Quality Control In The Nineties - by John Sealander

I am increasingly convinced that if people spent more time worrying about the little things, the big things would take care of themselves. It's not that the Federal deficit, the war in Bosnia and the depletion of the ozone layer should be ignored, it's just that these and other problems are largely the result of a general inability to resolve much simpler, even trivial issues.

Case in point: I recently purchased one of those little digital chip cameras that lets you download pictures directly into your computer. The thing didn't work correctly from the minute I took it out of the box. It would take pictures when you plugged it into AC power, but every time I put new batteries in, it would suddenly turn into a six ounce block of inert plastic. Well, the problem seemed obvious enough. A bad connection. Somehow, the power wasn't getting from the batteries up to the picture taking part of the camera.

Now, as recently as five years ago, I could have taken a small screwdriver and a soldering iron and put this problem to rest in five minutes. I look inside the small oddly shaped battery compartment and realize that I will need the tools of an arthroscopic surgeon and the patience of Job to make any headway on this little beast.

So as I do with all such products, I put it back in the original box, take it back to the store where I bought it, and stand at the rear of the returns/repairs line. This line is inevitably twice as long as the nearby line to buy things. People are holding a sad assortment of broken fax machines, modems, printers and computers of every shape and description. At the back of the line, it's hard to tell what the people in front are arguing about. But it's safe to say they're not happy campers.

Those of us in line, this motley crew of dissatisfied customers, have become the quality control department for the manufacturers. Remember those little scraps of paper you used to find in your pockets when you bought a new shirt or pair of pants? They usually said "Inspected by Number 13." or something equally impressive. Well, you don't find those little scraps of paper inside boxes that contain laser printers or little digital chip cameras. Today, you are inspector 13! These days nobody knows how to fix simple things, so you just keep bringing them back to the returns/repairs desk and exchanging them until you finally find one that works.

I finally inch my way to the head of the service desk line and present my box with the chip camera inside to the clerk. They don't even ask what's wrong with it. Instead two clerks get into an argument about whether the right SKU number is on the box. Evidently, a fate worse than death awaits those who return merchandise under the wrong SKU number. Someone spends about fifteen minutes filling out five pages of forms and then issues me a store credit good for another chip camera that probably doesn't work either. "Just take this back to sales," the clerk says "and they'll fix you right up." I take my exchange slip back to a salesman and he looks at it about three seconds and says, "Oh, we've been out of those for three weeks." "No you haven't ," I say, "I bought this here yesterday." He just gives me this blank look, like he doesn't believe me.

I ask if they have the camera in stock in another store. And after about fifteen minutes on the phone, he returns and says that they have four left in their Mesquite, Texas store. Well, wouldn't you know. . .the Mesquite store is only about forty more miles down the road from the Addison store where I am now standing. "We're open till nine," he says, as if this will make the drive easier. I'm used to long drives though. Especially since everything in Dallas is at least fifty miles from everything else. I take my little box and head for Mesquite.

I begin to notice that all the drivers on the freeway with me look pissed off. And why not? They are probably all carrying little boxes containing something that doesn't work too. Boxes full of new dresses with torn seams. Blenders that only work in reverse. Toasters where the toast gets stuck and burns to carbon black before you can get it out. There's no denying it: simple things aren't simple anymore.

When I arrive at the Mesquite store, it has gotten dark and most of the drivers on the road have passed way beyond mad into a more dangerous state of consciousness. After four or five hours of returning things that don't work, many of them would kill to get a good parking place. I have actually seen fistfights break out in Dallas parking lots over prime spaces. But since being fifteen feet closer to the store is not something I consider worth fighting about, I park far away and walk back to the store. When I go in the front door, I notice that some of the cars that arrived at the same time I did are still circling, looking for a prime spot.

The line at the return/repairs desk at this store is even longer that it was at the store. The clerks and technicians behind this counter look like cast members in "Dawn of the Dead." Everything is moving in slow motion. I man in front of me is trying to return software. "You can't return this," says the clerk, "you already opened the box. "But this software sucks," says the man. "I hate it." "And it says right her that I can exchange it." "Only for another copy of the same software, " says the clerk. The man practically explodes. "Why would a want another copy of this software," he says, "I told you this software sucks." He says this quite loudly, and I notice that other people throughout the store are looking at the boxes of software they have in their hands, to see if the might have the same evil program. A woman in an adjacent line is telling her clerk, "I got this SoundBlaster Card and there was no card inside." The clerk is not buying this. "Are you saying that when you got this box home, there was nothing inside it?" says the clerk. This is no love fest I'm watching. The customers think everyone at the service desk is an idiot. And the service desk clerks think the customers are all liars and thieves. It is not a pretty sight.

And I'm thinking, yeah this is about right. . .this is how wars get started. A bumble bee stings a dog, who runs into a herd of cows, starting a stampede. The stampeding cows knock over a lantern and start a forest fire. A million little things. . .trivial things actually. . .start to go wrong and suddenly the world doesn't work.

Finally, I'm at the head of the line again. We go through the whole process of filling out the paperwork all over again. It is now four hours after I started this little Odyssey, but I have my store credit in hand, and am looking for a new chip camera box. Suddenly, I see a whole stack of chip camera boxes just like mine over in the corner. I ask one of the salespeople why there are so many. "Oh, nobody buys these," she says, "They're no good."

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