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The DIY economy

One of the best examples of industrial self-sufficiency was the Ford motor company. Their Rouge web site tells us that:

“Henry Ford’s ultimate goal was to achieve total self-sufficiency by owning, operating and coordinating all the resources needed to produce complete automobiles. His Ford Motor Company once owned 700,000 acres of forest, iron mines and limestone quarries in northern Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Ford mines covered thousands of acres of coal-rich land in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Ford even purchased and operated a rubber plantation in Brazil. To bring all these materials to the Rouge, Ford operated a fleet of ore freighters and an entire regional railroad company.”

This was in the 1920s; latterly of course we have seen an industrial trend in the opposite direction where non-core tasks are outsourced in both the public and private sectors.

Over the same period the domestic trend has moved in the opposite direction. In the 1920s it was likely that households of quite modest means would employ domestic help. This was a time when heating would be by coal fires, which would need to be kindled and fed all day; most laundry would be done by hand; and refrigerators would be a luxury. Since then the ready availability of white goods has led to the end of domestic service and households taking on these tasks.

The concept of DIY – do it yourself – originated home improvements some 50 years ago. TV programmes featured adept craftsmen demonstrating easy ways of putting up a block of shelves (older readers may remember the able and persuasive Barry Bucknell) or other fixtures and fittings.

It may be no coincidence that the first supermarkets opened in the UK at much the same time. Until then, when you went into a shop, you asked for the items that you needed at a counter; the assistant would either get them for you or suggest alternatives if they didn’t have in store what you wanted. Products were rarely pre-packaged and so the assistant might also have had to weigh out and pack each item. You might also have needed to go to different shops for different food items – the baker, the butcher, the grocer and so on. This made the process time-consuming and labour intensive, but also provided the opportunity for a lot of social interaction.

The supermarket extended the DIY concept; the shopper replaced the shop assistant, becoming a stock picker and now, with the use of scanning technology, a check out operative. Being only an occasional visitor to a supermarket, with a simple list of things to buy, it now takes me a long time to figure out where the supermarket has located them, and I usually have to resort to finding an assistant, who then has to find another assistant who might know. And, to keep experienced shoppers on their toes, the supermarket reorganises regularly the layout of the store.

In other words, the DIY trend means that many businesses have now outsourced tasks to the customer that would previously have been carried out by their own, perhaps more competent, staff.

In another industry this was brought home to me on a recent short haul flight when I had to complete the tasks of checking in and baggage labelling myself. It was clear that a lot of passengers wanted to avoid this whole process by travelling only with carry-on luggage, but, as expected, this then led to the usual long wait to disembark the plane while they tried to find and manhandle obviously very heavy baggage. My own view of carry-on luggage is that it is like using the glove compartment in your car to carry your cases.

DIY has carried out the shift towards  disintermediation: we now book flights ourselves rather than go through a travel agent, and we buy many domestic items online rather than through shops.

So what next? I wanted to finish this blog with an insightful, far-seeing view of where the DIY economy might lead us. But I’ve no idea. Perhaps our readers might volunteer their opinions on the subject.

Calvert Markham

Monday 18th October 2021
Hands on typewriter