Monday, November 16, 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 ?