Look, I’m no Luddite, but…

Indeed I stand about as far from Luddism as one can do, but there are some aspects of “progress” that aren’t so much “progress” as “pains in the ass”.

This morning, I started looking for an electronic in-wall timer switch to replace the wind-up variety that’s currently running our front hall bathroom fan.  The old one (a 15-minute timer) is getting stuck at 4 minutes almost every time it gets used, suggesting that the spring is wearing out.  Of course there is no way to fix the old one short of replacing it, like any other electrical device you might find in a box in your walls.  So I thought, rather than putting in another spring-loaded one, I’d look to see if I could get one that works like the electronic dimmers and fan controls we have in other rooms, where you turn it on, choose a light level or fan speed that you prefer, and then ever afterward (unless you explicitly make a change) that’s where the light or fan comes on when you click the button.

I found such an animal for bathroom fans:  The Lutron MA-T51, a 60-minute timer with settings of 5-10-15-30-45-60 minutes.  A bit spendy but I expected that.  I have a few of their dimmers and fan controls already, they’re pretty good stuff.  So far, so good.

Now, in our house, we have mostly “ivory” colored switches and receptacles.  We have a few white ones in a couple of areas that were redecorated recently with dark panels and white-painted trim, but the house was built with ivory devices and that’s what we’ve generally replaced broken or worn-out ones with over the years.

It turns out that “ivory” isn’t cool anymore, even though when you walk into Home Depot or Lowe’s or just about any big-box hardware, your default choices tend to be ivory, white, and black.  No, the MA-T51 timer switch, same as the rest of Lutron’s Maestro line, is available in something like 25 different colors, for all y’all who are sensitive to minor interruptions in your taupe or plum or “greenbriar” or “palladium” living room color scheme.  And ivory is NOT the default, although it does appear to be one of the less-expensive variants.

Oh, did I mention?  The fancy colors are more expensive.  And certainly that forces the price of the “standard” color variants up, because instead of just manufacturing three colors and keeping the price point low, suddenly you’re manufacturing 25 colors and economies of scale get defenestrated.  And the “cheap” ivory or white or black model that most people are going to buy ends up carrying some of the load for the special color models that almost certainly lose money.

I will be the last person to say that rich fuckers who can afford over-priced interior decorators can’t have color-coordinated switches and receptacles and dimmers and timers.  But when I want a no-nonsense standard color device that I think in fairness ought to cost about $20, and I have to pay $34 for it because the company that makes it has decided to kowtow to a custom market that frankly barely exists outside of a certain cohort, that pisses me off.

And on top of that, do the local big box hardware stores carry this simple item, even in standard colors?  Fuck no.  “Ship to store”.  Because hardware stores don’t actually carry anything you really want in stock anymore.  They can’t afford to.  They stick this sort of thing in a big regional warehouse somewhere (with Home Depot it appears to be in Ohio, based on the one and only “ship to store” order I’ve placed with them) and then they take a week to 10 days to get it to you.  I’m sure this is in an attempt to compete with Amazon while still maintaining big local stores for “basic” items.*

The problem is, I can get the MA-T51-IV timer switch I want TOMORROW from Amazon if I order within the next hour.  Home Depot says it will take five to six days, so effectively, next week rather than soon enough that I can install it this weekend.  And I have to go to the store to pick it up ($34 doesn’t reach the $45 threshold for free delivery to my home, and I don’t need anything else from HD today.)

The price points being equal, which am I going to do?  Well, duh.

This does not seem to me to be how brick-and-mortar competes with Amazon.  And it’s annoying that every.fucking.time I look something up on Home Depot’s or Lowe’s’ websites, I get told “not in store, can ship to store or deliver to home”.  My needs are not that esoteric.  But the dirty little secret is that big box hardware stores have turned into glorified appliance and decorating stores.  Walk into one and look at how much space is devoted to kitchen and bathroom remodeling, not to mention floor tile and custom blinds and custom doors and windows you can order.  Consider how much actual hardware they could display in those spaces.  And then understand that the dirty little secret is, these stores can’t afford to keep merchandise that doesn’t move on the shelves.  We live in an era of “just in time” logistics.  It is no longer the era of the corner hardware store that had everything, and crammed it all into a double-wide strip center storefront, where you could walk in and find that left-handed whatzit you need (probably blowing the dust off of it when you found it, and finding a price tag from the 1960’s).  Or even the era of the corner hardware store that had everything and crammed it all into an even bigger space (ah, how I miss you, True Value Hardware at 86th and Ditch).

In those days, if you wanted a kitchen appliance, or custom blinds or cabinets, they’d tell you to go to someplace that sold those things.  But you knew that anyway, because places like HH Gregg and Sears and JC Penney still existed.  (Well, Penneys still exists, but who knows for how much longer, and I don’t think they sell appliances anymore.)

Today all that has shifted to “one stop shopping” as has so much else in our lives; and if we need something that is even slightly out of the ordinary, sorry, we don’t have it, but we can get it for you.

I remain unconvinced that we are better off for it.

LATER:  As it turns out, fuck ’em all.  I found the spare Intermatic mechanical timer I bought when the plastic knob on the one in the master bath broke and I couldn’t find a replacement part.  I knew it was around here somewhere but it got buried in my office.


* Wal-Mart, for what it’s worth, does the same thing with a variety of items, including grocery.  We prefer the Peter Pan brand of peanut butter, specifically the 1/3 less sugar “whipped” variety.  They used to carry it on the shelf, the only grocery in our area that did, and then one day, boom, it was off the shelf and in the warehouse.  So we order it six jars at a time now, for pickup at our local Wal-Mart, and it takes a week to get there.  As long as we keep track of our stock and order when we have a couple of jars left, we’re fine.  But I question whether this is truly good customer service.  (On the other hand, it’s Wal-Mart.)