The commoditization of the hardware store, and of our future

I had the opportunity to spend most of this week at the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, and was unprepared for what I saw there. Upon reflection, it should have been obvious that anyone in any country can buy a metal forge and a plastic molding device, but it was still startling to walk the aisles — and this conference took up the entirety of the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Convention Center — and find vendor after vendor after vendor offering the very same products with almost identical packaging.
Organized by nation, the Taiwanese vendors, the Indian vendors, the Chinese vendors, the Thai vendors, the Hong Kong vendors, all had crescent wrenches, screwdriver sets, hammers, and drill bits, by the thousand. They also had lawn care products, household appliances, blenders, paring knives, mixing bowls, dishware, and on and on.
The buyers, the primary customer for the show, were companies like Home Depot, Lowes and the many independent franchises of Ace Hardware, among over 50,000 attendees.
All left to pick through the bones of a completely commoditized industry…

trade show floor

Image from Popular Mechanics

While there were unique products and companies that had strong brands at the show, there were also hundreds of foreign nationals carefully poring over the exact details of each item, measuring it, and stepping away from the booth to write down specifications. Clearly market leadership lasts as long as it takes for these engineers to get back to their factories and work out the manufacturing details.
Consider the Popular Mechanics Best Of Show awards pages. What’s really new? What on their list cannot be manufactured by another company at a lower per-item cost within just a few months? And do you really think that international trademark, copyright and patent laws are going to have sufficient teeth to stop this evolution of the industry?
My interest isn’t so much in what’s going to be on the shelves next summer at McGuckin, our local hardware store, but rather what does it mean to have a retail business, a business where you’re selling products from other companies, in the twenty-first century?
I imagine a world where anything you have on the shelf, anything you may list in your online product catalog, can be sourced from another company for less, an overseas company that you haven’t yet heard of, but will certainly be hearing more from in the next few months or years.
One possible future has innovation and novelty produced here in the United States, in the European Union, but every single item, hardware or software, product or service, ultimately has a finite lifespan, a short period of time when the new truly is new, before the engineers who pore over new products master the art of duplication and undercut the price, improve the distribution channels, and push the original manufacturer out of business completely.
Or is there another way that this might play out? What do you think?

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