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Warranties and expectations on consumer products

Today I am going to do something a little different and talk about a recent personal experience with a consumer product – not a lemon car, not a big-ticket purchase, but an inexpensive electric toothbrush.

We use toothbrushes everyday and normally do not spend much time thinking about their design or history. We do not know when humans first started using tools to clean their teeth, but there is evidence of the use of “chewing sticks” by ancient Babylonians as far back as 3500 BC. The first appearance of such devices in literature is around 1600 BC in China. Following on this long history of oral hygiene, in 15th century China, boar’s hairs were fixed in bamboo to make the first toothbrush. The 19th century brought the mass production of the toothbrush in America, then modified in the 1930’s to include nylon bristles. The electric toothbrush made its appearance on the US markets in the 1960’s with continuing evolution up to the present day.

So, how does this tie in with my experience? A few months back, I saw a battery powered Crest Spin brush on sale at the grocery store in Lewisville, TX. I do not remember the exact price, but it was around $5. If you consider what electric and battery powered toothbrushes cost a few years ago (and even what expensive models go for today), this is incredibly inexpensive – especially since batteries are included.

After a month or two of use, the batteries died and I replaced them. Shortly thereafter, I noticed a loss of powered and checked the battery compartment. I found that, despite having a gasket, water had leaked into the compartment and a battery had corroded a bit as well as one of the contacts.

I went to the Crest product’s website and filled out a contact form describing the situation. Within a couple days, I had received an email letting me know that the unit would be replaced and, a few weeks later I received a coupon for a new Spinbrush (or any model) as well as a few additional coupons. This demonstrates great customer service on their part but left me wondering about whether I was expecting too much. If you spend so little on a product, should you expect it to last long or should you expect that it will wear out or break sooner than its more expensive counterparts? Some might say that you should expect perfection in a product regardless of the cost or nature of the item. I believe that there is probably some middle ground that reasonable people tread.

In this recent case, I would not have been very upset if there had been no replacement. After all, I probably received about $5 of value from the Spinbrush before it failed. On the other hand, if the manufacture adjusted the design so that the device would last for decades of use, the price would be prohibitive and no one would ever find a $5 electric toothbrush for sale which, while not earth shattering, would be a minor loss for consumers. As far as making or loosing money in this case, Crest left me a satisfied customer which resulted in my writing this entry, providing them with positive exposure and endorsements. So, it was a win-win situation for all parties.

How does this scale up to vehicles? If you buy a $10,000 car, that is a much greater investment than a battery powered toothbrush, but in a way, your $10,000 car is the $5 electric toothbrush of the car world. Is it reasonable to say that one should probably be willing to put up with a few more rattles and squeaks on a $10,000 car than on a $70,000 car. It is not realistic to expect the same level of quality regardless of price. Manufacturers have to advertise and sell their product so they are not going to broadcast “Buy this $10,000 car – it may rattle and feel cheap but it is really inexpensive.” They do not have to because this message is pretty well engrained in our culture.

All the same, there are limits, and some vehicles are seriously defective and/or unsafe. If you have such a lemon, you should seek legal advice concerning your rights under your local lemon laws or federal warranty laws.

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