Quality as a Four-Letter Word

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When I managed a mall-based EB, I took it for granted that roughly half of the used videogame systems I sold would be returned as defective. When we told the customer that the used system they were purchasing was reliable, it was a routine lie backed by the assumption that all of our systems had been tested. It was probably true that at some point we plugged the system into an outlet to ensure a light came on when we pressed the power button, and if we had the opportunity and equipment nearby we may have even plugged the thing into a television to make sure it transmitted a functioning signal, but that was likely the end of our “thorough” testing. So systems that had been glanced over with unqualified eyes in a pressure sales environment became products to be sold, and the failure rate in the long run fluctuated between a third and half. This is, of course, standard retail practice.

Our methodology was, in a plausible deniability kind of way, very much not the exact official policy of EB at the time. The official policy was probably that we were to only accept like-new systems for repackaging and resale. I say “probably” because, as I recall, the official methodology for processing used systems was never explicitly spoken and was helpfully buried in the middle of a 200-page practices and procedures book that sat in the back room on a dusty shelf above a filing cabinet. The practical day-to-day policy, which was hammered into managers and associates on a daily basis, was that the dollar values of trade-ins our store were reviewed on a weekly basis and went a long way toward defining whether we have a job next week. And the reality is taking in a working system meant some $100 toward that bottom line, while accepting a broken system only spelled some $20 less.

I was stricter than most on what I would accept, simply because I couldn’t really bear the thought of selling a system that might be headed for tiny hands that would only be disappointed moments later. But at the same time I would browbeat my employees when their trade numbers slipped, because I myself was being browbeaten, and despite evidence to the contrary they would put two and two together. Better to fluff the numbers on both ends, accept the results of a discouraged return and finally dump the thing where it belonged, in the ever overflowing defective bin, than lose your job.

I was reminded of these questionable quality assurance practices earlier this week, when my Xbox 360 returned to me from Microsoft’s Mexico repair center with one problem replaced by another. What had been a system afflicted by the Red Ring of Death phenomenon was now a system that didn’t detect wireless controllers. The button on the front of the system which was supposed to serve this function, instead simply made a click noise before getting back to its busy life of being otherwise useless.

But at least the system worked with wired controllers, so I fired up my copy of Rock Band and plugged in the new guitar I had just received from EA to replace the one with a broken strum bar I had sent back earlier in the month. I played happily for a couple of hours until – wait for it – the strum bar broke.

This is my equipment: a faulty Xbox 360 that will not sync wireless controllers and a new guitar controller with exactly the same problem as the one I had sent back. It leaves me wondering whether Microsoft and EA are simply opening returns, plugging them in to see if the light comes on and then pushing them right back out the door as repaired.

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I imagine that just like my employees at the time, the people processing, repairing and shipping refurbished or repaired equipment are under the pressures of quotas and numbers just like I had been, and just like my employees, they make choices between sending out equipment with a high failure rate and keeping their jobs. In this modern age of draconian return policies and the sale of extended warranties, it may even be profitable to keep the public thinking the electronic equipment they spent hundreds of dollars isn’t just likely to break, but certain to. Instead of refusing to sell shoddy merchandise, retailers have chosen to tighten sell their own warranties instead, making their money off the predictably unreliable quality of consumer electronics.

It might seem conspiratorial to suggest that companies are benefiting from poor workmanship, and certainly any self-respecting corporation would refute my assumptions out of hand, but the evidence suggests that companies and retailers have increasingly reached a place where there are large acceptable percentages of defective merchandise. And, certainly, the environment has changed in such a way that not only is the electronics industry taking into account defective product, but even finding ways to profit from it. With restocking fees, retail warranty add-ons, the sale of extended manufacturer warranties, and questionable repair and replacement policies, the market has structured itself to be successful despite high failure rates and low consumer confidence.


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