I bought a toaster today.
I didn’t want to buy a toaster today. About ten years ago I paid $60 for what appeared to be a rather high-end Krups model in accordance with my normal strategy of “pay for quality so you won’t have to replace for a good long time”, an upper-middle-class heuristic that I learned at my mother’s knee to apply to goods even as mundane as light kitchen appliances.
I had reason for hope that I would get a well-extended lifeline for my money. I recalled the toasters of my childhood, chrome and Bakelite battleships one just assumed would last forever, being passed down generations. “Luke, this toaster belonged to your father…an elegant weapon from a more civilized age.”
Alas, it was not to be.
The Krups, though it appeared well-constructed, had a fatal design flaw I had not seen in any toaster of my previous acquaintance. It was a misfeature of the dingus I thought of as “the slider”, a pair of aluminum slats with protruding little flaps on which the bread actually sits inside the slots. This is the interior part attached to the spring-loaded thingummy you push down to begin the toasting operation.
The slider was (a) made of excessively thin aluminum or mild steel, and (b) further misdesigned so that it would sometimes jam in the guide channel on the rear end of each toaster slot (intended to guide it straight up and down) and bend slightly. After a couple of these regrettable incidents, the tongue on the rear end of the slider would pop out of the guide channel and jam against the rear wall of the slot, with the slider compressed into an unpleasing serpentine shape.
I soon lost count of the non-enjoyable hours I spent fishing inside the slots with a pair of long-nosed pliers, forcing the slider tab back into its guide channel and then trying to hand-straighten the slider, cursing sulphurously the while. I would always succeed to a degree, but it was never possible to completely de-serpentinize the sliders; the result would remain ever so slightly more hinky than when I started. I could always see the day coming when the sliders would become so spavined that further intervention would avail me not.
That day was today; specifically during my wife’s Cathy’s attempt to fix her breakfast. Mine, a half-hour earlier while she slept in, had gone fine, but… “Love, would you please fix the toaster?” I got all armed up to be the hero again, but struggle as I might, I couldn’t unjam the device. Der Tag had finally arrived.
So we hied ourselves to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond. And now unfolds the burden of my tale. For there I was again faced with the choice of where to land on the price curve. There was an array of toasters before me priced from $19.99 to over $100. Go high, hoping to buy longevity, or go low and treat the thing as a throwaway?
And then, and then, I had a rush of engineer to the brain and realized that what I ought to be doing is inspecting the part that failed – the sliders – on all of them, and choosing for the most rugged-looking one not mounted in a toaster with glaringly obvious defects. So, I narrowly inspected the sliders on, I think, seven toasters – several major brands and one obvious house brand.
How did I know what I was looking at? Why, a quick look at the Consumer Reports website on my smartphone. Which told me the assemblage before me included at least two models with high ratings.
My friends, the sliders were all effectively identical, bar the one pair that was slightly longer to fit a toaster with extra-long slots. Same nondescript thin white metal, same shape and spacing of flaps. They looked like they all might have been designed on the same CAD program and built by the same no-name appliance OEM (“Welcome to the Malaysian assembly plant of Oh Shit Housewares, HQ in Taiwan”).
Suspicions aroused, I flipped over several toasters and peered at the end consumers don’t usually look at. A lot of the design details on the plastic bases were pretty similar, also the fasteners looked pretty much alike.
The sad truth about toasters: they’re completely genericized, built strictly for lowest Bill of Materials to standard designs that are differentiated by surface details that don’t have a lot to do with their actual function. I’m now convinced that I would have seen little more variation anywhere I went unless it was to a specialty store catering to the restaurant and luxury trade at $$$ high prices.
It’s no great mystery why this happened. Efficiency is a harsh mistress – I mean look at the automobiles one sees on the road these days. Within any given form factor they’ve become mostly nigh-indistinguishable except by paint job and some trim details. As with toasters, there was more variation in product when I was a kid.
So, if I were an idiot, I might launch into a rant about how capitalism flattens everything into cheap popular mediocrity. I’m not an idiot; that process is why nominally poor people in the U.S. can have a lot of nice things. It’s a good trend, as long as specialty providers for the discriminating still exist. And that’s a viable market niche, too.
I shrugged and bought the cheapest possible toaster – $16.45 with discount. Took it home. Checked that it would deal with thick slices of the Tuscan garlic boule I eat with breakfast. It works fine.
Now I’ll go research where to buy a really durable one when this throwaway craps out. Suggestions welcome.