Close shave with a guar­an­tee

Grocott's Mail - - MAKANA VOICES - RON WEIS­SENBERG

In the late 1970s, Vic­tor Kiam ac­quired the Per­sonal Care Di­vi­sion of Rem­ing­ton, a large Amer­i­can com­pany. Rem­ing­ton in­no­vated – from ri­fles to the QW­ERTY key­board – first in­cor­po­rated into the Rem­ing­ton Rand typewriter, but the per­sonal care di­vi­sion was a loss maker.

The Rem­ing­ton per­sonal care busi­ness man­u­fac­tured elec­tric shavers and had been wal­low­ing in losses and debt. Only a year af­ter Kiam’s in­ter­ven­tion, the com­pany re­versed its for­tunes and made a profit of $47 mil­lion (R630 mil­lion).

Vic­tor Kiam was not only a great en­tre­pre­neur; he was a charis­matic leader and mas­tered the per­son­al­ity ad­ver­tise­ment tech­nique; where the CEO of an or­gan­i­sa­tion would ap­pear on elec­tronic or print me­dia to en­dorse their prod­uct. Kiam’s fa­mous slo­gan ‘I liked the shaver so much, I bought the com­pany’ (which he recorded in sev­eral lan­guages) made him a house­hold name in the 1980’s.

Kiam also pro­moted the Rem­ing­ton Mi­cro­screen by promis­ing ‘It shaves as close as a blade or your money back’ I bought a Rem­ing­ton Mi­cro­screen shaver about 30 years ago. It cer­tainly did not shave as close as a blade. If any­thing, it was a medi­ocre prod­uct com­pared to the Phillips 3-bladed ro­tary elec­tric shaver.

I re­turned the shaver to the re­tailer for a re­fund. This was re­fused, as the pack­ag­ing had been opened. I was re­ferred to the Jo­han­nes­burg im­porter, who sim­i­larly re­jected the money-back guar­an­tee as they fell un­der the Rem­ing­ton Euro­pean branch dis­trib­u­tor net­work. I was given an ad­dress in the UK and told to take it up with them. These were the days be­fore the Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act, fax ma­chines and e-mail. Let­ters had to be typed and air­mailed. Af­ter six months (and sev­eral bro­ken prom­ises) I gave up. To this day, I as­so­ciate Rem­ing­ton shavers (prob­a­bly un­fairly) with bad cus­tomer ser­vice and de­ceit.

But what is a mon­ey­back or ‘life­time guar­an­tee’? Could it be the life­time of the cus­tomer, the time-span of the orig­i­nal pur­chaser own­ing the prod­uct, the life­span of the man­u­fac­turer or the rea­son- able life­time of the prod­uct it­self? We know from our law that there is an im­plied war­ranty; which means that the prod­uct should do what it’s sup­posed to do and that it may be used for any pur­pose the seller claims.

De­spite South African con­sumer pro­tec­tion laws be­ing amongst the best in the world, the re­al­ity is that fight­ing may end up cost­ing you far more in time and re­sources than the value of your loss. If a sup­plier re­fuses to re­fund you, ask your­self if the bat­tle is worth­while. De­pend­ing on the value of the trans­ac­tion, it sel­dom is. Us­ing cost-free ser­vices of ap­pointed Om­buds or reme­dies such as the Small Claims Courts may al­low you to win the fight, but lose the war.

Two ex­am­ples come to mind. The first in­volved the pur­chase of roof tiles car­ry­ing a 20-year writ­ten guar­an­tee. Three years later, the man­u­fac­turer had been liq­ui­dated. Not only was the guar­an­tee prac­ti­cally un­en­force­able, but I had used a prod­uct which was no longer sup­ported or even avail­able at any price.

A sim­i­lar frus­tra­tion oc­curred af­ter try­ing to re­cover a de­posit from a land­lord. Af­ter miss­ing three court ap­pear­ances over many months, the land­lord was ruled against in ab­sen­tia. He then ap­pealed the rul­ing on the grounds of be­ing un­able to present his case due to per­sonal prob­lems.

The court granted the ap­peal which had the ef­fect of de­layed and con­tin­u­ing pro­ceed­ings as a fresh case. I soon re­alised the strat­egy – he would win by at­tri­tion. De­lay, ob­fus­cate, and use le­gal pro­cesses to frus­trate an out­come. Even if there was a favourable rul­ing, fur­ther costs would be in­curred on en­forc­ing the or­der, at­tach­ing as­sets etc – an ad­di­tional round of le­gal strug­gles. Jus­tice is a the­ory, not nec­es­sar­ily a re­al­ity suited to hon­est peo­ple. In South Africa, The strat­egy of at­tri­tion is used mas­ter­fully by many lead­ers and cor­rupt of­fi­cials to avoid the con­se­quences of their mis­deeds or in­ept­ness.

There are how­ever, many or­gan­i­sa­tions who mean ex­actly what they say when of­fer­ing a life­time guar­an­tee – it means for­ever, ir­re­spec­tive of own­er­ship. Lego is one such com­pany. They will re­place lost parts al­most un­con­di­tion­ally.

So will Zippo lighters and Cross pens, Crafts­man hand tools in the USA re­place or re­pair prod­ucts free of charge. Ac­cord­ing to Kris Malkovski, Vice Pres­i­dent of Crafts­man; ‘[their] com­pany brand con­tin­ues to of­fer (a life­time guar­an­tee) be­cause it re­in­forces the qual­ity and trust con­sumers can have that Crafts­man is there for them to get their project done.’

Un­less you are deal­ing with an ef­fi­cient, rep­utable and eth­i­cal sup­plier (or coun­try), in prac­tice it doesn’t mat­ter what you may think a war­ranty means. Un­less spec­i­fied in statute, rarely does it mean the life­time of the con­sumer, or the prod­uct or a par­tic­u­lar time-frame. For the un­prin­ci­pled, the phrase is lit­tle more than a ca­sual mar­ket­ing tool, de­signed to catch cus­tomers. Their prom­ises are just ex­pres­sions of in­tent cap­tur­ing you within a mo­men­tary time­frame.

Vic­tor Kiam re­mained chair­man of Rem­ing­ton un­til his death in 2001. The Lon­don Times news­pa­per quoted one of his busi­ness as­so­ciates, Jonathan Lyons, as say­ing that Kiam was “a truly re­mark­able en­tre­pre­neur of the old kind - the kind they sim­ply don't make any more.”

As the Den­ver Post news­pa­per once quipped; ‘ Life­time war­ranties usu­ally ex­pire sooner than you think.” So did Vic­tor Kiam.

• Ron Weis­senberg is an in­ter­na­tional cit­i­zen and Gra­ham­stown res­i­dent who started his first busi­ness at age seven. He is a Cer­ti­fied Di­rec­tor (SA) and men­tors peo­ple and their en­ter­prises.

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