Monday, 16 November 2009

Is the consumer a king or a tyrant ?

“Remove baby before folding the stroller “ is a famous example of the American legal system gone crazy. It remained an object of mirth until it became all too real last week. For, Maclaren, a small privately held maker of baby strollers was faced with a massive crisis on a similar sort of a problem.

Maclaren’s strollers are actually of a reasonably high safety standard. However it appears that when the stroller is being unfolded, if a child sticks a finger into the hinge, its likely to chop off the finger tip. This is not a state secret that normal human beings are unaware of. Any parent, however dumb, is well aware that if a child sticks its finger into a hinge, it will get hurt. However there was no warning on Maclaren strollers that children must be kept away when opening it. And the product is "unsafe". So the company is responsible.

There were 12 instances of such an event happening. The company is now recalling 1 million strollers sold in the US – or atleast providing repair kits to the owners. Now 12 cases in a million is 0.001%. The probability of being struck by lightning is higher. But never mind, the company is a big bad evil monster and so mob lynching is perfectly acceptable.

Reams of newsprint (or should I say, bytes) are being written on this case. Media has used “amputations from strollers”, “child amputation” and the like to lampoon the company. A million words have been written about the company being slow to react, PR disaster, etc etc. I haven’t read one word to say that perhaps this is a overreaction and the consumer is also, just a teeny bit, at fault.

I can understand when there’s a defective or dangerous product – the company must be taken to task. The product must be recalled immediately; period. But this is just a normal stroller – sure its safety can be improved by providing a protective cover over the hinge. But , by itself, the product is not unsafe. Is it then right to force companies to recall millions of products sold over a long period of time ? Today there is no choice for companies. Immediate product recall, whether justified or not, is the only sensible option – else the PR disaster will be so big that the company may probably not survive.

That doesn’t make it right. Where is the notion of sensible consumer responsibility ? One consequence of this is the silly sort of warnings (like coffee is hot) that companies have to print to "inform" consumers. How about differentiating between genuinely defective or unsafe products and ones where usage with common sense is perfectly fine, but careless usage will create a problem. Does a product have to be designed for the average consumer , or the absolute lowest common denominator?

The consumer is the king. I know. But what if he turns into a tyrant ?


Sandhya Sriram said...

what the customer fails to realize is someway or the other, all these cost of fuss finds a way back into the pricing of the product. I guess, if we get a peep into the product costing of many of these products, maybe we will realize that it will have a cost of "recovery for consumer cases". there is no free meal in the world. if only we realize.

Anonymous said...

The consumer is always the king, why talk of somewhere, some case in the US? In India, take for example the Self-financing colleges, take the case of universities elsewhere. The students words are the 'ultimatum'. That is an insult on the academicians!! I know of a case, where my friend(a gold medalist, a very enthusiastic teacher at that) warned a student of listening to walkman during his class, for which the management 'enquired' the staff. He,in a fit of rage, resigned, and began his career in a s/w industry.

On a different note, well-established industries, know the pulse of their consumers, they know how to deal with faltered products, without much loss. In such cases, consumers don't always have the final say.

Deepa said...

Looks like its a shift from 'Caveat Emptor' to 'Caveat Venditor' !

I second what Sandhya has said, you act foolish, you end up paying for it too then!

kiwibloke said...

There was a time when people (kids and adults) were never cottonwooled. Blame it on the left liberal, tree hugging, namby pamby bleeding hearts educationists that have contributed to the dumbing down of people. Every manufacturer needs to provide "operating instructions" to cater to consumers assumed at Intelligence levels marginally higher than sea anemones or caterpillars. (Of course my blog strongly smells of right wing politics and I make no bones of it.) We deserve the governance we opt for.

J said...

//what if he turns into a tyrant ?//
Well, the rest of us learn to make do with lukewarm coffee :)

While I see the point of your ranting, there is another side to product liability laws. While generous lawsuit awards no doubt spawn idiot consumers and opportunistic lawyers, I believe that product liability laws have a place in the economy and keep companies from producing very poor quality products. As with anything, balance is key and that's possibly the point that you make. I believe that there is a euro cap on the size of lawsuits per defect in the EU and that may help.

Ramesh said...

@Sandhya - Indeed, there's no free meal

@Anon - Yes, there are both sides to the coin. shady businesses who sell dangerous products abiund too. Equally areas where the "consumer" holds the company as a hostage.

@kiwi - wow; strong words ...

@J - Love the quip on lukewarm coffee :) Oh yes, but for product liability suits, we would probably have outrightly dangerous products going around. On the whole they are a good thing. I'm only highlighting the pendulum swinging to the other end sometimes.

A said...

I read this article too and sort of related it to the other extreme when potentially harmful toys (high in lead content) of a certain make were released and then had to be withdrawn. 2 extremes.. I guess like J mentions, there needs to be a mid way path (AJCL)

Savitha said...

In a world where the business man has the final say, and media influences one's perception, cases like these are also needed, to give a warn that consumers also have a say. And the probability that a case like this can happen in India is v meagre.

There was an accident, where a child was swallowed in a gap between the rails, in a water game in a theme park in India. The park is still functional. Now, who is to blame?

Srivats said...

just read savi's comment which sent a shiver down my spine. I agree sometimes a small defect/ or so called defect is blown out of propotion, and sometimes the life threatning stuff like what savi has mentioned go unnoticed.
Makes me think whether whatever we hear or see is true, or are we just seeing what the media/businessmen wants us to see.

Is it like media makes a sound / or not only for personal benefits out of the situation! here customer is simply a toy i guess

thethoughtfultrain said...

Thats a really valid question. And consumer stupidity can go unexpected levels - how can the businessman anticipate that?

mahesh said...

I think this is heightened in USA where you have the mass law suits as well with the lawyers who make the money on it as well. The price is probably paid by consumers in future or by employees of the company if the company has to go under.

On a lighter note there is only one company which supplies products with issues and then upgrades the product and sells them at a higher price rebranding it with a higher version. I think people need to learn things from Microsoft :)

Ramesh said...

@AJCL - Yes there are many examples of the other extreme - this post was just to highlight that there's another side to the coin too.

@Savitha - What an awful incident. Shudder.

@Sri - Yes, there are wide variations in the response to such incidents. Although in these days in the free world, India included, its almost impossible to sit on an incident - the media would just not let that happen.

@thoughtful train - thanks for seeing it from a business's viewpoint.

@mahesh - Ho Ho - Microsoft example is perfect.

le embrouille blogueur said...

Every year there is a count of the ten most bizarre law suits and it can really play with your imagination. Did you know about the girl who sued McDonald's for selling french fries that made her obese ... ah ha !!

Anonymous said...

It was rather interesting for me to read this blog. Thank author for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more soon.

Ramesh said...

@blogueur - Hooray. Welcome back. Really - did that girl sue McD with that logic - WOW

@Anon - Thanks for visiting and your comment

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