difference to pick up a new one.  What I didn’t count on was it taking more than a week until I got it.

I mean, seriously, when’s the last time you went to the store to buy an X because you need an X a week from now?  I don’t buy computer parts that way.  I don’t buy books that way.  I certainly don’t buy food that way!  And I don’t buy beds that way either.  The last one I bought, I literally had it at my apartment a half hour later.  But apparently the store couldn’t deliver this one because they didn’t have any in their warehouse, and Simmons couldn’t deliver one in a timely fashion because they hadn’t made it yet, because they are made-to-order.

Now, let’s think about that for a moment.  There are only two good reasons to build goods in a made-to-order fashion.  One is because they’re unique.  When I buy a new laptop and get it customized, for example, I expect for that to take a while to get to me.  But mattresses aren’t unique.  They’re sold, like cars, with standardized makes and models.  (And even simpler than that; mattresses don’t generally come in varying trim levels, with optional features or paint jobs.)

The other reason is because they’re perishable goods.  This is why restaurants make food to order; if you make it ahead of time, there’s a good chance that it’ll become far less appetizing by the time someone buys it.  But of course this is not the case for mattresses.

And I really can’t think of any other reason to do that.  Ever since the days of Eli Whitney, people in all sorts of industries have been mass-producing mass-producible goods for a very good reason: it brings costs way down by letting you take advantage of economies of scale.  (And as noted above, restaurants can’t do that.  They also have notoriously low profit margins.  There’s a joke I’ve heard a few times before: “How do you make a million dollars in X?  Start with two million dollars.”  The only subjects for X I’ve heard have been the stock market and the restaurant industry.)

Most consumer-hostile behavior out there can be adequately explained by corporate greed, but in this case I am frankly at a loss.  It doesn’t make any sense for the manufacturer not to mass-produce mattresses.  This isn’t greed, or at least not greed that’s been particularly well thought through; this is just out-and-out stupidity according to Cipolla’s classic definition: an act that harms both parties involved.

So… yeah. I ended up having to also buy a sleeping bag, which I now have no use for anymore.  Ugh.

Anyone have any good examples of customer-hostile stupidity they’ve had to deal with, that causes you trouble without actually bringing any real benefit to the company in question?  (And don’t say Embarcadero; we already know all about their suicidal pricing and marketing policies and that would just be like shooting fish in a barrel.  Other comments are welcome, though.)

One Comment

  1. Joseph says:

    Mason, beds and burgers can have a lot more in common than you realize….

    Seriously, you were close with the example of the burger though. Tying up cash on inventory that may not move quickly is undesirable. In logistics one school of thought strives for a “just in time” supply chain (like the compilation technology). This involves attempting to minimize the time between when an item is ordered and when it’s needed. Simmons may be doing the same; they’re probably not just manufacturing your mattress to order, they’re probably not even ordering the materials until you order the bed. I’m not defending it as in my experience it’s been used in the context of places like Wal-Mart and stocking inventory, not by manufacturers of major consumer goods. But it may be their rationale.

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