The morning of Sunday, May 27th held great promise for Zack “Scoop” Kramer, Jeff “Woodward” Wald, and Nick “Bernstein” Shurgot. The sun was shining, our bellies were full of doughnuts, and we were retelling stories from the previous night at Chatham’s watering hole, The Squire, aka “The Dirty Bird.”
We strolled into downtown Chatham, MA in hopes of finding a housewarming gift for our friend, Jeff Albee, who recently moved in with Scott Simon. In a quaint fishing village such as Chatham, we were sure we could find a mailbox in the shape of a fish or perhaps a lobster claw oven mitt. Much to our dismay, we were not able to find either. (Note: the words “arts and crafts”, “gift”, “kitsch”, and “crap” are synonymous for the purposes of this article). What we did discover however was a remarkable number of stores selling the exact same types of crap to tourists. Store after store attempted to draw in unwary consumers with catchy names such as “Soft as a Grape”, “Fishysoisse”, “The Cape Cod Craftsmen”, and “OBD: Old Beach Dog” (of course not to be confused with the talented rapper ODB: Old Dirty Bastard). And no, “The Artful Hand” was not a massage parlor. We asked.
Each of these crap stores had shelves overflowing with trinkets and knick-knacks meant to give the consumer “a little slice of Chatham.” We saw Chatham board games, lemonade pitchers with bumblebee images, shellfish mobiles, Chatham picture frames, and lovely candle/potpourri holder combos. And then there were the lighthouses. Good Lord. You’d think Chatham invented the damn lighthouse by the number and variety of lighthouse-related crap we saw.
As we stood in the center of town, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of crap, we decided to do a five-forces analysis in an attempt to understand the economics of Chatham’s crap industry. We interviewed 15 local shopkeepers about their competitive advantage, their competition, the labor market, and their long-term strategy. What we found was a high-stakes, cutthroat industry where no merchant could expect more than 3% market share. We found Chatham’s crap industry very similar to the PC business, except without all the computers and billionaires and stuff.
While the competition was brutal, it forced local merchants to be creative. One example was a store called “Fish Rubbings.” A local Chatham woman had invested a substantial sum of money in a business based on painting dead fish and pressing that image onto t-shirts, hats, and bags. When we asked her if the fish rubbing process was malodorous, she replied, “Oh no, I flash freeze `em!” and looked at us like we were the dummies. Not quite.
Another local product was the highly controversial bumper-sticker that read, “Chatham: a quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.” While we found the sticker hysterical, the folks at the Chatham Chamber of Commerce were not amused and declined to comment on the town’s alleged drinking problem. While we were not able to come up with any hard facts in only three days, we did notice that the Squire was quite crowded at noon on Saturday and Sunday…
The industry structure of the kitsch industry of Chatham is characterized by many small firms acting as price takers for the given market-clearing price of crap. In essence, as this market is merely functioning as an inventory holding location for future garage sales, there is fierce competition by the stores to differentiate themselves based on the products they carry. At “Eclectic on Main Street” the shopkeeper revealed that, at times, thin margins and product overlap caused shopkeepers to engage in verbal shouting matches with neighbor stores over what perceived unfair selling practices. Although we offered to stone any store she desired, she declined gracefully saying, “This new thermometer is the key to my success. It has a picture of a lighthouse and the actual thermometer is a lobster’s tale that gets longer as the temperature rises. The Dolli Llama can’t hold a candle to this!” We smiled and backed away slowly, making certain not to trip over her crab imitation doorstop.
The Chatham Chamber of Commerce confirmed this picture of intense competition. The majority of businesses fail within two years. Nan, our helpful guide explained, “It’s tough for new businesses to anticipate what crap consumers will throw their hard earned money away on. One year it could be a stuffed whale holding a baseball bat and the next it’s a weathervane of a fisherman steering a boat.” All in all, assuming you hadn’t cleared out your attic or had a garage sale in a couple of years, the only barrier to entry was retail space.
Preferring not to rely on price competition, the Chatham kitsch industry relied on unique items to drive their business. Most purchasing was done at trade shows up and down the East Coast or simply by going through people’s trash and pulling out useless items like fish wind chimes. Examples of unique nonsense abound: “Eclectic on Main Street” was best known for its distinctive, whimsical line of animals made out of shells. For example, a pig made out of shells was known as a “Co-HOG.” Co-hog, get it? As my eyes inadvertently rolled back in my head with a mixture of revulsion and disgust, the shop owner attracted my attention to a mouse made with a mussel and named, appropriately, the “Moussel.” Feeling a bout of nausea approaching, I left the store unsteadily.
The “Blumen Laden” offered a similar perspective on the importance of unique waste for a successful business. Though reluctant to answer our probing questions, the shop worker did stop to show us his signature line of Cape Cod children’s books including such titles as “Stevie B. Seahorse: A Tale of a Proud Papa” and “Oozey Octopus: A Tale of a Clever Critter.” Shakespeare said it best when he penned, “Oh brave new world that has such things in it.”
However, not all shopkeepers were content to buy their garbage from others. Some preferred to waste their own time making crap themselves. At the cleverly named “Chatham Potter” the owner explained that all her products were made in the store where people could waste not only their money, but their time as well, watching her transform useless clay in useless flower urns and vases before their very eyes. “The difference,” she explained, “between my products and the ones you can find at countless other pottery shops, is that my products are more functional. They’re designed for everyday use.” Not meaning to be rude, I asked her if she considered a lobster shaped bowl divided up into the various section of the lobster (claws, stomach, tail) to be more functional than, say, just a regular bowl. Non-plussed by my skepticism she replied, “Well, if you’re having lobster for a party, you can take out all the meat and put it into the appropriate compartment.”
The real power in the Chatham retail market lies with the consumers for one simple reason: all the stores sell the same crap. Most of the sales occur during the in-season months when “outsiders” account for 80% of sales, and 100% of the obvious comments and luxury cars. The changing tastes of the consumer determine which shop has a good year. Are lobster corn holders in this year, or is it going to be lobster oven mitts?
The lack of patience of the consumer was witnessed when this reporter was asking some questions of a shopkeeper, only to hear muttered behind him, “F*ck this, I am not waiting anymore for this sh*t.” As the same sh*t was sold just two doors down, the customer and her family flexed their market power and left. Luckily, the shopkeeper was hard of hearing and did not notice the lost sale slip through her fingers.
Threat of Substitutes:
Another very powerful force is the threat of substitutes. Substitutes abound in Chatham. Because a majority of the tourists are browsing for nothing in particular, pretty much any piece of crap will do. This phenomenon means that everything is a perfect substitute for everything else: candle
-holders, floppy hats, weather vanes, picture frames, you name it. The authors believe that this may be the first market in the history of capitalism where every item is a perfect substitute for every other item. The implications are mind-boggling.
Threat of new entry:
You’d think not, but one can never underestimate the kitsch genius of the residents of Chatham, MA: A drinking village with a crap problem.