Dan Nielsen: 'Chernobyl' series shows folly of cost-cutting

Dan Nielsen

Saving money is good for both consumer and vendor. But quality is essential.

"The best is the cheapest." — Benjamin Franklin

I have great respect for Mr. Franklin, but his tidbits of wisdom from two centuries ago sometimes oversimplify reality. Cheap merchandise only sometimes performs as intended, or for as long as advertised. Second-rate materials combined with shoddy workmanship rarely produce something with which consumers are satisfied. Merchandise that feels good, performs well and lasts a reasonable period of time makes an enduring impression on consumers.

"Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten." — Gucci family slogan

Most consumers can't afford the best of everything, so we stretch our paychecks as far as we can by balancing cost and quality. We make do with what we can afford. Balance is the key. Companies that crank out better-than-mediocre merchandise can thrive if they set prices fairly.

"Quality is the degree of excellence at an acceptable price." — Robert A. Broh

Acceptable price is, of course, a variable target. When buying an inflatable beach ball, many of us likely swerve toward the bargain bin instead of ordering from the Gucci catalog. But when shopping for a long-term care facility, priorities and expectations are different.

Balancing priorities between cost and value came to mind the other day when my wife and I watched the final episode of HBO's drama miniseries "Chernobyl." Spoiler alert for viewers who haven't yet watched the show: Skip the next couple of paragraphs if you don't know anything about the 1986 nuclear disaster and don't want to ruin your viewing experience.

The punchline of the TV series is that the Soviet government cut corners to save money. It traded safe design for lower cost.

Nuclear power plants are one product in which quality will be remembered long after the original economic price is forgotten. Chernobyl stands as one of the planet's most horrible examples of disastrous cost-cutting.

Products that hold the potential to kill should be designed and built well. Products that hold merely the potential to disappoint don't need to be designed or built nearly so well.

That doesn't mean, though, that price can completely dominate over quality, even for inconsequential products. Consumers balance the two in every buying decision.

When I need new socks, I tend to seek out a competitive price. Sure, the resulting choice sometimes wears out quickly. But in my experience, socks that cost twice as much don't last twice as long. So I believe I'm saving money by going the cheap route. And no nuclear disaster clouds the future of my feet.

More durable goods, though, tend to swing my personal pendulum toward the quality side.

I own an old bicycle that I'll probably never sell. Its quality speaks to me. I bought a 1983 Schwinn Sierra when it was three years old and already a bit banged up. As best I can tell, it was Schwinn's first production mountain bike. The sport of mountain biking was only a handful of years old in 1983, and Schwinn jumped on the bandwagon by modifying its heavy but durable welded steel frame to accept wider tires and cantilever brakes.

The catalog that year called the Sierra, "An all terrain bicycle with quality features, but at an affordable price."

The original Chestnut brown paint is worn through here and there. I've replaced both tires several times, the chain twice and the rear sprocket array once. I'm still struggling to solve a recurring problem with seat posts that bend.

The bike keeps leaving enjoyable miles behind. I still value its degree of excellence. It is a quality product that has withstood the test of time — and the test of my impressive weight (except for those spindly seat posts).

Companies sometimes struggle to find the sweet spot where quality and price balance. It's a moving target because everything is in constant flux: labor costs, material prices, consumer preference. But there always will be a place in the world for a well-made product at an acceptable price.

Contact Business Editor Dan Nielsen at 231-933-1467 or dnielsen@record-eagle.com.