Diversity of Choice

On Black Friday two years ago, my now wife and I were at Target when we spotted a coffee burr grinder for much less than I expected. I had shopped for them in the past, and the "recommended" one was over $100, whereas the one we were seeing came in much cheaper—somewhere in the neighborhood of $30.

Now, I didn't expect much out of it, except for it to be a bit more reliable than the cheap bladed coffee/spice grinder I had picked up in 2009. We tossed it in the cart, and bought it along with the rest of our stuff. (Black Friday is seriously a good time to pick up household goods, because while everyone else is looking at cheap TVs you have full run of the entire store.)

We've been using it mostly without incident over the past two years. I say mostly, because I had to order a new hopper after a bit of plastic broke off bottom, where the stationary cutting face is screwed into the plastic. I tossed the broken chunk and the loose screw, and used it for the week it took the replacement part to come in.

Well, in the past month, the grinder began to shut itself off a couple seconds into each cycle. I can't decide what causes this, and the manual isn't much help: the only non-idiot troubleshooting step is that maybe the thermal fuse is tripping, which I could believe based on our non-standard duty cycle (we typically grind enough coffee for the week all in one go) or the location we store the grinder (right above the radiator, which is always super-hot as is the norm for Manhattan). After unplugging it for a couple hours at a time between grinds, the behavior persisted, albeit inconsistently.

So what? I knew the grinder was cheap, and I'm no dummy—when an American company sells me an appliance for $30, I understand that part of that bargain is that it uses the cheapest possible parts in the cheapest possible configuration. Still, we had gotten two+ years out of the thing, which works out to an amortized cost of probably $0.25 per pound of ground coffee—not bad, considering that ~fresh ground coffee is often cheaper, and certainly more delicious (and contains fewer bug parts) than pre-ground.

I figured, though, that I could save some money by opening the grinder up and looking for simple faults. I wasn't going to commit more than an hour to this endeavor, as the value of the grinder is so low, and I'm not about to spend more fixing something than it's worth. So, tools in hand, I dug into the internals, and got to see just how the thing was constructed.

Spoilers: it's cheap, and the general idea can be understood by a clever high school student. There is a board that controls the switching for the motor, a number of safeties that stop power if e.g. the hopper is out of place, and a small mechanical control wired up to a ~pot to control grind time. Everything else is physical structure meant to keep all this stuff in the right place, and there are none of the space-saving measures or plastic tabs that make working on consumer electronics so frustrating most of the time.

Well, for better or worse, I couldn't repair it in the hour I allotted (and actually left it worse off than before—the motor no longer engages at all). I suspect the thermal fuse is permanently tripped, or half-tripped, and the motor assembly's construction—as a collection of parts connected as cheaply as possible—means that it would be tremendously difficult to find it and … do anything. I may keep it around as a hobby project for later, when I want to kill an afternoon, but as it turns out there's another reason for me to keep it around.

Have you heard of white label goods? Basically, they're products that are produced on spec by factories, and then other companies come in and either add to them or simply package them up and sell them. White labels have become more popular thanks to Ali(baba/express) and drop shipping, but they have a long history.

As an example, back in the day I used to perform a lot of hard drive surgeries, for myself or as favors to others who were migrating computers or afraid of data loss. I wanted a very particular set of features: external power (because some USB ports didn't offer enough power to drive all hard drives), SATA inside, Firewire ports, and a metal case.

There was exactly one product that fit the bill. But that's not true, because there were actually three or four that fit the bill, but they were all sold by different US companies, but it was clear that ignoring labels and boxes these were all the same product. So I just bought from the one company that seemed the most reputable, and was happy.

The thing about white label goods is that they don't only appear in consumer purchases. I had a cheap Acer monitor start misbehaving, and it was clear upon opening it up that the problem was actually a power board (supplied by, I believe, Westinghouse) with some victims of the capacitor plague on it. It wasn't a good enough monitor to justify sourcing the parts for repair, but I could have easily opened up just about any other flat panel monitor of approximately the same vintage and found an equivalent board inside.

For commodity electronics, as for software, it often doesn't make sense to engineer your own solution when someone else has made a part that does 90% of what you need for a fraction of the price (specialization and economies of scale, yo). So while I understand the motivation to source parts like this, it's still weird to think that there are probably "good" monitors out there that use the same crappy PSU as commodity products that cost 1/4 the price.

Anyway, back to the grinder. Mr. Coffee (the maker of the first grinder) is owned by Jarden, which is a subsidiary of Newell Rubbermaid (now Newell Brands). The grinder that I was eyeballing to replace it is Amazon's best seller, available wherever disposable appliances are sold, made by Cuisinart (owned by Conair). Anyone who's read this far will be able to guess at the punchline, and at why I mentioned the parent companies of each brand.

When I got my new grinder home, I noticed that it felt familiar. Well, it turns out that the internals—the wiring, the position of the safety switches, the size of the coffee chutes, the grinding face—are all exactly the same between the Mr. Coffee and the Cuisinart.

… So, I guess I'm going to keep the Mr. Coffee around for parts.

There is no real consumer choice.