Saving the Day: One Repair at a Time

The weak economy is prompting many consumers to cut back on spending; leading to an increase in the number of people having items repaired rather than buying new ones.

If you have been around long enough—in your forties—you remember a time when your parents would take some small household item, like the toaster, to the repair man, rather than throw it out and get a new one. For those who grew up in the first half of the 20th Century, whose lives were informed by the Great Depression, things had value and throwing something out and buying a new one was just a waste.

Eventually, all of that changed: By the Eighties, people were bemoaning the fact that we had moved to a throw-away society, a time when it was simply too expensive to fix many of the things that our parents and grandparents had thought nothing of having repaired. Part of that was the time and parts cost of the repair man, but a bigger part was the planned obsolescence of many products, an idea that caught traction in the 1920s where the manufacturer designed things to last a certain amount of time before you would have to buy a new one. For a long time, fixing it was a viable option, but as cheaper components led to cheaper merchandise, the costs of repair became prohibitive. We were living in a boom time and people could better afford to just replace something that had broken rather than paying to have it fixed.

By all indications, those good times are over and today’s generation is relearning the lessons of its forefathers—that things have value and that you can get them fixed. The recession—and the new thrift it has forced on American society—has brought about resurgence in the repair service business. Cars, homes, computers, shoes, appliances—all sorts of things—are now going in for repairs when quite recently they would have been traded in or thrown into the garbage. The economics of that are plain, but another question, especially relevant today, is: Will this lead to a truly “greener” economy?

Growth in the Repair Business

Big ticket items, cars televisions and computers, things traditionally identified with making the same purchase over and over as technology changes, are seeing a big up tick in the number of units being repaired versus the purchase of new ones. According to a study by Sageworks, while auto dealership sales declined by 9.7 percent over the last 12 months, repair shop sales increased by 2.4 percent. This is just part of a trend toward increased time and money being spent on maintenance rather than new purchases. Also, consider some of the key findings of the 3M Car Care Elbow Grease Economics Survey:

Seventy-seven percent of car owners plan to hang on to their current vehicles with 31% percent planning to drive their cars until the wheels fall off and 46 percent planning to keep their car as long as it runs well and looks good. Only 4 percent of car owners say they plan to buy another car regardless of the economy and 11% percent are prepared to buy another car as soon as they can afford it.

That is a major change from the mindset that told us we had to trade in for a new model every couple of years, but it is not limited to automobiles. In housing where, for a long time, a house was seen more as an investment than a home, revenue for electricians, plumbers and heating contractors has increased by 4.6 percent while home builders’ sales have dropped more than 5 percent. The picture here is clearly one of consumers turning away from large purchases in favor of maintaining what they already own.

Regarding the computer repair market, Daniel Hand of The National Association of Computer Repair Business Owners said, “Typically, people are more willing to put money into maintaining their computers. They would rather do that than have to purchase new ones at this time. Typically, repairs are not that expensive anyway, but when the economy is pretty good then it’s a toss up to fix or get a new one. But at this time, spending a few hundred dollars more for a new one does make a different to people.”

Computers, cars and houses are not the only equipment getting a new dose of TLC. Televisions and other consumer electronics—once at the forefront of the throw-away culture—are being given new life as well at the hands of companies like BK-7 Service, and its owner, Frank Moreno. Located in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, BK-7 offers electronics repair, specializing in television and video equipment, radios and microwave ovens. What sets him apart from his competition is the rather old-fashioned, customer-centric way he goes about his business—in-home repairs—and the way he looks at his profession in today’s economy.

“A couple of years ago, I was thinking of downsizing,” said Moreno, noting the change in the volume of his repair work. “Now, I’m glad I didn’t. Where people would just throw a perfectly good TV away, now they are choosing to fix it.” This is a trend that Moreno sees in many areas of the economy, not just electronics. “People are fixing their cars, their computers—everything! They are trying to buy time on what they have so they don’t have to spend money on a new unit. It’s also a trend he hopes to see continue well beyond the current economic unpleasantness. “I hope this trend of repairing rather than replacing continues. After all, that whole ‘throw-away society’ is what got us into this predicament in the first place. I hope everyone has learned from their mistake.”

Fix-it Shops: The Green Alternative

That notion of a collective lesson learned is an undercurrent to the whole recession-enforced shift away from the throw-away culture of the last 30 years. The mistake, as Moreno sees it, is the planned obsolescence of the things we build, something that laws and regulations have long sought to mitigate, and something that they have failed to entirely stop. Why? Because from a producer’s point of view, pressuring consumers to keep buying the same thing over and over again makes perfect sense. Still, economically satisfying as that approach to manufacturing is, creating jobs and keeping the money flowing, it also demands a great deal of resources that are no longer as readily available as they once were; and it fills-up a lot of landfills. In other words, planned obsolescence, the basis of our throw-away society, is anything but green.

The resurgence of the repair shop in America, and the time you can buy for your appliance or computer or car before having to go out and get a new one, are likely to do more for the environment than any regulatory scheme the government can cobble together. True, if it catches on again as it once did, industrial output would dwindle a bit, but parts manufacturing would increase and, more to the point, jobs would appear on Main Street, jobs based in saving what we already have and making the best use of it. Isn’t that what “green jobs” are all about?

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Reader Comments

Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 2:04 PM
Dan Brown says:
What always works and keeps working in any economy ? BIG OIL, take 1/2 of foreign big oil out of the equation by using our natural gas resources that are already tapped and capped, convert all our gasoline vehicles to LP deliver with my down sized pump trucks and we just employed 15 million people over night, and created use for our commidity LNG, pay down our national deficit and pay for the new health care, get our feet back on the ground vote out all the existing corrupt senators and congressmen, put in all new responsible politicians eliminate special interest buy ins and we're good to go again, not to mention we just cut carbon emissions by 70% in the US,, BUT I tried and big oil blocks the way every time,,,, good luck, call me i'll explain how it works 717-557-1383,, Dan

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