Shredders satisfy the need to end paper trail

Security: The devices have become a must-have in some homes and offices as everyday folks seek to protect their privacy.

February 14, 2000|By Stuart Silverstein | Stuart Silverstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Ever since an unknown thief ran up thousands of dollars in charges on her family's credit card, Cathy Chung has worried about snoops and criminals who snatch private information from the unsuspecting.

"You have people going through trash cans. Nothing is safe any more," said Chung, a stay-at-home mother of three.

That explains one of her first purchases for the study of her new Los Angeles home: a $35 paper shredder.

The personal shredder has emerged as a common business tool and home appliance -- you have your toaster, your power drill, your shredder -- and that says plenty about the world we live in.

For its growing ranks of enthusiasts, the shredder has become a cheap and satisfying way to register a protest against a society that is strangling them in paperwork, invading their privacy and making their lives more complicated.

Fellowes Manufacturing Co., a leading maker of personal shredders, estimates that nearly 7.8 million of the devices were sold last year, up from about 100,000 in 1990. They're sold everywhere, from supermarkets to Bloomingdale's, as well as at office-supply stores.

"I like to stick papers in our office shredder just to watch it," admitted Richard A. Feinberg, an expert in social and consumer psychology at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind. "There's a certain perverse pleasure in watching things get shredded."

Some users even enjoy the grinding noise their machines make while chewing up paper. As Eddie Wright of Simi Valley, Calif., who sells shredders for an office-supply chain, explained: "It's like a bug zapper."

More important, perhaps, the shredder gives people the feeling that they have regained some ground in a heretofore losing battle to keep their private information private.

Although many privacy advocates recommend shredding, there are so many other ways to get information on people nowadays that turning your bills, credit card slips and bank account statements into confetti every month may not be accomplishing much.

Behavioral experts say there might be other, more personal explanations for the urge to shred: a touch of paranoia, or a desire to feel important.

"There's nothing that people do that has a one-line explanation," said social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif.

"That's what makes for a successful product: when you can satisfy more than one need at a time. A good car is not just one you go to the office with, but also one you can show off."

And how might a personal shredder feed an ego?

"The shredder is another level of, 'Look how important I am. I have these sensitive documents here that I have to tear up in little pieces because people want to know what I'm thinking,' " said Gerald Celente, director of Trends Research Institute, a consulting and publishing firm.

"This is the office equivalent of the electric can-opener," scoffed Celente.

Shredding once was performed exclusively by costly, heavy-duty machines owned mostly by businesses or governments. But a new market was created about 10 years ago when smaller, cheaper machines -- so-called personal shredders -- were introduced.

They sell on average for about $50, with prices ranging from less than $15 to as much as $250. Costlier machines generally are sturdier, devour more paper in a single pass and reduce the documents to confetti, rather than the thin strips produced by cheaper shredders.

Personal shredding is a logical offshoot of the "information destruction" industry that has grown up to meet the needs of business, government and other institutions.

Their fodder is not merely private documents, but society's vast stores of unwanted or illegal paper: everything from overprinted sports trading cards to shopping coupons to pornography seized by police. Even outdated vitamins are run through the machines.

The roughly 600 document-destruction contractors across the country took in about $400 million last year, double the level of eight years earlier, according to estimates by Robert J. Johnson. He is the founder of a Washington-based industry trade group, the National Association for Information Destruction.

One of the biggest companies in the commercial shredding industry is Burlingame, Calif.-based Instashred Security Services Inc., owned by investors Don R. Thorne and Issie Rabinovitch. Although a modest-sized operation with annual revenue of about $30 million, it has expanded by buying smaller contractors around the country.

The real shredding boom, however, has come on the personal side of the business.

During the recent holiday shopping season, personal shredders were a hot gift item at many stores.

At its "early bird" sale the day after Thanksgiving, Staples offered a five-sheets-at-a-time machine for just $20 -- a markdown of more than 40 percent. At the store in the Woodland Hills community of Los Angeles, all 22 machines in stock were snapped up in less than two hours.

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