Grist Columnist: Dollars & Sense

It’s an upside-down world these days: “no country for old men” to borrow the title of Cormac McCarthy’s book, which itself came from an old poem. Everything is changing. Whatever we’ve thought about business, we have to think again, and likely as not, we’re still wrong!

In the sewing world, the only thing constant is change anyway. Not that anything changes about taking a needle and thread to fabric to make a stitch, but the creations we dream up and manufacture are never static. If you don’t keep up with fashion and technology, you soon go the way of the dinosaurs.

But these days running a business in this industry, and probably any industry, seems like trying to walk on quicksand. Prices are changing. Labor is changing. Competition is changing. Sources of supply are changing. The rules are changing. And all this is happening fast!

Even the idea that to stay in business, you need to make a profit has changed. Amazon put the lie to that. It operated for years and years without a profit. It was an upside-down strategy: grow fast enough and big enough, and you never have to make a profit because you destroy all competition. In the process they killed bookstores first, then all kinds of other entrepreneurs including many retailers, boutiques, and name brands. What they couldn’t kill by underselling, they bought out of existence or copied and stole. Still today, they give away the fastest rising cost in business – shipping – and somehow we all subsidize it with the outrageous rates we pay.

But mark my words. Some things never change. He who lives by the sword, dies by it. Amazon and the other new monopolies will collapse under the weight of their own success. And those who have not changed the most basic of rules – get up and get at it every day – will win the day. Maybe not us slowing old folks, but the youngsters we teach. With good cooperation, we can still make dollars and sense out of an upside-down world.

John F. Rebrovick

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