". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Creeping Mediocrity

Does anyone else feel this way?

I am increasingly frustrated by the mediocrity that I see in the quality of products on the market and the level of customer service of their respective vendors. To wit:

1) In December we purchased a new mattress for my daughter's twin bed from the retailer Back to Bed. Yes, it was a lower end store brand. I was not expecting it to last 20 or even 10 years. But after six months, it looks like this:

2) Also in December, we purchased an LG side-by-side refrigerator with through-the-door ice and water. We have already had to request warranty service once because the lever that activates the water and ice was not working. Now the ice dispenser keeps getting caked up and blocked with icy buildup. I called LG and they said our water pressure is too high and to try turning down the flow to the refrigerator. If that doesn't work, they will send a repairman. I am glad they are responsive to my warranty calls. Still, though, two in six months' time does not make me feel great about the product. It also annoys me to have our great water pressure blamed for the poor performance of their product.

3) In August of last year, I purchased a new Compaq laptop. If I don't keep it plugged in all the time, it shuts down. I think it is overheating. Now I am getting messages that the battery has insufficient storage capacity. The computer is under warranty and I plan to request service. But you would think a battery would last at least a year. I have discovered online that the problem I'm experiencing is common with this model.

4) Last month we purchased a used (2008) Town & Country van. Within a week we had to take it to the repair shop because the air conditioning wasn't working. Turns out there had been a repair last year and the previous repair shop overcharged the system, resulting in its shutting down as a safety when it started having to actually work. That was repaired. Now I have discovered several cigarette lighters that are not functioning. (We use them for power sources, not lighting cigaretters.) Additionally, the rubber (plastic?) covering on the back bumper is bowing up in the middle. Looks like another trip to the repair shop is in the cards.

5) A few weeks ago my son's chess bag was stolen at a tournament (it contained a traveling chess set and a $100+ chess clock). We immediately ordered a new one (bag and chess set, not clock--he's going to have to make do with his lower end back up clock for a while) because there is no way around it: he needed a replacement for all the tournaments he has coming up this summer. He found a good deal online and we ordered it. Several weeks passed and we realized it hadn't come. But in the meantime there had been no communication from the company. I went to the website and discovered the bag is on back order. If I had not sought out the information, I would not have known. There was no email to the effect of "Sorry, your item is on back order. We expect it to be available in four weeks." I have called the vendor once and sent two emails, but there has been no response other than the automatic one their email system kicks back. At this point I need to cancel the order (my credit card has not been charged yet) so that we can do business elsewhere. But I can't even get enough response to do that.

6) We recently switched our ISP from Comcast to ATT. We were experiencing repeated service interruptions with Comcast that were not being addressed. As requested, we mailed the Comcast equipment in our possession back to Comcast in the postage-paid and addressed Priority Mail envelopes they provided. Now they are billing us over $500 for the equipment that they say has not been returned. I guess they think that after 10 years of being Comcast customers we owe them a parting gift.

Just so you don't think I'm a total curmudgeon, I will say that I do like T-Mobile. And so far ATT has been great. And we have the awesomest handyman in the world. If I could clone him I would be a millionaire. No complaints there.

But on balance, it seems that we have had more than a normal share of problems with retailers. What do you think? Does this list seem excessive to you? Has it always been this way, and it just seems more pronounced to me right now because we have done a lot of purchasing this year? Or is this a sign of the "dumbing down" of the market when it comes to product quality and customer service?

Or maybe it's just that we aren't rich enough to afford quality.


Ewe said...

We live in a rural area so we don't have a lot of choice for which cell phone service we have etc., so we live with what we have available. We buy a lot online because it's easier than getting 3 to 4 hours to the store. We have had to return some things recently and had great service with the companies.
One thing I can think of that we've had problems with is I bought some canning jars last year and used them once and then used them again this year. My first batch of jam this year I had 2 out of 12 jars break while they were being processed and I did everything the same as I have always made jam. I just think they don't make canning jars like they used to. That's ridiculous to buy canning jars and only be able to use them once!
We've also had customer service problems with the church copier. We don't even have any problems but they keep calling us and of course the person calling us does not speak English as his first language. He doesn't understand that the church doesn't have a phone and our house with the phone doesn't have the copier. "Just give me the model number..." I can't because I'm not leaving my sons to do something that I don't even think is necessary.

Susan said...

I think what you're describing is very common. We've seen the same thing.

I think, yes, it's getting more common than it was. I think (?) it's a response to the consumers' insatiability. (Of course, that is, in part, created by the advertisers and manufacturers.) Because people-in-general get tired of their things (clothes, bathrooms, kitchen pots, cars, etc) they keep buying new. Now, if you're going to remodel your bathroom every 10 years instead of every 60, you're not going to want to invest much money in quality. So the manufacturers dumb down what's available so as to keep the prices in line with what people are willing to pay.

This all means that somebody like me (who wants to buy a product that will last a VERY long time) has to pay a whole whole lot, not to mention how hard it is to find something of high quality.

The real bummer is when you decide to spend more money, hoping that your item might last 3 years instead of 6 months, and then find that paying more for higher quality didn't gain you anything! It almost makes me think I should always buy the cheap stuff because the expensive stuff doesn't seem to be faring any better. And yet, then I find an item (say, a boombox that I think should last 10 years but expect only 5-7 years) lasts not 3 years but less than 1. Right now I just keep thinking we're going to have to live without a lot of stuff we have heretofore taken for granted, because we can't keep replacing things every year.

Phillip Magness said...

I think it is mainly because of the change in public education from a model of incubating civic virtue to a theraputic model of "community building" and socialization.

Kids are not pushed to strive for excellence nor are they held accountable anymore. Grade inflation, situational ethics, and the self-esteem movement all combine to create workers who EXPECT to be praised for whatever they do and expect that if there is some of problem it is as much the fault of the person pointing to the problem as the person creating the problem.

Case in point from my day yesterday: I ordered eggs over-medium at the Holiday Inn's restaurant at Denver International. It is a very nice hotel, so I thought they could handle this. The waiter brought out eggs that were over easy - and almost cold. I sent them back, and explained that I had ordered over medium, and explained that to me this means the yokes don't run all over the place. Because it takes time to cook eggs over-medium properly (lest the whites get cripsy from over-heating), I instructed the waiter to just have the cook scramble me the eggs.

A few minutes later, he brought back three fried eggs, with very burnt whites. I said, "hey, I just wanted them scrambled", to which the young waiter replied indignantly: "Those are over-medium!" and walked off. I tried the eggs. The whites were burnt to a crisp - and yet the yolks were runny. Clearly, the cook just revved up the heat to get "eggs over medium" out in a hurry.

The incompetent cook one may have found anywhere - though in previous economic downturns the quality of such workers went up due to more skilled workers available for such jobs. But the waiter is emblamatic of our age: because I started to complain a second time, *I* became the problem in his mind.

Fortunately, the manager of the hotel thought otherwise.

But soon, I fear, the manager of the hotel will be someone who had theraputic education, and I'll just be told "that's how we do them here."

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...

Phillip, I'm happy to see there's someone else out there who appreciates that over-medium is the perfect fried egg, but it's nearly impossible to find done well. I usually order it with the expectation that I'll end up with either over-easy or over-hard, so on the rare occasions it comes out just right, it's a real treat.

That aside, I agree that the values system pushed in our schools (and by the popular culture more broadly) is inimical to good customer service, among other things. When students spend 12 years being evaluated on completion alone, it's quite an adjustment to a customer service realm, where quality of service is paramount.

Elephantschild said...

I think Susan's on to something. The market is responding to consumer behavior.

I watch Craigslist's "Materials" and "Appliances" and "Furniture" categories. It's absolutely shocking how many perfectly good washers, dryers, dishwashers, how much barely used living room furniture, how many entire sets of nearly-new kitchen cabinetry is discarded for pennies on the dollar or for free simply because the owner changed the color of the room or "got tired of it."

Why on earth would manufacturers drive up the cost of their items with higher quality for people who treat durable goods as disposable?

Cheryl said...

Honey (that would be Phillip, in case anyone's wondering), I think we need to have BCPRS over for eggs the next time he's in Illinois.

And Jenny, what you describe strikes me as a sort of chicken and egg thing. Manufacturers make lesser quality stuff because of our disposable society (and you can read into that phrase whatever you want), but then people throw stuff away because it's so cheaply made that it's not worth repairing. And so on, and so on, and so on . . .

We bought a lot of stuff this year because it seemed a lot of stuff finally played out. (That happens when you've been married for almost 25 years.) But our general approach is to hang on to stuff for a long, long time. We still have our first television set, bought when we married in 1987. RCA. One repair in the late 90s. Going strong ever since. Last year we threw away the most recent set we had bought. It was just a few years old. Cheaper to throw it away and buy another one than go through the hassle of fixing it (and then, with today's level of competence, not even be sure how long the repair is going to last).

Elephantschild said...

We haven't had the experience with stuff breaking that you guys have had. I don't know why that is. Perhaps because we just so rarely ever buy NEW products; we're much more likely to hunt down a used whatever-it-is. And of course, used things are of that older construction that you're saying is of higher quality.

We've had very good luck picking the lowest-end/entry level model of the highest-quality brand available. (That's what we did when we bought a Select Comfort bed.) When that's not an option (and it rarely is) we buy used "high quality." But that means work - searching, hunting, and most often, waiting and going without entirely until the thing is found. :(

Elephantschild said...

PS I think my brain couldn't handle Philip and my dear brother Rock Snake in the same room. I'm sure the intellectual level (and passion, should the conversation turn to global politics) of the ensuing conversation would melt my brain.

Susan said...

EC, that'd be real global warming.

Phillip said...

The egg thing is probably the ONLY way I am like Keemi (or however it was spelled) from LOST:

"Want some eggs? I make some pretty good eggs...."

Any of you are all welcome to come over any time for breakfast. It's my favorite meal.

(btw, I think it was very wise that God did not allow beagles to talk. All they'd say is "LET'S HAVE BREAKFAST!" over and over again.....)

G. Ames said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cheryl said...

Susan, indeed.

BCPRS, you really need to come to Chicagoland the next time you are in Illinois. All the over medium eggs you want . . . and they're farm fresh, free range to boot!

Elephantschild said...

I think it was very wise that God did not allow beagles to talk. All they'd say is "LET'S HAVE BREAKFAST!" over and over again.

That, or "Rabbit. Rabbit. Rabbit! RABBIT! RABBIT! RABBIT!"

Dana said...

I am glad to see someone else discussing how cheaply made things are. I see this with shoes-not just the low-end ones. My husband and I used to replace the soles of our shoes instead of buying a new pair. The shoes are not worth it now (if anyone even would know how to replace the sole of a shoe), and the heels wear down much faster than they used to! Frustrating!