Many Unhappy Returns

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted Wednesday, September 05, 2012 14:20 PM

By Samuel Greengard

You would think that consumer products would work better than they do—especially after umpteen years of corporate executives chanting "total quality management" and poring over product specs with CAD programs. But the sad reality is that a lot of computer and electronics devices fail to live up to their billing.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a UnityRemote system to use with a TV, cable box and DVD player. It beckoned with the promise of turning my iPhone into a unified remote. I switched on the small hockey puck-shaped device, paired the phone with the unit via Bluetooth, installed the app on the phone, programmed the controls and watched as it worked superbly.

That is, it did until I switched off my phone and devices. The next time I tried to turn on the TV, the iPhone wouldn't connect no matter what I did. I just kept getting "out of range" messages.

It's a problem when the time- and labor-saving devices you buy (in this case for $50) actually result in a loss of time and add to the daily hassle. After all, I can pick up the three OEM remotes and have the system operating in a few seconds. So, in this case, it was back to the store for a return and a refund.

This isn't an isolated case, of course. I've had to return several gadgets over the last few years, and I’ve learned to live with a couple of others that are either glitchy or confusing to use, including iHome AirPlay WiFi speakers and an Eye-Fi SD camera card.

I'll admit it: My tolerance for devices that don't work well is near zero. If I have to spend a lot of time tinkering, dissecting manuals and contacting tech support, it's back in the box and back to the retailer.

Apparently, product returns are on the rise. A December 2011 Accenture survey titled “A Returning Problem” found that return rates jumped by 57 percent for retailers and 43 percent for manufacturers over a five-year span. The total cost to retailers and manufacturers is $16.7 billion annually.

But here's the kicker: Only 5 percent of these returns are due to product defects. A whopping 67 percent of customers indicated that the products they returned simply didn't meet their expectations.

Yes, it's an incredibly competitive marketplace, and it’s difficult to design and build products that work with a complex array of technologies. But, frankly, as a consumer, I couldn't care less about excuses. I just want my stuff to work. If it doesn't, it’s going back.