Wednesday, 23 December 2009


I have to apologise to everyone, whom I misled by writing on Polandian that my Christmas lights were produced in 1972. I don’t know why that date has lingered in my memory and I was truly surprised to turn up there were manufactured in March 1977 by Spółdzielnia inwalidów w Szczecinie (EN: The disabled cooperative in Szczecin). My grandparents bought them the same year to decorate their first man-made Christmas tree, then it was passed on to my parents and since I could remember, they have always lit our Christmas tree, this will be their 33rd Christmas.

All goods manufactured in socialist Poland are now thought to be tawdry, but from my experience the issue seems to be a bit more complicated. In fact, they weren’t technologically advanced, tended to break down often (not as a rule) and had a very poor design (overwhelming austerity). Some of them in terms of durability still surpass their equivalents currently available.

These days if you buy Christmas lights you surely don’t wonder if they will serve you for over thirty years. Neither did my grandparents, but they lived in a system of unchanging shortage of goods. In the insufficient socialist economy it just sometimes paid off to stall a customer with a product so that they didn’t hassle the ailing manufacturer for the next one. In the affluence of the market economy the producers want the customers to come back for more soon, what in turn has a bearing on the durability. When my grandparents bought those lights, they were hard-gained, today we simply go to the shop and buy whatever we want. More and more often what we purchase is a shoddy Chinese knockdown, which usually lacks durability. Whenever your stuff conks out, you replace it with a new one and thus produce waste. Do you think when one bulb in the string of Chinese lights burns out you can replace it and use the lights on? Of course not, when the weakest link breaks you can only discard the whole chain. In my set of 1977 lights I still have four spare bulbs, so if even one of the bulbs burns out, they only trouble is to find the blown out one and change it. Facing such a challenge, many people give in and buy new lights, cause they’re too lazy to do the arduous job.

In this maze of manufacturers’ policies, consumer is faced with many difficult choices and many unknowns. Let’s consider a purchase of a pair of shoes and assume we know that pair A, which costs 50 zlotys, will be worn out after a year and pair B, for which we’d have to pay 200 zlotys will be worn out after five years. Consumer beware! Which pair is more expensive? At first glance pair B, but when we work out the ‘annual walking cost’, we’ll get for pair A: AWC=50/1=50, and for pair B: 200/5=40. So the yearly cost of wearing the ‘B shoes’ is lower, so it’s cost-effective to buy the more expensive pair of shoes. But what if you the price of ‘A shoes’ is reduced to 40 zlotys? Here I see two approaches. Firstly it depends on your preferences: some people like to change their stuff often, some get attached to their belongings, secondly there’s the transaction cost aspect – to get to the shop and buy shoes you have to spend your precious time, pay for fare or fuel to your car, etc. In the light of the second approach, it is advisable to buy the more durable shoes.

In the real life it’s not that easy. We are unable to predict the durability of the things we buy. Once my father bought a pair of shoes for fifteen zlotys in Auchan supermarket and he used them on a daily basis for five years until they fell apart. Another time he bought a pair of socks, also for fifteen zlotys and they shrank by half in the first washing (in the temperature of forty degrees). One of the hints we are offered are the brands. To some extent they reflect the quality, but bear in mind that a part of the price we pay has to offset marketing costs, exclusive interior of the outlet, our prestige from having a brand-name item is also included in price. Personally, I find the quality of the product I buy more important than a label and I am ready to pay more for the reliability and durability, but not necessarily for the brand.

Manufacturers themselves are not sinless. In September my Epson printer blocked itself out of the blue. Its lights began to flash and it informed about an unknown error. I switched the device off and on and it sent me a message, which read: “Some of the parts inside the printer have used up. For further information please contact Epson service centre.” How funny, all of the sudden the damned machine refuses to work and so what to do then? I copied the message which had popped up and pasted it into google. After less than a minute the problem cleared up. As it transpired, Epson printers are designed to block itself after their page count reaches a certain value (14370 printed pages for my Stylus C62). A hapless user of such a printer has basically two options to choose from. Either to go to the service centre and fork out about 100 zlotys for unlocking their printer, or to dispose of the still good printer, buy a new one (here there’s a risk that the customer may turn to another supplier) and produce a few kilograms of electronic waste which still could be in use. A quick look on the forums unveiled a third option and I went for it. I downloaded (don’t ask if legally) a service application and unlocked the printer on my own. I still use it, page count exceed 15000 (though the counter in the service application shows only 700), it will be replaced soon by an all-in-one (PL: urządzenie wielofunkcyjne), but both printer and scanner will be sold for a song via allegro to the people for whom they may come in useful. The Epson’s policy is profitable for the company, but from my customer’s point of view urging a customer to replace a device in full working order is nothing but wheedling out money. And the durability of their devices is a divisive issue. Are 15000 pages a lot? For someone who prints ten or twenty pages per month it would take years to reach such page count, but an ink-jet printer used in a small office could stop working after less than a year. Is a warranty effective then?

I’d be ready to pay more for a more durable and reliable device, but my propensity is constrained by technical progress. The new all-in-one will offer me better quality of printouts, higher speed of printing, higher scanning resolution, more ink-efficient cartridges and some other useful functions. This justifies replacement, when you need an enhanced device. But fortunately Christmas lights do not turn obsolete and probably my kit from PRL-era will have served me for at least fifty years.

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