A tale of high laundry adventure, in which the washing machine dies and nobody emerges unscathed

John Bongard, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director
FISHER & PAYKEL APPLIANCES LTD

John Journee, Chief Executive
NOEL LEEMING GROUP

 

Gentlemen,

A couple of weeks ago, the “Pride” of my laundry died. I went to buy a new one.

It was a Fisher & Paykel machine. Its computer board had failed twice, in about a year. The extra several hundred for a new machine seemed better spent now than a serial few hundred for, perhaps, annual servicing.

The extended warranty sales pitch went something like this. It was a refrain that I’d heard and bought before. There will hardly be a home shopper in the country who hasn’t heard this, or similar:

Fisher & Paykel appliances aren’t made in New Zealand any more, therefore, their quality can’t be guaranteed. A washing machine is a hard-working item. Their computer boards have an average life of three years or so, sometimes as little as one. They invariably fail; it’s “just one of those things”, a “feature” of these machines. Relative to the replacement cost of that part, $180 for an extended warranty is cheap.

I spoke to Noel Leeming’s store manager about disposal options. Absolutely, he assured me, my old machine could be collected and dumped at no inconvenience to myself; this was all part of the service.

Er … dumped? The machine was six years old, moderately used, and otherwise “as new”. I’d been thinking “recycled” or “refurbished”, and yet… it was hard to argue with his assertion that this is not economic, since that was why I was in the shop.

I almost walked out of the shop; I still almost wish I had.

Fisher & Paykel brands itself as iconic, and trades on that perception. Its core principles, it says, include integrity and care, for the environment and for customers. “ELBA by Fisher & Paykel” is the budget washing machine option, but a dependable option.

I was demonstrating brand loyalty to Fisher & Paykel. I expect Fisher & Paykel to reciprocate with the same loyalty, to its customers and its manifesto. The ordinary households, for which ELBA purports to be purpose-built, can’t lay their hands on hundreds of dollars on a regular, yet unpredictable, basis for servicing or replacement of a limited durability part. When the computer boards’ limitations are known -- indeed, identified as a “feature” up front -- it looks a lot like planned obsolescence, the antithesis of “care for the environment”.

Paul Brockett, Vice President Investor Relations Fisher & Paykel Appliances, disputed what I had been told about the incidence of computer board failure. He denied “planned” obsolescence. “Any computer board will fail eventually [he wrote] but our records indicate a very low failure rate of controller boards in New Zealand and certainly well above the average lifespan of the 3 years you are suggesting. I presume someone trying to sell you an extended warranty might try to persuade you with some ‘figures’ to back up his/her sell story, but this is certainly not the case.”

Poking about online, post-purchase, I did find recycling information. I was shopping in Masterton, which is in the Greater Wellington region, one of the few regions in which recycling is available. In both Wellington and Auckland, Fisher & Paykel hosts recycling days, where the public can drop off products free of charge or, for a small charge, can arrange to have them picked up. This service extends to imported opposition brands. The old products are stripped down and recycled. The last recycling day in Auckland kept 48 tonnes of scrap from landfills.

Brockett added the following further points: “Fisher & Paykel has for some 16 years recycled old products from the field, something that was instigated before it became savvy to do so … This is a ‘service’ offered by Fisher & Paykel that is run as a non profitable part of the business. No other whiteware appliance distributor/importer in New Zealand offers any type of recycling service.”

Of course, I was only poking about online and writing emails for the sake of this post. The average person would not do this, having been assured that dumping is what happens. Anywhere else in the country, dumping is probably exactly what happens. Recycling is better than dumping; building machines that last would be best. But I began to have an inkling that Fisher & Paykel, like me, had fallen victim to what was, overall, a fairly farcical purchase experience.

Some of the sales pitch was absurd, for instance: it’s irrelevant where the machine is manufactured. It could be Timbuktu; the Consumer Guarantees Act would still apply. A hard-working item needs be fit for its hard-working purpose.

The extended warranty in question was for five years. It’s uncertain whether the Consumer Guarantees Act could be invoked over that whole period; the warranty therefore saves people the inconvenience of having to argue their particular case. The salesperson was just doing her job, which, as she said, includes making customers aware of options, lest they complain later about incomplete advice. (Not to mention prudently wringing out an extra few bucks’ insurance, to set off against what would probably, in any event, in some if not all cases, be the retailer’s legal obligations.)

Whatever: the option was offered, I declined, and that’s all fine. However, over and above the misinformation about recycling, a number of other things said were not smart.

First, the blinkered focus on selling an extended warranty, at the expense of the machine, and Fisher & Paykel’s reputation - including thrusting the whole offshore-relocation thing back in people’s faces at point of purchase when I would otherwise have momentarily forgotten. Secondly, if the failure of these boards was indeed random, anywhere from one to five years, then from a practical perspective the chances would be no better with a new machine than getting the old one repaired.

That’s the point at which you almost lost the sale.

Browsing my local junk store last week, I found a colonial washboard. It was a hundred years old, in perfect working order. It makes you wonder about the nature of “progress”, really. It wouldn’t have lined anyone’s pocket, but the dent in my wallet would have been correspondingly small.

Sincerely,

Claire Browning

 

Comments (13)

by Eleanor Black on September 23, 2009
Eleanor Black

Well said, Claire. This kind of waste makes me so angry. These "cheap" appliances that don't last may make financial sense for the manufacturers but they are deadly for the environment, not to mention a burden on shoppers. The Simpson dishwasher at our rental property died recently after 13 years of service. The appliance store where we bought the new dishwasher--an Elba, hey hey--offered to remove the old one for us. I assumed that meant it would be stripped for parts etc, but now I wonder, given that these appliance recycling events seem to be so rare.

by Claire Browning on September 23, 2009
Claire Browning

When I upgraded my fridge a couple of years ago, the retailer - the same Noel Leeming outlet in Masterton - took away the old one. I had fondly believed they would be recycling or onselling it, but stupidly, didn't ask. Now I know different; it will have been dumped, if my recent exchange with the store is anything to go by, and it was still a working fridge.

by stuart munro on September 23, 2009
stuart munro

I think too, that it wouldn't hurt to get some input on the electronics side. 1-3 years is much less than the ordinary working life of a computer board. F&P are indeed into planned obsolescence - read their explanations for abandoning the 'whiteway' sometime. It was too durable. Of course, had they employed competent marketers, they might have made a virtue of such a product's virtues.

Mind, the labour saved by many of these appliances is overstated, and with modern fabrics and cleansers, laundry, excepting perhaps large items like bedlinen, is not so onerous a chore as it was in our grandparent's time.

by Claire Browning on September 23, 2009
Claire Browning

I was within a millimetre of buying the colonial washboard, Stuart! I still might; it's probably still there. The only thing that stopped me was the wringing out.

by Claire Browning on September 23, 2009
Claire Browning

Although, I'm more likely to be seduced by the push mower ...

by Peter Martin on September 23, 2009
Peter Martin

Consumer , in their view , consider the life expectency of washing machines to be around 10+ years (top loading), 15+ years (front loading) and the economic life around 7-12 years (top loading), 12-20+ years (front loading).

Which is certainly more reasonable than the time frame quoted. And would indicate the extended warranty to be a rort...given it is also of the opinion that because of the more lengthy life time of washing machines...the consumer guarantee act also has a more lengthy cover than the one year often quoted.

by Claire Browning on September 23, 2009
Claire Browning

I'd be happy with that; that'd be fair value for money, and I look forward to finding out that latest experience has just been a comedy of errors and bad luck.

Note that the time frame quoted was for the computer board, not the machine. I don't know where she had dredged the figures up from; it may have been nothing more robust than personal experience (which isn't totally valueless, assuming true). She had anecdotes, which seemed honest, about her experience of a board failing twice in her current machine, at a 3-year interval - she didn't at that stage know, because I hadn't told her, that the board in my own machine had similarly failed twice, averaging 3 years. Her expectation, she said, was for a 12-13 year life in a washing machine, and she thought if she got the board fixed this time (the machine, apparently, was sitting at home full of clothes, refusing to drain) and crossed her fingers, she might just about get there ...

She was a nice lady, just doing her job. I imagine she's good at it. My hunch is, this is systemic.

I should also note a further aspect of Brockett's response to me, which was that when I had the machine repaired, if the dealer was not authorised, then they may not have used genuine Fisher & Paykel parts. If a computer board is replaced by F & P, it would then be guaranteed for a further year. I can't remember who I used; I do remember trying to find someone authorised, but not whether I was successful. 

by George Darroch on September 23, 2009
George Darroch

In the case of old fridges, on-selling them would be a bad idea, as they're particularly inefficient (the increase in efficiency being largely due to mandatory standards (MEPS) in NZ since 2002, and in other countries since the 1980s). Less so with washing machines which are not covered by such a standard.

The waste is a huge pity. Even if the metal is recycled, turning a piece of metal into molten steel uses immense amounts of energy, and there are issues with paint and other substances that make recycling much less than ideal.

I have a push mower, and it suits me just fine. Perfectly serviceable too. Not sure I'd sacrifice the convenience of a washing machine though!

by Claire Browning on September 23, 2009
Claire Browning

Posting does focus the mind ... I have been thinking today that in preference to recycling the machine (which cost $25), what I should have done is ring either SPCA or Salvation Army, and donate it, along with meeting them halfway on cost of getting it working again. Even with the fridge, that would have been better than dumping, surely - not emissions-wise, but more generally. 

You have a push mower; you are my idol, George. Trouble is, the one in the shop is a sturdy old antique - near as tall and weighs near as much as me! I'm not at all sure I could push it on grass of any length ... but I am so tempted to try.

Also, before I die, I am going to learn to scythe. One for the life list, Eleanor: scythe the grass in the orchard.

by George Darroch on September 24, 2009
George Darroch

There are a few push-mowers on TradeMe, so I'm sure you'll find something. Good luck!

by Claire Browning on September 24, 2009
Claire Browning

Certainly a couple of likely looking candidates - thanks.

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by Sam Stockwell on June 23, 2012
Sam Stockwell

I am still using an old F&P Whiteway 400. I did recently have a minor problem with it, but that was caused by a split drain pipe spraying water up into the switchboard, causing tracking from a wire into the earth. I cleaned it up and now it is running as good as ever after 30+ years. I am only 27 so I don't know exactly when this model came out or when they stopped manufacturing them, but I don't see why they cannot continue making them this durable. It is very simple inside, so it shouldn't cost much to make.

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