Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Quality and its discontents

Yesterday I put on a brand-new black Henley shirt to take my mom out shopping. It looked nice, it smelled nice, and it was comfortable as anything.

Today I wore that same shirt as a junk shirt while mowing two lawns.

When we went out shopping my mom had a stack of coupons for items that she or I might find useful. I sorted through them and pulled out a few that were for products we would probably be buying. Pillsbury Toaster Pastries. Paper towels. Air freshener. Bathroon cleaner.

The bathroom cleaner was a Comet product, the new Mildew Stain Removal Gel. Good, I thought, I can use that. I pulled a bottle off the shelf and put it in the front bottom part of the cart so it wouldn't come in contact with other items.

We bought quite a few things. My mom can always get a lot more stuff when I go with her, simply because there are then no real weight limits on the total purchase - when she's buy herself she can only purchase what she can carry from the car to the house by herself. (Most of the time; sometimes she will just leave heavier non-perishables in her car and let me know that they are there when I get home.) Unloading the cart onto the conveyor belt at the checkout was a trick: usually I just unload things in order from heavy to light, so we're not bagging jars of pickles on top of loaves of bread or dozens of eggs. This time I started with the large, bulky, lightweight paper towels, then moved on to the bottles of soda, some heavy canned goods, and then the air fresheners and cleaning products.

I pulled out the bottle of Mildew Stain Removal Gel and moved to put it on the conveyor and felt something wet. I looked at the bottle. It was leaking along the seam in the plastic along the neck. I had gel - with bleach - on my hands.

I cursed a bit. I had really wanted that stuff. I handed the broken bottle to the cashier, warned her to be careful handling it because it was leaking and needed to be discarded, and stepped out of line to get another one.

I looked down at my chest and saw a wet streak there, about two inches long and a quarter inch wide. As I watched it began to turn deep purple, then red, then pink. My shirt was ruined.

None of the other groceries got gel on them except, somehow, the cans of cat food, which we washed off when we got home.

I was pissed. I had bought two of these black Henleys a few weeks ago, the only ones in the store in my size. They weren't on sale, so I paid full price for them. They're a Fall item, so given that this is October the store has probably pulled all of their old inventory and begun stocking Spring and Summer clothing already. (WTF is up with that, anyway?)

All that happened is my shirt got ruined and some cans of cat food got splashed with bleach. What if there had been a child riding in that cart? What if the gel had gotten on some other food and had gone undetected? (We specifically checked each bag when we got home for any traces of bleach smell.)

Companies are saving money any way they can in response to price pressures from the market. Consumers shop based on convenience, quality, and price - and of the three, price vastly dominates the decision-making equation. While the issue of convenience (or, at least, perceived convenience) is a complex one (customers will buy an inconveniently large or small package of a product if they perceive a cost savings), quality is often the one area where producers find some flexibility. Not always with the products per se - sometimes with other aspects of the product delivery.

Packaging is a big one. If a company is paying five cents per item for a given packaging method and someone comes along with a packaging system that will cost four cents per item, the producer may jump at the nominal 20% savings in packaging and adopt the new method. (When you are moving millions of units each week or each day, a penny savings per unit will quickly add up.) If it later turns out that the new packages have a 25% failure rate - well, those costs can be hidden in a way that upfront costs cannot. Quality, in this case the quality of the product packaging, suffers, but the end result is a less expensive product.

That's what I think happened here. A friend argued that the responsibility for the damaged product - and hence the damaged shit - resided with the supermarket. Either the damage occurred in shipping, in which case it should have been caught while being stocked on the shelves (note: often, supermarket shelf stocking is done by corporate reps for the product, not by store employees!), or the damage occurred after stocking but while it was on the supermarket's shelves. I disagree. Any packaging system should be designed to take into account the hazards associated with shipping, handling, stocking, and rough treatment by shoppers. No product should be packaged in such a way that a breach of the packaging is possible under normal circumstances - more so when something as hazardous as a cleaning product is involved in an environment that includes both food and children.

So I'm going to complain to the manufacturer. Tell them what happened. Send them photos of my shirt. Maybe send them photos of the price tag I just took off yesterday, so they know what the minimum price of my satisfaction is. Complain to them about the race to the bottom when it comes to cutting corners on quality in favor of price. We'll see what they have to say.


joy said...

In my experience, it usually pays to complain. Often manufacturers will send you coupons for free items to encourage you to re-try the faulty item. Whether they will reimburse the cost of your shirt ... I don't know about that. But they SHOULD be falling all over themselves apologizing. Not that they can compensate you for the inconvenience and aggravation.

The ironic evil twin of this phenomenon is the OVER-packaging of so many harmless items. Should we really need a utility knife to open those godawful plastic-covered items shipped to us from China? You know them - the items that you can see but can't remove from their clear protective shell, even with scissors...that leave cut plastic edges sharper than most of the knives in your kitchen drawer. Why don't manufacturers use that sort of protective coating on the exterior of packages containing truly hazardous materials like, oh, let's say BLEACH!!!


whimsicalnbrainpan said...

I hate it when that happens! If it gets stained a color I like I'll do the whole shirt and keep it though.

anne said...

Here, here. I hope things work out for you. I agree with you in that the company has to take responsibility for the product and that includes the type of packaging they choose for it.

I also agree with Joy's comment that it usually is worth the effort to contact the company.

On the flip side of that, I've also contacted companies when I am extremely happy with a product. I don't usually get anything out of it other than the good feeling of telling someone "Well done." I did have one company email me back saying that they were going to post my letter in the factory so all the workers would be able to read it. I thought that was nice.