November 2010

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Searching for American Pride


by Toni Seger

My freezer chest died recently. We'd had it 23 years which I thought was pretty good. It was a simple little box that sat quietly in the basement and made it possible for me to shop sales and 'stock up'. I ended up at Sears to replace it and had such a negative experience, I was moved to write an essay because it contained so many larger contradictions that disturb me about the direction of American values. Sears isn't where America shops anymore, but I've long thought of it as a good place to buy large appliances for reliable quality and good terms. After this experience, however, I don't feel good about it at all and I even tossed out my Sears card.


I'm not writing a memoir here. My thoughts are larger than a bad experience in a retail outlet. We're in a struggling economy that's competing in a global context, so when I walk into a store intending to make a purchase I expect the experience to be positive. I'm not difficult to wait on and I don't have special requirements. Also, I very rarely window shop. If I walk into a store, it's usually with the intent of buying something. I don't want to waste my time or the clerk's. So, if I have a bad experience, it surprises me. However, as I explored the market for small freezer chests, I found the entire experience relentlessly negative which left me amazed that global retail giants could lock themselves into such a negative approach. As for Sears, I have little hope this struggling chain will even survive, let alone return to anything like its former glory.


It all started with extended warranties... By law, products are sold with implied warranties of merchantability; i.e. they're supposed to work which these days isn't as obvious as it sounds. As items become more expensive, they're accompanied by an expressly written warranty. These have been shrinking for years while extended warranties that lengthen your coverage, at a price, have been growing. I've been refusing to purchase extended warranties for decades, since the first time the subject was raised. I've always found the idea of extended warranties offensive, but they're becoming more and more ubiquitous while the terms of warranty coverage keep getting narrower. Meanwhile, the pressure tactics of trained clerks pushing extended warranties are getting more and more obnoxious and I find the entire shopping experience is becoming downright distasteful.


I refuse to relinquish an old fashioned mentality where the customer is supposed to be treated with respect and the product is supposed to be lauded. As someone with a marketing background, my understanding of marketing has always started with positive product promotion. Wow! am I out of date. Far from being supportive about their bread and butter products, trained employees are much more likely to trash them. The first time I was confronted with an extended warranty, in the early 80's, I challenged the sales person on the quality of the product and was assured it was excellent and the extension was simply for 'peace of mind', but that's all changed. Now, if you raise that same challenge, the clerk is just as likely to tell you the product is garbage which is why you need to extend the warranty. Trying to buy a freezer chest, I concluded the only profit making part of retail now is the extended warranty because it was the only part that got positive promotion.


I don't like being issued dire warnings about a product I'm trying to purchase. Is there anyone who would? In a strange marketing twist, sales training today is directed at treating the customer like a moron for thinking he or she is buying something that's worth buying. What really upsets me, when products are described as crap and the store expects you to come back for more, it gives you the sinking feeling that nothing but crap is availableÉ


This proved to be especially true when I tried to purchase a small freezer chest. With my refrigerator/freezer at home stuffed with items out of my freezer chest, I had to do something fast, so I left my house intent on buying a freezer. Freezers are simple items. Unlike refrigerators which have defrost cycles, freezers just freeze. When they break down, time is of the essence if you want to save all that food you bought on saleÉ When I tried to buy one, however, all I heard about was how rapidly the item I intended to purchase was going to die. When I said my last one lasted 23 years, I was regularly laughed at. After the impersonal experience of two big box stores, I went to Sears where I've previously bought lots of appliances like a washing machine and dryer, cook stove, digital camera, dish washer and my old freezer chest. By this point I was tired, the item was on sale and I was ready to give in and buy something that looked exactly like the last two I'd seen, but cost a little less. The clerk imposed herself as soon as I entered the store and waved me disdainfully toward the only small freezer chest available. When I got to the part about my last freezer which I bought at Sears lasting 23 years, she summoned all the contempt she could muster at my obvious age and ignorance and said: "That's all over now, dear". Then, she tossed her heavily tinted, teased head of hair, looked down from her painted face and sneered: "Top of the line products you're lucky if you get eight years dear and this one isn't top of the line."


That certainly put me in my place. Instead of the impersonal service of a big box where clerks couldn't direct me to a small freezer or answer questions about it, except for proferring information about extended warranties, this Sears clerk was armed with knowledge about the brief life span of today's appliances. My 23 year record was a pathetic relic of the dim dark past as if owning the same anything for 23 years was simply unimaginative. With enormous confidence, my Sears clerk realed off facts designed to make a customer feel like an idiot for thinking they could buy an item based on quality. Of course, having visited two big boxes before Sears, I knew the small freezers available in my area looked exactly the same, were all made in China and all had a flimsy feel to them. Further, though they all said they were 5.5 cubic feet, all of them consistenly misrepresented their size because none of them was close in size to the 5.5 cubic foot freezer that had just died on me. 


What happened to the competitive marketplace Big Business incessantly talks about that's so important because it forces companies to strive? When it came to small freezer chests, there was nothing but crap available and being insulted was just part of the process because that's the preferred sales tactic for pushing crap, but when we got to the extended warranty, I was even more amazed. The product came with a one year warranty and I was expected to purchase a two year warranty which simply meant I was expected to pay an inordinate price for a single year of additional coverage! It was just like an extra tax. Apparently, my new freezer was such a total piece of junk, I was supposed to be afraid to take it home without incurring an additional cost which amounted to 20% of the price!! just to get me a second year of usability.


I don't know if anyone in the freezer world will ever see this essay, but there's clearly a niche out there for an enterprising entrepreneur who wants to sell quality freezers because clerks are pretty confident they don't exist on the planet anymore. Don't worry about charging more. You can clearly charge more for a longer lasting freezer and cheapskates like me will be willing to pay. I'm a chronic bargain hunter, but the fact that I paid less money for my new freezer than my old one is absolutely no comfort because I've been told by the seller that I can't expect it to last much more than a year and if that proves to be true, it was a very expensive purchase. Paying more for a better freezer would be a mammouth bargain because the extended warranty put the new freezer within $50 of my old one and it survived 22 years longer than my new one is supposed to because: "That's all over now, dear".


After I finally convinced the clerk that I really meant it when I said I didn't want the extended warranty, I asked if there might be a break for using a Sears card and there was, so I pulled mine out only to be told it had been de-activated. Stupid me, I assumed the card was good because it says 'good until 2011' on it. "I can re-activate it for you, dear" was the frosty response. I have to say, I don't like being called 'dear' and I guess I got called it once too often that day because I took the card back and squeezed it until it broke in half, instead.


Sears isn't where America shops anymore and I guess I won't be shopping there anymore either, but there was a time when America and Sears were practically synonomous and both were symbols of pride. You could build and fill an entire house out of the Sears catalogue and do it through the mail, too! It was the wonder of the world.


Over half a century ago, a movie called "Patterns" got a lot of attention for its description of cut throat, corporate tactics that focused on making money instead of making quality products. The script was by Rod Serling and it was one of his best. At the pinnacle moment, the lead character smashes a chair against a table in the corporate boardroom to demonstrate to the board that a once solid product they could feel pride in, was now a piece of junk. For this character, being in business to make money out of junk was a hollow worthless path he didn't want to be on which brings me to my point.


What does it mean to feel pride in being an American? Obviously, it means different things to different people, but there was a time when it meant quality made products exported to the world. It doesn't mean that anymore and I don't think that's a good thing. Last month, Jon Wallace called himself na•ve for being shocked at the amoral level of the 2010 campaign season, (The Decay of the American Narrative), but I don't think there's anything na•ve about being able to feel revolted at the abysmal level of American politics or the abysmal level of American products. I've written about the decline of the American empire for decades, yet I continue to be shocked and horrified by every manifestation of the very thing I've regularly predicted. What especially shocks me is, when someone labels me na•ve for being revolted by decadence in any of its manifestations. I believe, it's when we learn to accept corruption that we give up any chance of rehabilitation. i.e. I realize lying is mainstream in our culture, but that doesn't mean I have to like it or imitate it. I don't like liars and I'm not going to apologize for that.


When we stop being shocked, we give up on things ever being better which some people might think of as a more sophisticated reaction, but I'm either not sophisticated or I'm not ready to give up because I'm shocked to witness how a formerly great company like Sears thinks it can regain market share and return to its earlier glory by trumpeting its products as trash. As for politics, I'm equally shocked that any candidate would even consider using mailers depicting a photoshopped president as a pimp and his wife as a whore, let alone feel proud of having done it. Bottom feeding takes you to the bottom which is not where I want to be.


I realize my declining years will probably be characterized by regularly feeling shocked and I'm resigned to that. From my perspective, it's better to be shocked than the alternative. Still, I wasn't terribly shocked when I got a mailing from Sears labled: IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR NEW FREEZER. Yup, it was another chance to purchase that warranty.


Co-owner of a media/communications firm ProseWorks(tm) Associates since 1992, Toni Seger has been a professional writer for four decades. Seger is the author of The Telefax Box, the first in a satiric trilogy about our overly mechanized lives. She has produced and directed original plays for stage and television and is an award winning film maker (with endorsements from Maine Public Broadcasting) of The Force of Poetry.