Monday, November 25, 2019

When Everything's Important Nothing's Important

Back when I was a production test technician (between iterations of college) I worked for a company that shipped on a quarterly system, meaning that orders were booked and the company's financial results were tracked by the quarter.  Since I was in the group doing the final system tests, by the time products got to us, every delay that could have possibly happened had pretty much all happened and things were running late.  To stretch a metaphor, they were pushing the product to get shipped so hard that if you got between the product and the shipping door you'd be crushed to death.  Our shipping department had metal garage doors tall enough to let a semi-trailer back up to the dock so we could roll things in on fork lifts or dollies.  So much product was pushed so hard through those metal doors that the morning after the last day of the quarter there were literally metallic hemorrhoids gleaming in the morning sun around the frame of the garage doors.  OK, so maybe I was the only person who could see them.

In the weeks before that, the production expediters would go through the work orders coming into my department and mark which of them were “hot” and should be worked on first.  In the last week or two, pretty much everything was marked that way.  You've probably been wondering where I'm going with this: it's that I told a production coordinator at one time, “when everything's hot, nothing's hot.”  To his befuddled and exasperated expression I calmly explained that nobody can work on everything first, I can only work on one thing first.  Only one thing can be most important.

And now that we're over the target, by extension, when every day is Black Friday, no day can be Black Friday - in the usual sense of a special day that kicks off the Christmas shopping season. 

I don't know about you, but I'm sure I started seeing black Friday ads in July.  For sure, for the last month, I must have been getting 50 to 75 emails a day with black Friday in the subject.

When did this become a national thing?  It seems it must have been within the last twenty years. 

Black Friday was supposedly called that because it was the day where businesses turned their annual ledgers from red ink to black ink, but in the last few years it seems to have morphed into something else.  It has been reported for years that the big deals aren't necessarily really deals at all, or that some companies raise their prices in the weeks (months?) before the day so that what would have been a normal, small discount from MSRP suddenly seems like a deal.  It's being reported that more and more people are carrying their smartphone into the stores to price check things, check on price and availability at other stores, or get coupons.  I confess.  I've done it and not just this time of year. 

Once there started to be a perception that good deals came on Black Friday, it was only a matter of time until it became just another way of saying “BIG SALE!”  But shoppers like to think they're getting big deals, and there are stores that put one or two items on a massive discount to get some people to line up the night before.  Maybe they can get some buzz on the news.  Of course, now that stores are opening on Thanksgiving itself, Friday seems like it loses some drawing power.  Regardless, every year there's some incident where people get violent over something stupid.

It always pays to know what going prices are.  I've heard that generally speaking, the best time for deals is closer to Christmas, especially right before Christmas.  You'll get better prices than this week, but it's a gamble.  You're betting that the stores will be stuck with some of an item you want and would rather discount it than not sell it.  If they sell out first you lose.  If they don't sell out but still  don't or can't cut the price you lose.  That said, it has worked out for me in the past.  It's sort of like calling a bluff in poker. 

Retail is a rough way to make a living. I'm sure you've heard how airline reservation systems base the seat price on the apparent interest in a flight.  If you go back and check on the price of that seat every week, the system says there must be more demand for that flight and raises the price.  What if stores could measure real time demand and adjust the price.  Say you're looking for a new tool or other gadget; what if they see someone checking the web site regularly and interpret that as several people interested in that item and raised its price.  Would you be upset or offended?  What if they dropped the price to see at what level you can't resist pushing the Glistening Candy-like "BUY IT" button?  I don't have any hard evidence that anyone does that, but it seems trivial for an online store to track interest in something.  The biggest risk is scaring away customers.

To me the Golden Rule is the willing seller/willing buyer.  My inner engineer drives me to optimize things, but if people are happy with what they paid, regardless of whether or not it really is "the best price of the year", and the seller is happy with the price they got for it, that's definition of a fair price.  I'm sure not gonna poop in anyone's corn flakes by telling them they didn't get the best price.

As for me, I've never gotten up early to go do a black Friday shopping expedition, and I doubt I ever will.


  1. Black Fridays matter...I guess. The temples of greed have to induce you to enter their doors and consume and why not the day after you stuffed your pie hole? I'm with you. I don't participate. This year, the weather forecasts call for over three feet of snow on the level here, and I'll be snowed in for all practical purposes. I guess that I could go on-line but isn't that why they have cyber Monday?

    1. My M. O. these days is to have my children buy the grandchildren presents and wrap them and I Venmo the money over. I realize that may be considered to be cheating but it works.

  2. You see the same phenomenon in medicine. The term 'stat' comes from the latin
    statim....meaning instantly or immediately. And virtually EVER ORDER I GET from the ER or for an inpatient exam is marked 'stat'.....EVERY ONE. Which makes it that much harder to prioritize which exam might actually make a difference in the outcome for a patient and which one won't change a damn thing....meaning the order was written because it was a billing opportunity. And EVERY SINGLE MD writing these orders goes absolutely ballistic when told THEIR 'stat' isn't as
    'stat' as another doctors 'stat'.

  3. When everything is important, I apply the Paretto principle (80/20) rule: what gets the most done in the least time/effort, but tempered by which request came from the more important person (not necessarily seniority/auth, but also buddy or quid pro quo). In reality isn't that what we all do anyway?

  4. Scott Adams got this to me in a Dilbert cartoon way back in the day - Pointy Haired Boss said: "We need to focus our resources across the board."

    Point taken.

  5. In a previous life, I was a preoperational test engineer for various mechanical systems at a nuclear power plant. Of course, time was of the essence. The plant was years behind schedule, hundred of millions of dollars had been borrowed, daily interest charges were accumulating and no revenue coming in. During testing things failed, design faults were uncovered and workers made stupid mistakes. Work orders were required to fix the equipment. Each work oder was assigned a priority. Do it immediately got a red dot on the front, do it soon got a yellow dot, and routine maintenence got a green dot. Of course green dots never got worked, yellow dots seldom got worked, and everything became red dot work. eventually the red dots overwhelmed to work force so of course the "solution" was to prioritize the red dot work orders and two red dot and three red dot orders became common. It became a shouting match between the test engineers and maintenance managers over what got fixed today. Tomorrow was another day.

    1. Which is almost exactly what happened in the company I describe in the first paragraphs.

  6. I finally retired 6 months ago (test engineer at a electronics contract manufacturer). I wouldn't go back for twice the pay.

  7. One of the start-ups I worked for was run by a guy that had to have been the model for the Pointy Haired Boss, right down to the same inane slogans they both mouthed.

    And he caused this same problem, at the same time, every time, like clockwork.

    He never made it to the "two red dot" stage, though.....