Planned obsolescence: Still a problem?

A man checks out appliances for sale at the Best Buy store in Miami, Fla.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Not to give too much credence to a slightly cliched phrase, but there is something about springtime that just makes you want to clean. To get rid of all the clutter and toss all the stuff crammed in the garage or in the attic that just doesn't work anymore. Whether by overuse or by corporate design. Planned obsolescence used to actually be policy in a lot of places. Something companies started doing back in the 1920s to counter the never-ending precision of mass assembly lines.

Consumer life has gotten better over the years since. Or has it? Cash Peters wanted to know.


CASH PETERS: This is ridiculous. So many appliances I buy turn out to be complete duds. Why? Because manufacturers make products that break easily, that's why, just so we'll keep buying new ones.

Professor Gerard Tellis is a marketing whiz at USC's Marshall School of Business.

GERARD TELLIS: What you're saying does happen in some countries and for some companies.

PETERS: So some companies say, "Let's build a really bad product."

TELLIS: Sure, there are companies like that.

It's a scandal. And it means that, right now, I have a juicer that makes horrible noises. That's my juicer. The knobs just fell off my fruit dehydrator. And when I bought a Cuisinart electric griddle, the hotplates, there you go, they snapped and dropped out. Well, that's when I snapped too quite honestly.

I was right on the phone to Mary Rodgers, Cuisinart's head of marketing communications. "Grrrrrr!" basically was my message to her. But Mary denies it's all rigged.

MARY RODGERS: I've worked in the housewares industry for 20 years and never have I worked for anybody who has done anything related to planned obsolescence.

PETERS: But maybe they wouldn't tell you.

RODGERS: I'm at a pretty high level at the company, and we do not work on a planned obsolescence.

All right. What's amazing is that, according to the Better Business Bureau's Gary Almond, if you buy a defective product, you know who's to blame? You are, for not doing more research. Shame on you, frankly.

GARY ALMOND: I think people take very casually when they buy something. They don't look at the Better Business Bureau reports. They don't go out and see what the consumer reviews are.

PETERS: So it's our fault actually.

ALMOND: It is.

Wow. I feel terrible now. So, all right, I didn't research my griddle very well. But wouldn't the problem have been solved if the manufacturer had just tested it before it left the factory? Then this might have happened to them instead.

Mary...

RODGERS: We actually put a lot of time and effort into life-testing our products. We design them so that they're meant to last much longer than other products in the same categories.

PETERS: Actually, if you lived closer, I would challenge you to a cook-off on my griddle.

RODGERS: I make a pretty mean panini.

PETERS: Believe me, you'll be sobbing into your apron within 10 minutes.

I'm not kidding either. But here's what's really interesting. David Sarno is the tech reporter for the L.A. Times, and he says planned obsolescence is itself obsolete, especially in electronics where manufacturers no longer need to sabotage their own products to make you buy a new one.

DAVID SARNO: I don't think they do because time is going to detonate the device itself. Just wait a year, and it's worthless. So suddenly you're in the dark ages even though the device you own is only a year or two old.

Gosh, they're so smart. The best news is that many consumers are going onto the Internet and giving terrible products one-star reviews, which is forcing manufacturers to make stuff that works.

Gerard Tellis.

TELLIS: Quality is not coming down, quality is going up. On average, looking at long-term trends, the proportion of breakdowns is lower I think now than before. It's just a matter of probability. There are so many products and so many people that some people will end up with lemons.

Right, and I would be a good example of that. Faulty dehydrators, useless griddles...

RODGERS: I have to tell you, I have an original Griddler. I use it all the time. I've never had that happened to any Griddler I've used.

PETERS: Do you think I'm jinxed? Is that what it is? Do you think I'm just hexed?

RODGERS: No. I don't think you're hexed.

ALMOND: It is what it is. You've got a few failures in a few thousands, and then some things are just, they're bad. They're sold bad.

PETERS: Nothing I've ever bought has gone right.

ALMOND: How's that microphone working for you?

PETERS: Oh, do you want to hear?

HORRIBLE NOISE

Another fine American product for the Better Business Bureau to investigate.

In Los Angeles, I'm Cash Peters for Marketplace.

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