A close shave with a lifetime guarantee

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In the late 1970s, Victor Kiam acquired the Personal Care Division of Remington, a large American company. Remington innovated – from rifles to the QWERTY keyboard – first incorporated into the Remington Rand typewriter, but the personal care division was a loss maker.

The Remington personal care business manufactured electric shavers and had been wallowing in losses and debt. Only a year after Kiam’s intervention, the company reversed its fortunes and made a profit of $47 million (R630 million).

Victor Kiam was not only a great entrepreneur; he was a charismatic leader and mastered the personality advertisement technique; where the CEO of an organisation would appear on electronic or print media to endorse their product. Kiam’s famous slogan ‘I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company’ (which he recorded in several languages) made him a household name in the 1980’s.

Kiam also promoted the Remington Microscreen by promising ‘It shaves as close as a blade or your money back’
I bought a Remington Microscreen shaver about 30 years ago. It certainly did not shave as close as a blade. If anything, it was a mediocre product compared to the Phillips 3-bladed rotary electric shaver. I returned the shaver to the retailer for a refund. This was refused, as the packaging had been opened. I was referred to the Johannesburg importer, who similarly rejected the money-back guarantee as they fell under the Remington

European branch distributor network. I was given an address in the UK and told to take it up with them. These were the days before the Consumer Protection Act, fax machines and e-mail. Letters had to be typed and airmailed. After 6 months (and several broken promises) I gave up.
To this day, I associate Remington shavers (probably unfairly) with bad customer service and deceit.

But what is a money-back or ‘lifetime guarantee’?

Could it be the lifetime of the customer, the time-span of the original purchaser owning the product, the lifespan of the manufacturer or the reasonable lifetime of the product itself? We know from our law that there is an implied warranty; which means that the product should do what it’s supposed to do and that it may be used for any purpose the seller claims.

Despite South African consumer protection laws being amongst the best in the world, the reality is that fighting may end up costing you far more in time and resources than the value of your loss.
If a supplier refuses to refund you, ask yourself if the battle is worthwhile. Depending on the value of the transaction, it seldom is. Using cost-free services of appointed Ombuds or remedies such as the Small Claims Courts may allow you to win the fight, but lose the war.

Two examples come to mind. The first involved the purchase of roof tiles carrying a 20-year written guarantee. Three years later, the manufacturer had been liquidated. Not only was the guarantee practically unenforceable, but I had used a product which was no longer supported or even available at any price.
A similar frustration occurred after trying to recover a deposit from a landlord. After missing three court appearances over many months, the landlord was ruled against in absentia. He then appealed the ruling on the grounds of being unable to present his case due to personal problems. The court granted the appeal which had the effect of delayed and continuing proceedings as a fresh case. I soon realised the strategy – he would win by attrition. Delay, obfuscate, and use legal processes to frustrate an outcome. Even if there was a favourable ruling, further costs would be incurred on enforcing the order, attaching assets etc – an additional round of legal struggles. Justice is a theory, not necessarily a reality suited to honest people. In South Africa, The strategy of attrition is used masterfully by many leaders and corrupt officials to avoid the consequences of their misdeeds or ineptness.

There are however, many organisations who mean exactly what they say when offering a lifetime guarantee – it means forever, irrespective of ownership. Lego is one such company. They will replace lost parts almost unconditionally. So will Zippo lighters and Cross pens,
Craftsman hand tools in the USA replace or repair products free of charge. According to Kris Malkovski, Vice President of Craftsman; ‘[their]company brand continues to offer (a lifetime guarantee) because it reinforces the quality and trust consumers can have that Craftsman is there for them to get their project done.’

Unless you are dealing with an efficient, reputable and ethical supplier (or country), in practice it doesn’t matter what you may think a warranty means. Unless specified in statute, rarely does it mean the lifetime of the consumer, or the product or a particular time-frame. For the unprincipled, the phrase is little more than a casual marketing tool, designed to catch customers. Their promises are just expressions of intent capturing you within a momentary time-frame.

Victor Kiam remained chairman of Remington until his death in 2001. The London Times newspaper quoted one of his business associates, Jonathan Lyons, as saying that Kiam was “a truly remarkable entrepreneur of the old kind – the kind they simply don’t make any more.”

As the Denver Post newspaper once quipped; ‘Lifetime warranties usually expire sooner than you think.” So did Victor Kiam.

  • Ron Weissenberg is an international citizen and Grahamstown resident who started his first business at age seven. He is a Certified Director (SA) and mentors people and their enterprises.
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