Chanukah presents are supposed to make a fellow happy but this one made me sad. It was tendered tenderly enough by loving family members, but after registering the sentiment of the familial I found myself becoming sentimental over the loss of the familiar. The gift was a gorgeous sweater, bought in the waning moments before Filene's Basement disappears from the American scene. Together with its parent company, Sym's, it will pass in mere days into the realm of the nostalgic.
My sadness is not so much for the loss of Sym's as a purchasing venue, although I have been a customer for about 35 years. I have in fact always enjoyed its atmosphere, its buying eye and its selling style. But that sort of bond is easily transferred to another store or chain. The tragedy is that the reason Sym's and Filene's have been euthanized is the decline of American prosperity.
That's right. Although they are discount outlets, their success was based on the overflow with which God blessed America. When the rich got richer the poor got richer by getting these bargains. The irony here is that our nation slipping from prosperity to austerity is depleting the stock at the bargain table.
The way it works is as follows. When times are plush and wallets are flush, manufacturers churn out lots of stuff. All kinds of stuff. High end, low end and middle middle. These makers figure they are in the field of dreams, and if they build it we will come. Some trendy fashion idea, a new nuance in some item, a kitschy new gadget, a whiz of a gizmo: the big cheeses turn them out in the hope of building a better mousetrap. When in doubt, put it out. "Whatsamatta, you don't want one of these. Okay, take a dozen."
Many products become cheaper to make when made in larger quantities. Some huge machine gets turned on for eight hours; you can either produce a thousand widgets at a cost of 16 cents apiece or two thousand at 11 cents apiece. In The History of the Jews, Paul Johnson says that the Jews invented the volume discount, but volume manufacture was probably invented by some more populous bunch. Certainly a country like China with a billion citizens understands that less is not more; more is more.
When the bounty flows, when there is money around, the risk-takers take risks. They make tons of beautiful suits, scores of magnificent dresses. They do it hoping to sell them to the rich folks for big money but inevitably there is overstocking, Mister Moneybags decides the pants are too baggy, Miss Prim decides the dress is not dressy enough, and now the Sir Plus line turns into surplus.
The reason why Sym's and Filene's have been unable to make money the last few years, despite the fact that there are more people feeling the pinch and looking to save a buck, is that there is no excess inventory anymore. The first company along the line is missing and the assembly is breaking down. The business model of Sym's and Filene's is to sell an upper-middle-class look for a lower-middle-class price. They can do that only when the overachievers are overproducing and selling them the spillover.
Actually, Filene's was around for a hundred years and Sym's only for half that much, but the latter had bought the former somewhere along the line. Now we will find ourselves with fewer opportunities to cross the lines. The rich people will buy the rich look and the poor people will have to buy the poor look. Not only are we losing our job creators, we are losing our job-lot creators.
The economy has been perched on the precipice for a few years now, and the Darwinian results are some tragic extinctions. As some of the building-blocks of the lavish life we once took for granted are crumbling, we find ourselves in an increasingly precarious position. And I do remember one thing from my college Latin: that the root of "precarious" is the Latin precare, to pray…
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