Return to Sender


I like products that are well made. Whether it’s a wristwatch, a lawnmower, a washing machine or a paintbrush, I appreciate meticulous engineering and solid manufacturing. Automobile manufacturers call it “build quality.”

I also like shopping for those products, comparing their design and execution down to an almost ridiculous level of detail. The internet feeds this sort of obssesiveness, because there are plenty of people out there who are even sillier than I am, and will argue at great length about the optimum width of the rear tires on a lawn tractor.

Above all else, I value durability. Do you remember the old Timex commercial, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking”? Well, I couldn’t design a more effective ad for people like me, but my pursuit of durability does create something of a catch-22. I love to shop for these things, but I buy such solid ones that they never need to be replaced. It almost makes me root for the dishwasher to break down.

I have a stationary bike that I bought more than 20 years ago, and have used about three times a week ever since. That’s something like 3,000 workouts, and the machine has shown little if any wear. The guy riding it, however, has shown a great deal.

One of my knees no longer bends very far, and the repetitive stress of a stationary bike is too much for it to tolerate. After some experimentation I decided to replace it with a treadmill, which can be used with a limited range of motion. As much as I hated to let go of my old companion, at least it gave me a chance to indulge my shopping proclivity.

I knew virtually nothing about treadmills, which made the whole process even more appealing to me. I had to figure out what the key components were and what made them better. Should the motor be three horsepower or four? How much should it weigh and how much weight should it be able to bear? How fast should it run and how much incline should it offer?

This being 2020, you also have to look at the electronic interface. I’ll spare you another anti-technology rant, and let it suffice to say that I am not a big fan of “smart” products. I don’t need my refrigerator to decide that we’re running low on orange juice.

That ship has sailed. At this point any sort of sophisticated vehicle, or appliance or, yes, treadmill, is going to offer internet connectivity and onboard applications, so you need to treat those things the same way you treat other features. How well do they work and how reliable are they?

Reliability and durability, by the way, are not exactly the same thing. The former means that it always does what it’s supposed to do, and the latter means that it does so in spite of time and hard use. Measuring the two qualities can get exceedingly tricky.

Consumer Reports and other organizations try to measure them through surveys and various kinds of testing, but such efforts are rarely very scientific. Internet testimonials are notoriously misleading, as it is nearly impossible to know for sure who wrote them or to what purpose.

There is another way to estimate reliability, which is at once more subtle but probably more significant. Simply take a look at the warranty and/or return policy.

My brief but intense study of treadmills revealed that there are a surprising number of brands, like 20 or more, but on close examination I found that some companies produce multiple brands. In that way it is much like the car business.

It seems to me that the guarantees offered by these companies, like those written by other companies in other industries, can be divided into two categories. First, there are policies that express confidence in the product and consideration for the customer. Second are the ones that are expressly designed to protect the company from unsatisfied buyers.

Take for example the return policies of two of the most popular treadmills on the market. One of them says that you may choose to return their product for any reason within 30 days. There is no charge to the consumer, and the company will actually pay the $300 shipping cost.

The other one charges $300 for shipping, plus a $200 “restocking” charge. You would have to really hate a product to be willing to pay $500 to get rid of it, and it certainly gives you the feeling that the warranty is more about the manufacturer than it is about you.

About 10 years ago, I made the mistake of buying a very expensive German-made SUV. Its build quality was indeed impressive, but it was diesel powered, and within a month a trouble light came on, indicating that it was low on something called diesel exhaust fluid.

The service manager told me that it was probably the result of cold weather, topped up the fluid, and handed me a bill for $40. I said that I thought fluids were covered by the warranty, to which he replied that they were only covered at regular intervals.

“So, you’re telling me that the warranty covers something when it’s working properly, but not when it isn’t?” Before he could answer me, one of the other customers in the waiting room flipped out, and started hollering at the service manager, telling him how much I had paid for the vehicle, and how absurd the policy was. I felt like asking the guy if I could hold his coat.

The dealership waived the charge, but over the course of the next four years I continued to have to fill the thing up with exhaust fluid every couple of months. As soon as the warranty expired, another trouble light came on, and the service manager told me that the diesel exhaust system had to be replaced, at a cost to me of $5000.

It turned out that their cold weather explanation had been faulty, and the fluid had been slowly leaking out over the years, corroding everything it touched. Fortunately, I still had a copy of that $40 invoice, and after I waved it in their faces and threatened to sue them, they determined that the manufacturer would pick up 90 percent of the expense.
I took the deal, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. First of all, what’s the point of the 90 percent? It felt like they were saying they would pay most of the cost but not admit that it was really their fault.

Secondly, how about an apology for four years of inconvenience, or a discount on a new car, or a free sweatshirt, or anything at all? Somehow they managed to add insult to injury.

A friend of mine drives a brand of car that is known for its reliability. He once told me that he took his car back to the dealer with a serious problem, long after the warranty had expired. The dealer fixed the car at no charge because “that problem should not have happened” to a car with that number of miles on it.

Treadmills and automobiles are not art supplies, but I’m betting that you can make a direct connection between the attitudes of those manufacturers and the companies that you deal with every day. I’m sure you could tell me who has the best return policy, or warranty, and who has the worst.

If I were your customers, it’s something I’d like to hear about.

You can e-mail Kevin at

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