The Checkout

How Good Are the Goods?

About 17 years ago, we bought our first gas grill. It lasted about 10 years. The next one lasted about five, and the inner parts of the third one -- only 2½ years old -- just disintegrated. In other words, each new version seems to have a half-life of its predecessor. Whatever happened to technology? I thought it was supposed to make products better and better.

But some products barely last a year, if that. Consider telephones. I can't tell you the number of telephones we've recently purchased that lasted only a couple months before the buttons start to stick or the answering-machine function just stops working. Yes, I like all the new phone services that have come about since the break-up of AT&T more than 20 years ago. But give me an old-fashioned Ma Bell phone anytime. They may have been heavy and clunky, but they never broke down.

Then there's my DVD player. I think I'm on my third one already -- in three years! And our new toilet -- a key component broke just a year after we bought it.

Is it my imagination or is the quality of many of the goods we buy getting worse?

By  |  July 31, 2006; 7:00 AM ET Customer Service
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Comments

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I think this is often true. Where I've noticed it is in the quality of new homes. I know many people who have built homes in the last few years who have ended up making major repairs or, less costly but very annoying, have had many small things become "off"--doors don't close properly, tiles come loose, etc.

It seems like new technologies and manufacturing methods have put more and more products in the grasp of the average person, but with the lower prices comes lower quality--and a mentality that if something was fairly cheap, just throw it away and get a new one.

Posted by: Justin | July 31, 2006 7:51 AM

I can't say my experience has been the same. I've had the same $50 DVD player for the last four years; a $40 cordless phone for about five years; my wife bought her stereo (with CD changer, double tape deck and everything) almost 20 years ago and it's still our only stereo at home.

Not that we're particularly delicate with our stuff, especially with a 5-year old child. If everything were to break in my house at the same rate as in yours, I'd carefully reexamine the way I handle things.

As for Justin's comment: "with the lower prices comes lower quality--and a mentality that if something was fairly cheap, just throw it away and get a new one"

Maybe it's the other way around; maybe because things are very cheap we don't take care of them anymore. There are economic reasons why it's cheaper to buy a new gadget than to take it to a repair shop: the guy manufacturing the gadget overseas makes 50 cents/hour; the guy repairing the gadget down the street makes $25/hour.

Posted by: WDC | July 31, 2006 8:32 AM

I complete agree with your article on the short shelf life of items. I've told my family I believe there is a little time bomb inside cell phones and they detonate after 23 months of your 2 year contract so you have to visit the store and sign up for another year of service.

But there is a good reason for this - competition from overseas. I purchased a beautiful 12' $400 gazebo/canopy for our deck from a major retailer. 3 weeks later, I notice all the screws are rusting out! I contacted (the store) and was told, sorry we put a notice inside the box that if there is a problem you have to call the manufacturer in California! Long story short, this gazebo will not last the winter. Sears said I can take down 150 pounds of steel and rebox in the original packaging (HUH?) and return to the store and be charged a 15% restocking fee....you get the picture. We all want cheap stuff and retailers are competing by cutting corners everywhere, hoping customers are too busy to remember how long ago they purchased an item. I learned my lesson - buying from a big retailer with a great reputation does not guarantee quality either.

Posted by: Dee Page | July 31, 2006 8:35 AM

I totally agree.

I'm on my third iron in three years. My mom uses the one she got at her bridal shower - 31 years ago.

Posted by: MD | July 31, 2006 8:41 AM

Two Words: Consumer Reports.

Three More Words: Additional Internet Research.

My husband has stopped thinking I'm crazy, after realizing the stuff we buy doesn't break down, but his friends' similar stuff has long disintegrated.

I pretty much research everything now on CR's web site, and then go a few steps further and check out consumer comments in their discussion areas, as well as on sites like Amazon, Epinions, or even the comments on web sites like Target.com.

I figure I may pay a little more up front, but hopefully what I bought lasts me a little longer.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | July 31, 2006 8:42 AM

Well, things today often have more complicated electronic parts. But I'm sure that the materials are also a major factor. Initial versions seem to often use more reinforcement and more metal which leads to a heavier, bigger but more sturdy object.

Then they start replacing parts with plastic and get rid of "unnecessary" pieces to make it lighter, smaller and cheaper to make, but more fragile.

Posted by: tallbear | July 31, 2006 8:48 AM

Yes, things are definitely more shoddy. I think everyone should really consider the necessity of their purchases.

Posted by: Frank | July 31, 2006 8:54 AM

It's not your imagination. Stuff doesn't last.

I came up with a major brainstorm a number of years back that could help with this problem: Since industry gets tax credits for "re-tooling", households should get tax credits for "re-tooling" also.

Linens get threadbare, dishes and glasses chip and break, furniture sags and gets worn. So, under my plan, every seven years, a household would get a tax break for replacing these things.

Posted by: Fairfax | July 31, 2006 9:02 AM

There are a few things that might explain this "phenomena". First, as someone mentioned, it might help to do some additional research on your products. If you're driving a Ford and are dismayed that the transmission keeps crapping out, solve it by buying a Toyota instead and never worrying about a thing. Baffled by your new computer's inability to function for more than a month? Might be because the low-cost manufacturer is using non-uniform components. But that's why consumer reports sometimes yield valuable information that can save you from these types of purchases.

Another thing to consider with electronics is the fact that they are used so often. Cell phones for example, are with you all the time, wherever you go. It's the first thing I touch when I wake up (alarm) and the last thing I touch before I go to bed (alarm again). So it's no wonder that the tiny, thin, flimsy little Razr that will shatter if dropped from waist height would become a pile of crud in just a short amount of time. Devices like computers and laptops are used 'round the clock, too. The fact that we are always connected, always using some sort of device might lead to a shorter product life.

Other times, it's just maintenance-- to which some folks might be averse to due to ignorance or the belief that "you can always just buy a new one". DVD players (always a frustration, it seems), for example, usually just need their lens cleaned with a cotton swab.

Low-cost may be an excuse as to why a poor product is provided... but as companies attain competencies in the manufacturing process, cost should be reduced as technology ages and quality should improve.

Posted by: Five | July 31, 2006 9:05 AM

In my experience, electronics like DVD players and computer monitors fail in the first 1-3 months or run just about as long as I care to own them. I, too, have a $50 DVD player that has performed flawlessly for five years and two college dorm rooms.

Mechanical items like gas grills and lawnmowers, however, are where research makes a big difference. While you can get a very nice looking grill with lots of features at Home Depot or Wal-Mart for $300, you can almost guarantee that the parts will rust/fail with a year or two. On the other hand, the $450 I spent on a grill at Barbecues Galore in 1999 has been a great investment. Parts are always available and the service staff is helpful and knowledgable. They even gave me a new burner ($70 part!) when the grill was out of warranty by more than two years. The only reason to replace it would be for a larger unit.

The same goes for my lawnmower. I purchased a Toro from Home Deport five years ago and had lots of nagging problems and could never get replacement parts for anything but generic items like the air filter. Two years ago I decided to purchase a Toro from a professional lawn care shop and it was like night and day. I learned that the Home Depot model was the 'consumer' line and the new one is a 'professional' model. Price difference...$150...overall quality...no comparison! My lawn looks better and maintenance is actually easier with parts available over the counter.

Unfortunately, these lessons are not free and I realize that the price difference can be a big deal for some people. At the same time, however, I see my neighbors, all of whom could purchase two and not feel the pain, buying lower-end, name brand products all the time and complaining about the quality. It takes a bit more effort, but will make a big difference in the long run.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | July 31, 2006 9:28 AM

Simply, you get what you pay for.

Posted by: Horse | July 31, 2006 10:00 AM

I agree with CR. I use it for most things. My cell phone, however, seems indestructible. It's a Nokia and it has been dropped, left outside in the winter for three weeks under 4 feet of snow and still works. I have several sets of cordless phones that still work (keeping them why?), stereos and electronics that we have had for years. Even our cars haven't had many problems! Things go in waves. On our last vacation we had three tires blow. But good info on the Toro shop.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 31, 2006 10:13 AM

We also have to put things together ourselves much more than we used to - and the prices don't seem to have gone down accordingly! I just moved and have been buying new furniture. So much of what you see seems to be assembly-required and it's STILL hundreds of dollars!

Posted by: Assembly Required | July 31, 2006 10:41 AM

I think you've been unlucky in your choice of brands, whatever they've been. I've had the same "primary" phone (the one I use most) for several years; it has caller id and some other functions, I bought it on sale at Target. I bought a discontinued model DVD player at Target, Memorex brand, a couple of years ago and it's fine. On the other hand about a year ago I bought a super sounding phone from JC Penney with tons of features but so complicated to set up that I've never been able to use it, am thinking of giving it to a friend with a teenaged son because I know he'll be able to figure it out.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 31, 2006 11:00 AM

I cannot count the number of toasters that my family went through as I grew up in the 80s and 90s. But, my grandma still has the same toaster that she got over 60 years ago - toasts perfectly and I bet it will work when I am a grandmother.

Posted by: Erica | July 31, 2006 11:33 AM

I agree that things don't last as long as they used to. We grew up with a Maytag Washer and Dryer that lasted for (25+ years). Now the sales people will tell you when you buy appliances that you should budget to replace them in 5-10 years. I also use CR for unbiased opinions on all major purchases and direction on other purchases.

Manufactures are guided by profit. It's my opinion that they have figured out that they make more money when people frequently replace broken items than when customers are taken out of the market by high quality-long lasting items.

Posted by: JWill | July 31, 2006 11:55 AM

Good to hear about where the research is needed. I don't have a DVD, still using the same VCR I got in 1999, because they haven't been phased out in NYC and otherwise I just see something important in the theaters. Same phones for 6-10 years. Televisions 10-15 years old, although they've required some repair. Computer has lasted a year after a virus attacked the second-hand one I had. AC's are both 6 years old and in perfect condition.

While I imagine that crummier products abound, I also think it's a matter of not handling things so roughly, ridiculous as this may sound. Most people think being in a rush is the only way to live, and they are always knocking things over. I even have a Caller ID box that has parts rattling inside it but still works no matter how many times it's been dropped and taped up--since 1996, and free from the old Bell Atlantic.

I'm more concerned with how much uglier new things are in the stores themselves--microsoft-derived fonts on all signs and things so plastic and lackluster it's hard to feel any respect for them, right down to kleenex boxes by Rite-Aid and all generic products look tacky, although I have to use them.

Posted by: patrick | July 31, 2006 11:57 AM

My friends laugh at me, but this is exactly why I kept my 1986-era microcassette answering machine )until replacing it just two weeks ago) and my 1992 GE land-line phone (still works fine) for so long. Because I NEVER had problems with them! Replaced my 1990 TV this year because the picture tube went out. I'd still be using my Sony single-tray CD player from 1991 if the tray spindle hadn't broken. I still kinda wish I had ordered a replacement -- I opened the player and I could have done it myself.

I agree that people don't take care of things like they used to (I seem to drop my cell phone a lot), but maybe they are so accustomed to having so many electronics in our lives now.

My mom has a lot of her clothing from the early 80s still because she says you just can't find well-made clothes anymore and I think she's right about that too. Mass production and high-speed production with little real concern for quality are to blame, in my opinion.

Posted by: Mel | July 31, 2006 12:16 PM

I also do CR and more research before buying things. It seems like it's paid off many times. So many people just say, "I need an iron" and go out and pick up the first one they see at the price they want to pay. Many buy on looks alone. Very little thought involved, much less research. I know people who buy portable phones and things without really even LOOKING at the phone, much reading the box to find out what functions it has.

Posted by: Mel | July 31, 2006 12:22 PM

I think also knowing there will be a "latest and greatest" version coming out soon, the product is made to only last until then.

We are also much more disposable society. When my vaccuum broke, I replaced it because repair cost nearly as much. Ditto on the TV. Back in the day, people regularly got things fixed instead of rplaced.

On that note with cars, it's harder and harder to do anything yourself. On my husbands Honda, you had to be nearly double-jointed to change the oil. You don't see many "weekend mechanics" - or if you do, they are usually working on cars 20 plus years old, not newer ones.

Posted by: MD | July 31, 2006 12:23 PM

In my post above, I meant "much LESS reading the box to find out what functions it has".

I have a friend who bought an SUV and then got very upset that it didn't have an XM radio. The list of options read: "XM ready" so he assumed it had an XM radio, even though he could clearly see, if you looked at the dashboard, there was no XM radio! This guy is a very intelligent software designer, but I've had friends who made this sort of "mistake" all the time because they just don't pay attention to what they are buying.

Posted by: Mel | July 31, 2006 12:46 PM

My view:

1. Because of the advent of the credit card in the last 25 years, people are more able to replace major items more quickly (unfortunately going into debt as well).

2. The most profitable part of a retail business is to sell "extended warranties", they make more off of these than the product itself.

3. (maybe) internet shopping has made it easier for the consumer to find the lowest price. Companies no longer try to compete based on quality alone.

4. Taste, consumers are always looking for the latest and greatest trends i.e. replacing perfectly good appliances with "stainless steel" ones.

Posted by: Dawn | July 31, 2006 12:53 PM

What has changed over time? More and more items are being made off-shore to take advantage of the cheap labor. Not all these products maybe well made and therefore don't last as the ones that were made earlier. This may not be the sole reason things are not lasting but I would expect it to be a contributing factor.

Posted by: ABH | July 31, 2006 1:00 PM

the quality of goods is absolutely deteriorating. Grandma's hand-me-down vacuum clearner worked from the 1950's to the 199'0's. The replacement didn't last five years. The same sort of thing seems to happen with TVs, stereos, etc., etc. Low price pressures (from big box stores, I guess) cause manufacturers to debase the products to sell them at ever declining prices. You get what you pay for. It seems that Americans would rather pay $94.96 for something and buy a new one next year rather than pay 149.99 for something that works for years and years.

Posted by: Charles Goodwin | July 31, 2006 1:14 PM

MD has it right, we've become a disposable society. I love to review old VCR tapes of shows I taped back in the mid-90s, and see commercials for 'VCR Repair' courses. WWhhhhaaaa????? When it costs minimum $100 to get a VCR repaired, but $40 to buy a new one, it's a pretty obvious decision.

Likewise with most consumer products, who bothers to fix DVDs, toasters, phones, irons, etc. You're so much ahead of the game to get the cheap one and plan to replace every few years. Even mid-priced stuff like power tools, laundry machines, lawnmowers and the aforementioned grills; Instead of fixing the $450 lawnmower for $100 after 5 years (and now I have a 5 yr old lawnmower), it's better and infinitely easier to just go to Home Depot and buy the $300 model every 3 years. I wouldn't be surprised if the cheaper end of TVs get to this point soon.

Posted by: JD | July 31, 2006 1:39 PM

While cost of repair vs. replacement has grown closer over the past 20 years, this is primarily an issue with electronics and not mechanical items. Some items (e.g., irons and toasters) can often be repaired at home by anyone with some basic shop skills. Oh, that's right, no one takes shop class anymore which means that the number of shade tree mechanics and tinkerers is dwindling.

The killer for electronics is the cost of parts. I bought a replacement ink jet printer yesterday for $80 because a new print head would cost $65. This time, however, I purchased the extended warranty for $10.99 which is good for 24 months. No one would repair a $50 DVD player or $300 TV, but spending an extra $50-150 will often get you a much more trouble free product with a longer life.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | July 31, 2006 1:44 PM

I agree on gas grills-they do seem do weather very poorly. But I also use Consumer Reports before buying anything and sometimes you have to pay a bit more to get good results.
My washer, dryer and refrigerator, all bought from Sears (Kenmore) over 8 years and all working fine-all recommended by CR. 20 years of owning Apple computers and only once did I need to take one into a shop for repairs.

Posted by: Mike | July 31, 2006 2:14 PM

The one product that has incontrovertably improved is the automobile. Anyone, say, in their 50s can remember how often the family car broke down back in the 1950s and 1960s. I have a 5-1/2 year old Nissan Altima and it has performed flawlessly the entire time I have had it. What's interesting about this is that cars have gotten more dependable as they have gotten more complex. There are no "shade tree mechanics" any more because you need special equipment to diagnose a car's computers just to find out what's wrong. But fortunately, things go wrong far less often than they used to.

Posted by: Jack | July 31, 2006 2:23 PM

Three months ago I bought a new portable phone even though the only thing wrong with the old one was a battery that could no longer be charged. The new phone cost all of $1 more than a replacement battery. And it came with a battery!!

Posted by: Steve | July 31, 2006 2:28 PM

A lot of folks are pointing to price... which is an indicator in certain regards of course, but it certainly isn't synonymous with quality. Sony has had a major restructuring due to the fact that they were charging upwards of $13k for a CD player, hundreds of dollars for robotronics, and other high-end gadgets that didn't equate with quality. In fact, most people seem to have a big problem with Sony quality (not me!) and it's certainly pricey. Same goes with Jaguar (thank's Ford), Abercrombie (falls apart), Motorolla (replaced 3 Razrs), Apple iPod (don't get me started)... it has a lot to do with manufacturing/engineering process and the complexity of the item.

Even if it's being assembled overseas, if there are quality controls put in place, the product should stand if the process is sound. Otherwise, it's probably either a defect, or it's an intended consequence.

Posted by: Five | July 31, 2006 2:49 PM

I am waiting for my three-year + old CostCo washer and/or dryer to die as I listen to the moans and groans and squeeks in the gears and infrastructure. With original sales receipt easy to retrieve, the test will be their policy to replace or refund whenever dissatified -- which I interpret means the appliance purchase not working.

The laundry room is my proof-in-the-pudding thing on Costco's policy as funded by annual memembership fees as opposed to extended warranty costs by most other retailers.

Posted by: tommyg | July 31, 2006 2:53 PM

With so many products labeled as being "new & improved" I think as consumers we want the "latest & greatest". Sometimes workmanship is shoddy but sometimes you get what you pay for.

I have a B/W 13" TV that is many years old (rotary dial) and it still works. Whenever my color TV goes out I bring it out as a temporary replacement.

Before buying anything I research and also buy certain items from local hardware stores, etc. where they ask "how do you plan to use, etc." Those questions are invaluable.

Posted by: Consumer Savvy | July 31, 2006 4:05 PM

This is what happens when you outsource most of your manufacturing to Chinese and Southeast Asian sweat shops. I guarantee most of stuff that broke down has a "Made in China" label.

Actually, my main gripe these days are clothes. Some of the outfits that I wear regularly I bought over ten years ago, and they haven't ripped once or even faded much. The clothes I have bought within the past two years have fallen apart at the seams within two months. Terrible.

Posted by: Axana | July 31, 2006 5:26 PM

There are two things IMO that are driving this. One is the intense competition among manufacturers to reach a particular price point. It almost goes without saying that a company will inevitably cut corners to attract price-sensitive customers and/or improve margins.

Many consumer purchases, even for "durables" such as gas grills are spur-of-the-moment purchases. If the price is reasonable and if the product _looks_ good, then most people will buy it without thinking.

I work in marketing research, and am constantly amazed at how few people actually put any thought into the products they buy, regardless of whether it's a toothbrush, a car, or a house.

Another factor is planned obsolesence. It's much more profitable to sell two $200 grills over the course of three years than to sell a single $300 grill. Sometimes the competition will bring a different approach (e.g. Toyota and Honda in the 1970s vs. say, GM, which was notorious for ensuring that its cars didn't last long), but sometimes it seems like they don't...

Posted by: jake | July 31, 2006 6:52 PM

I also think that you get what you pay for. I have had good experiences with Sony and Panasonic electronics. I use my Panasonic DVD player from 1999 all the time, and my Sony CD player and Pioneer receiver from 1992 still work fine.

It's a combination of doing your homework (read customer reviews as well as professional ones), and not buying garbage to save a few dollars.

One item that seems to be made extremely cheaply across the board is inkjet printers. They are almost completely made of plastic. They are cheaper to make and cheaper to buy, but they don't last very long. You could probably say the same about vacuums, also.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 31, 2006 8:07 PM

Planned Obsolescence

In an economy in which you must satisfy investors with growth, you must keep selling more and more appliances, not just replacing existing ones. Sooner or later everyone who wants a particular appliance already has one. What do you then? Cut costs with cheaper materials/labor and make people buy them twice as often. That'll keep the cash coming for a while.

Competition is contingent on well-distributed information, e.g. GM vs. Toyota. However, fewer people research such mundane items as irons and gazebos. Thus the practice continues.

Posted by: Adrian Richards | July 31, 2006 8:35 PM

I agree with several posts; many consumer products simply aren't intended to last. How often have we heard a repairman say "it'll be cheaper to get a new one"?
I also agree that the great exception is the automobile and its parts. When was the last time you saw someone on the side of the road, fixing a flat tire? A common sight when I was a kid.

Posted by: Michael | July 31, 2006 9:44 PM

Safety Features
(In addition to the above-mentioned "Planned Obsolescence" to which I whole-heartedly agree), I think in some cases the built-in 'safety' features in some electronics shorten their usability period.

The same hair dryer I used as a kid I was using when student teaching 25 years later (A "Son-of-a-Gun"). No exaggeration, I had 2 hairdryers IN THE SAME DAY cease working (and no, not just a matter of resetting).

Posted by: Cat | August 2, 2006 9:11 AM

Another factor is the difficulty in getting stuff repaired. A table lamp of mine stopped working recently, and I'd like to get it fixed. However, the lamp repair place in my neighborhood was driven out long ago by condos and Starbucks. A search for "lamp repair" yields numerous retailers but little in the way of repair. So I can get a latte without a problem, but getting a lamp fixed has turned into a major project.

Posted by: KJ | August 2, 2006 11:39 AM

I agree with many of the points here.

One of the phones in my house is a 1952 rotary-dial phone made by Western Electric. My parents had it installed in their house when it was built. Yeah, I knocked it on the floor a few times when I was a kid and then a teenager, but it still works perfectly, and it RINGS instead of beeps. In 1983, my mother had it converted to a modular connection when she "bought" the phone from New England Telephone, so when my parents died, I was able to unplug that phone and take it to my own home. I don't use it to make outgoing calls much (especially to businesses, practically all of whom use robotic receptionists), but I'll always be able to answer my phone.

Posted by: Greenbelt Gal | August 2, 2006 11:44 AM

When I bought my house ten years ago it came with a Maytag washer that, judging from the trim and general appearance, dates back to about 1960. I'm wondering if something lasts this long without breaking down will it last forever?

Posted by: allysay | August 2, 2006 5:56 PM

Certainly a lot of what is going on has to do with "you get what you pay for" but it *is* also a replace vs. repair mentality. It is now much cheaper to replace than repair anything, NOT because of parts, but because labor starts at $100 for the 1st 30 min. and $50 for each additional 30 min. or any portion thereof. It costs just to get someone to look at an item to see if it should be repaired or not and rather than sink that cost, I'll replace something. That said, I also use consumer reports and look for reviews on items before I make any major household purchases.

Posted by: MEG | August 2, 2006 6:24 PM

I don't understand what the obsession is with continual economic growth, forever and ever.

Isn't unchecked, continual growth just another word for CANCER?

Posted by: ellen | August 4, 2006 8:11 AM

I've been frustrated recently by "small things" not working on expensive products. For example, a top of the line electric razor made useless by a broken plastic fastener that was necessary for recharging. Another example is a malfuntioning disc tray on my computer. These items were not central to the technology I paid for, but the product is useless without them.

Posted by: craig | August 4, 2006 11:04 AM

You're right. I have a portable CD player from 1995 that still works great, much better than the same brand name one my husband bought years later. And I still have my DVD player, which is from 1999. Works as well as it ever did. All my telephones are 20 years old. I recently got rid of a vacuum that was 20 years old and still worked, but advances have been made with filters and attachments, so I got a new one. I doubt my new one will work for 20 years. It's depressing and so wasteful to have items break and not be worth fixing because it's cheaper to buy a new one. But it's more expensive for our environment to have our disposable society.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 4, 2006 5:39 PM

You're right. Newer means shoddier. We just threw away an iron (Black & Decker) at the one year mark; the previous iron had lasted since 1982. Same experience with dustbusters, and, much more unfortunately, larger appliances such as washing machines.

Posted by: Mart | August 7, 2006 10:33 AM

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