Saturday, October 26, 2013

Services: The Weakest Link? (Sears Appliance Revisited)

Earlier in the week I posted a brief "consumer alert" because of an ongoing gas leak with a recently installed "built in" gas oven. While I would still suggest heightened awareness if anyone is getting ready to replace an older built in gas oven, I've had a chance to think about some of the issues involved, now that all is taken care of. And, one of the appliance repairmen in particular was quite helpful in response to my (numerous) questions and concerns. When everything was finally resolved, he suggested, "bake something simple at first" (to try out the repaired connections) and the meatloaf turned out fine!

What stands out most is the fact that not just Sears, but also other appliance retailers are no longer able to cover many contingencies after appliances purchases, as they once were. For the sake of contrast to those Maytag repairman commercials, think of computer repair people and the "fires" they routinely put out, i.e. a bit of everything. Bottom line: what this means is considerable additional costs might be incurred, besides the initial purchase and installation of the appliance.

Apparently a lack of service availability is a fairly recent development, else the local Sears might have been more honest how to deal with the matter. A once reliable retailer who has been around all my life, this company probably didn't want to tell me, "Call an appliance repairman". Which of course turned out to be the solution, because - after all - Sears and appliance repairmen were practically the same image in the public's imagination, for at least fifty years.

That might explain why every time someone tried to resolve the matter, we were repeatedly told to contact a plumber. While I don't know about elsewhere, the local plumbers don't deal with gas related issues. Or, perhaps it is just this particular retail outlet, whose management has a "failure to communicate". At any rate, some readers doubtless know better than I did, to be prepared for the possibility of hiring other appliance repair people, besides those that help with the initial installation.

How might one think about this in a larger sense? Services don't necessarily have to be a weak link, but it depends on the product in question, the price range and distribution, even the way a product fits into the lives of a population. For instance, even though it can be frustrating for new car owners to not be able to maintain their own cars in the present, cars and related repair costs are relatively expensive compared to many tradable goods - which consumers already accept as a given. So there are generally auto service options at the ready, which for the right price are willing to the do the job - properly, one hopes. Local knowledge for appliance repair? Not so much.

The other serviceman was more to the point: "You're lucky it didn't blow", he said. Hmm, likely I'll never know how true that might have been. But if a significant chance of blowing up the house actually existed, why did the Sears store which sold the appliance, tell us numerous times that there was nothing they could do about their own faulty installation? As it turned out, there were two problems, and more significantly: neither really originated within the retail outlet - a factor which doubtless matters, legally.

First, a wrong part was used when the oven was assembled in the factory, i.e. a valve connecting to an electric starter (in place of a pilot light), and so a new one had to be special ordered (yep, from Sears) before repairs could take place. In other words, that was a service mistake which originated on the part of the company that sold Sears the oven.

The other service mistake stemmed from the installation itself, after the oven left the store premises. In this case, the contracted installers did not have a pipe thread fitting on hand to hook up to the gas line, so they used a flared fitting instead. In our small town there is no longer a hardware store. Of course, who knows whether the initial installers would have bothered checking out a local retailer, if they indeed were cognizant of the problem. Luckily when the oven was finally taken care of, a local auto store had the proper pipe thread fitting, and actually gave it to the appliance repairmen at no charge.

I "get" that some people would say, this should have been both Sear's problem and responsibility! For a long time that was likely the case. But present day contract work (which is a part of so many lives) for repairs, is nothing like the earlier circumstance when companies were able to hire employees directly - in any number of ways.  Retailers who remain in business, are competing with product pricing strategies which don't leave a lot of room left over to pay for standard employment. As one repairman said, "Lowes may order 1000 ovens at a time, with very little profit on each oven."

And who knows? This particular form of services deficits may be a temporary strategy as well. At least one of the mistakes with the oven never should have happened at all - in that the need for a pipe thread fitting seemed quite obvious. I'm just glad it's taken care of, and hope that none of my readers have to deal with anything on the scale of ka-boom possibilities.

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