The Seattle Times has an interesting article about the ultra-low priced DVD players on the market. No-name DVD players were available on sale before Xmas for under thirty dollars, and they’re still under forty dollars if you look around.

Surprisingly, the article concludes that quality and performance are perfectly good, on a par with the name brand players selling for twice as much – which might have been assembled on the same factory line with the same parts.

The same principles apply to almost every category of consumer electronics, from TVs to digital cameras: dramatic price cuts on increasingly standard components, with reasonable quality and reliability. Expect prices on DVD recorders to drop this year for the same reasons.

There is a hidden cost, of course. These components are sold on razor-thin profit margins, or even as loss leaders. The pressure to cut costs is felt at every step. WalMart is driven to pay rock-bottorm wages to its employees. Domestic manufacturers cannot compete, while overseas factories rely on near slave-labor working conditions.

The article’s conclusion bears repeating:

“The deep discounts, then, come with a cost we don’t see: no more mom-and-pop electronics stores in the United States, and no assembly-line workers in China able to enter that country’s growing middle class.

“On a practical level, I have no problem recommending no-name DVD players for connecting to an average television set that’s 32 inches or smaller. However, if you’ve just spent $5,000 for a 50-inch plasma screen and $3,000 on a room-rocking sound system, it’s obviously worth spending a few dollars more for a brand name.

“On an emotional and political level, I’m not sure where all this is headed or what consumers can do. You can’t vote with your dollars. All DVD players are now made in China, so there’s no “Made in the U.S.A.” option.

“If we all stopped buying DVD players tomorrow, conditions in China would probably get worse rather than better.

“Maybe, in the end, it’s enough to be aware of what’s happening behind the scenes as we enjoy this cornucopia of bargains.”

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