super-dominant big box retailers

if you’ve designed almost ANY consumer product in the states in the last 5 years, somebody in the ‘design food chain’ has made decisions on your work with one, maybe two, uber-retailers in mind.

is this good? is this bad? looking for input from both perspectives.

The “buyers” at these retailers are now the unseen clients. Meanwhile the actual manufacturing clients are becoming the middlemen in the chain. In the short term the added layer of beuracracy is bad for both the designer and therefore the end-user.

It would be better for the manufacturer to hook the designer and the buyer up directly (and for the buyers to have product-development representation on their staff.)

Until then you’ll continue to see “bankable” big-brand design names like Graves, Stewart, Starck and Rashid pushed by the retailers in place of solid user-centred development practices.

On the flip side–this is an opportunity for designers to step up to the plate and start marketing directly to the retailers as “trusted agents of design” contracting with the Asian-market manufacturers of their choice.

bankable should read as “marketable”. starck could crap in a baggie and some maketing firm would and could sellit a viable design product.

maybe a harsh example, but it’s true.

interesting trend for “big box” retailers i’m seeing…manufacturing their own goods through factories they control in foreign countries. it’s alittle different because it allows them to cut out another middleman. in the furniture biz, it’s allowing them to to produce stuff they sell at a crushingly low production price.

at corporate i worked directly with buyers. both boxes. had reg design meetings even. that was 7 years ago. old news. same with sourcing direct. and buyers do have ID on staff. Target has staff. just check Core job list. and thier design manager has been there since about '98. not sure about W*M.

agree this is not good. but next jump is from buyer to consumer. things will change.

we told one of our clients about the production price a certain big box store has for one of it’s office chairs…utter silence.

it’s kind of interesting too…tooling costs are so low in china, it puts a lot of budget back into doing more daring designs/molds.

Very good point… and this is happening right now-- has anyone seen the latest Design Perspectives? Target is hiring Product Designers onto their staff (which from what I’ve heard is already around 40 designers).

Actually I see this trend fading too. The line of Starck products sold extremely poorly and the Michael Graves line has lost a lot of steam, and is starting to sag too. I’m gonna go out on a limb and predict Rashid will be next to stumble. Do I even need to say anything about Stewart?

Yep. This is also a much more stable business model for a product design firm. Why be a slave to the billable hour when you can pull your profit from delivering product? You’ll have control over quality, you can preserve design intent, and in the end the firm will be rewarded for sucessful products. Plus you’re not scrambling to finish 120 hour projects in 60 hours because you needed the work.

i think a more interesting business model involves designers doing their own marketing. manufacturing has become so structured and conforming that it’s easier to just pick the lowest bidder.

control over the marketing is where it’s at.

Picking the lowest bidder will give you the lowest quality and adherence to design intent. Sure Chinese manufacturing is cheap, but having a manufacturer you know, trust, and communicate well with is still a challenge. If you find the right source-- your designs can go from concept to production and keep their integrity.

How do you propose designers take on the marketing?

that is not true, though i will acknowledge it can be a problem. believe me, i’m neck-deep in it. :unamused:

manufacturing needs a lot of capital investment to be profitable. why get into an area others can easily do better at a minimal cost?

as for the marketing, it’s been my experience that by understanding the market, establishing, nuturing, and growing a brand, you get a better grasp of the design criteria. it is a bad idea to make the design fit the brand, but let the brand guide the design. when it works, it’s amazing. when it fails, it’s often because of poor planning and misunderstanding.

i used to try to maintain design integrity through a better understanding of engineering and manufacturing. while this may partially be true, i’ve found it it easier and more powerful to control design integrity through a better understanding of marketing.

china will change next year. they’re already designating design operations to chinese corporations and will begin designing their own goods on high quality control. marketing will follow. best factories in china with skilled workers will produce chinese products.

the whole panorama of design in asia will change as a result. with introduction of new products china will lead asia in manufacturing quality and affordability.

as for brand, i don’t want to get into details as to what mechanisms make it work and what make it fail but a successful brand is the one that the consumer pays extra to have within a certain market. that’s my definition of it, however people with various backgrounds or experiences might disagree or view it differently.

man, they’ve been designing in china for years. welcome to 1998.

branding goes way further than what the consumer is willing to pay.

your general statements are scary.

i’m talking about chinese brands, not foreign brands made in china.

as for brand,
the further you penetrate into the matter the more likely you find one aspect to be prominent . in my situation it’s basically coming down to that one aspect i mentioned.

when you pull out your “brand” sword you have two choices. to defend and attack or simply attack. i choose the latter. i don’t waste time contemplating market. and other options like generic recreation of a business model. it most certainly has to be original. and for it to be original you need a solid attitude- and the simpler that attitude is the easier the process. so finally when the brand is created and the consumer sees the product and pays extra for it the formula is complete.

Wow, there sure are a lot of ‘the glass is half FULL’ types out there (that’s good).

I’ll take the devil’s advocate side for a while, just for the sake of a good argument.

Looking at the Target examples, all signs seemingly point to lots of opportunities for designers. Lots of planogram space for ‘name designers’…big internal design staffs being developed…people apparently paying premium prices for ‘high-design’ goods (at least for a while).

But, everything gets cheaper and cheaper…what designer hasn’t been more than happy to buy a piece of Starcke stuff when it had a bright orange tag on it that said ‘was $19.99, now $2.99’? At least happier than the person who paid full price?

There are lots of things going on with big box that prompted me to post the question in the first place…and argue that state-side designers are in a precarious position.

– Even for the big boxes that appreciate good design, pricing is king! For most of the population, great price is better than great design. Look at WalMart! The marketing-types that I’ve heard we should learn to emulate (”own the brand, control the marketing”) seem to be migrating toward a product development paradigm that places price above design (although that’s not anything new). If the marketers are doing their job right, they’re just giving the people what they want…that’s a good thing, right?

– Pricing for the consumer is king, making the ‘buy’ price for the retailer really important. The retailer doesn’t make money having ‘best prices’ to consumers by spending extra with their vendors. They can’t…there’s not enough margin in ‘affordable design’. Between direct-sourcing and reverse-auctions for products, you could argue that retailers (all of them) are looking to trim as many middlemen out of the process as possible…including pricey designers. Internal design staffs for big box are great, they pump up the design level, right? But they also provide a means of working more efficiently (read: direct source) with vendors, right?

Maybe the bottom line is that there’s more demand for good design, but over time there will be fewer opportunities (stateside) to supply that design.

if i’m reading you correctly, i think what you’re saying is that typically, great design costs money and by having the big box stores do more in-house design, it provides good design at lower cost. right?

it’s an interesting point, but i don’t know if it’s happening or not.

control the brand, control the marketing…YES. control the design, control the brand? branding is more about marketing an experinence, not necessarily at a premium. better branding better defines the product, which helps taylor the design. i think this is overlooked far to often by designers.

i understand where there would be less opportunities for designers stateside…are you suggesting these opportunities are going overseas, like engineering positions? i’ve discussed this a lot with my co-workers. i’m still trying to form a coherent opinion of this.

on that note, i saw a fascinating story on the news this week about a man in the boston area who was told he could hire an american software engineer at $80k or hire an overseas engineer to do it for $40k. the man decided to put an ad out to hire an american engineer at $40k. interestingly he had over 100 resumes from people looking to take a pay cut for this position and hired one.

i wonder how long this is the case for us…

already happening. not in the news maybe. but design has migrated. both to Mexico and Asia.

i’m aware it’s happening, but at what scale?

the job market is tough enough.

jobs exporting overseas, the number of design grads is up. wonder if the salaries will start to drop…almost seems like they’ll have to.

i wonder what other roles we’ll need to tackle to remain employed…

Of course, inhouse design for bigbox retailers saves them money…otherwise they pay the manufacturer the design cost (plus margin). It’s the same argument for inhouse design at the manufacturer, versus ‘hired’ design talent at a consultancy.

I’ve worked for both consulting groups and corporate groups, so I’m pretty familiar with the ‘value’ pitches that both sides use. Maybe my overriding concern is that the big boxes will be (or already are) driving the the value out of design.

WM certainly doesn’t tout high-design, and controls so much volume in the channels that some manufacturers won’t make a product unless WM says ‘yes’…with all the economic strings attached.

Target apparently values design, but they still need to compete with WM, and their “name” design stuff will get knocked off fast enough that their window of opportunity to charge a design premium will continue to shrink. Remember the little orange tag that said $2.99? In the long run, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Target (or any retailer) stop doing ‘ground up’ design… instead promoting the hell out of a brand, and making shopping trips to Asia for any product that remotely resembles their ‘brand promise’ and putting it on a shelf.

Both big boxes carry a lot of clout, enough so that it’s worth wondering what the role of ‘conventional design’ becomes in the near future, or if the value of the design falls to the point where we all need to take job cuts.

The pessimist on my shoulder says ‘…better get to HomeDepot for that paint mixing job before the laid-off IT guys from Silicon Valley get ‘em all…’

Here’s my disclaimer to the above: I can’t tell the future, but I like a good argument…that’s why I’m playing devil’s advocate.

interesting points.

target does and doesn’t compete with walmart. target is all about value for the customer, irregardless.

target is more about the expereice and their selection, which they change often enough to keep on the trends.

it’s branding.

speaking as a shopper on a budget, i still prefer to shop target because of their edgy stuff, clear isles, and good selection. could i save money by getting it at W*M? probably, but that place frustrates me visually and psychologically. i really only go there to buy syntheyic oil at a lower cost (cuz i’m a car-freak from detroit).

the brand promise premise sounds like what pier 1, garden ridge, world market, and so forth are doing…design on a budget with inexpensive goods from overseas.

i have worked for both corporations and consultancies (back at a consultantcy now). i prefer the consultantcy because of the pace, the variety, the comraderie, and honestly, if there’s gonna be layoffs and cuts, you can see it coming. at the corporation, things mover slower and you could literally do the “office space” story and get away with it.

Maybe this deserves its own topic, but I’ve been wondering lately about how branding plays into whats happening overseas.
Everyone agrees that China is The Next Big Thing… But to date, I have a hard time even naming one Chinese brand (“Legend” upon research.)

So the Million Dollar Question becomes:
What will be the first Chinese megabrand?

Will it be created in China, or mearly a spawn of Western entrepreneurs?
Can communist China pull off a Samsung, or do we have to wait another generation to create a designer-culture?

According to McKinsey, “the biggest obstacle is the Chinese manufactuers’ lack of vital marketing skills.”

I can’t disagree with you, the Target experience is way cooler.

But aren’t the products that are changing quickly (the ‘current trend’ stuff) the cheaper imported stuff? (not thinking about apparel)…just wondering. Calphalon/Michael Graves/whoever are all about consistent identity, maybe less about changing quickly. My guess is the quick-change product is ‘shopped’ in advance, and the ‘designer-look’ stuff is the slow-to-adapt albatross.

The only thing I HAVE to disagree with you is who Target competes with. They DO compete with WalMart, they just choose to compete with a different brand and consumer experience.
AND, I doubt that Target is ‘all about value for the customer, irregardless’…but their brand/experience has done a good job of making lots of people think that.

The realist in me (not the pessimist this time) is saying “…Target/WM is all about value for the customer, AS LONG AS WE MAKE MONEY DOING IT”.