New! Improved! Awful!

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David and I have discussed product manufacturing a lot lately, but we’ve not talked about one reason the makers change things: They think that’s what we want, whether we want it or not.

The classic case, of course, was when the geniuses at Coca-Cola decided that we wanted a new, hipper formulation for Coke. We didn’t. We didn’t want it so much that the company was forced to quickly reintroduce old Coke (rechristened as “Classic” coke). By 2002, New Coke quietly disappeared, with the word “Classic” also eventually disappearing from old Coke. Now, thanks to an outraged public, Coke is the same as it ever was.

But that’s a rare case, actually. Normally, when manufacturers monkey around with their products in an effort to supply what they think we want, there’s not as much uproar. The new-and-improved product loses some loyal customers to competitors, but after a while the newer incarnation becomes ingrained. Eventually, no one remembers that there was an older – and much better – product.

I’ve been wearing Levi’s 505 jeans for decades. A bought a pair a few months ago and was very unhappy with the fit – way too low, too tight in the wrong places, and I just couldn't keep them up. Thank goodness I’m not a plumber.

But a lemon sometimes slips through even with the best products, so I didn’t hesitate to buy another pair last week. The terrible fit was the same. All my older 505s fit fine, but the same size and style of the new ones fit awful. Curious, I Googled it and found that Levi has indeed changed the cut and fit of their 505 jeans. The more than 200 unhappy customer reviews on their website echoed my sentiments exactly. (And before you yell, yes, I tried them on at the store. But with clothes, trying them on for a few seconds is way different from actually wearing them.)

Woodworking manufacturers do this too, of course. And while some of the changes they make are geared toward increasing safety or adding things that should have been there all along, many of the changes are done for New Coke/Levi’s 505 reasons: They want something to be new just for the sake of being new; improved just for the sake of being able to say it’s improved.

All too often, this makes for unhappy customers who preferred it just the way it was.

A.J.

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