Survey: Consumers Blame Both Manufacturers and Retailers When Products Fail

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When a mattress dips in the center, a pillow loses its loft or an adjustable bed base stops functioning, consumers may blame the product failure not just on the maker of the item but also on the retailer that sold it to them, according to new research.

“Consumers often point the finger at more than one external party for product failures, at times bringing retailers under scrutiny rather than just the manufacturers. (The new research) warns retailers to be cautious about which brands they carry,” according to an article by Shannon Roddel posted Sept. 21 on the website of Notre Dame University in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Two studies showed that consumers spread blame for product failures around. In the first study, consumers equally assigned fault, with 22% to 42% of blame going to the manufacturer and a similar 24% to 41% going to the retailer. In a second study, manufacturers were assigned more of the blame (51%) but retailers also were faulted (37%).

Interestingly, the perceived quality of both the manufacturer and retailer impact, in surprising ways, how consumers assign fault. Value-focused retailers are blamed more when a product from a high-end brand fails but upscale retailers are faulted when a product from a maker of low-end brands fails.

“Value-oriented retailers are in a particularly precarious position as they seem to receive more than their fair share of the blame when the specific source of the failure is uncertain. For example, Dollar General will likely receive a large share of the blame if frozen chicken breasts from a reputable manufacturer purchased at the store turn out to be tainted with salmonella,” says Frank Germman, an associate professor of marketing at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, who conducted the studies along with co-authors Ronald Hess of the College of William & Mary and Margaret Meloy of Penn State University. The study will be published in the Review of Marketing Research.

“The spillover effects identified in the study suggest retailers need to be cautious about carrying brands that might appear at odds with consumers’ expectations of what the store is likely to carry,” Roddel writes.

Much of the research into product failures assumes consumers can easily determine who is at fault, but that’s often not the case, Germann says.

“Indeed, the unequivocal identification of who is to blame is not typical with product failures due to the decoupled manner of manufacturing,” he says. “This uncertainty makes all entities within the supply chain eligible for blame by consumers.”

The takeaway for bedding retailers: Carry well-crafted, reliable products from reputable manufacturers — and be prepared to take some of heat if they occasionally don’t perform as expected.