Thursday, October 11, 2007

Who’s to Blame?

Time to weigh in on the great import scare

Average Joe’s Opinion: Concerns with Imported Products

Hello once again ladies and gents… now that I’m back from my hiatus, I figure it’s time to take care of a few things before I settle back in for my humble product reviews. I’ll start off with the most major thing that I missed while away from the blog scene: the Great Chinese Toy Recall of 2007.

The Mattel Toy Scare has probably been the greatest consumer concern of 2007.

First things first: the safety of your child or family members is the number one priority. A list of the dangerous toys are available from many sources, if you have been unable to find the details you need please take a look at the following links to get informed on the scope of the recall and the products affected. If you have any questions, you can always try to contact the companies who are part of the recall or the local toy store distributor that carries these products.

Consumer Product Safety Commission (US)


Health Canada Advisories

So how did we get here? What events have brought us to the point where we are now searching and inspecting our children’s toys to see if we have inadvertently exposed them to danger? More importantly what can we do?

Here is my list (heavily laced with my opinions) on how the average consumer can handle this latest curveball at the store shelves:

It’s investment time - do you know where your money is?

First, the big picture: We whine and complain that it’s the big corporations who are slashing domestic jobs, moving operations overseas and selling us products of lower quality to add insult to injury. We imagine diabolic CEOs and other directors in the board room plotting and scheming on how to exploit yet another low-cost nation to make their sneakers, toys and plastic junk.

Truth of the matter is we are partly the reason why corporations are so money-hungry and profit-oriented. Corporations are publicly traded companies, meaning we prop them up with our own investments, mutual funds… even inadvertently through our pension and insurance policies. The result is always the same: we like to see growth. We invest for high returns on our dollar, rarely caring about anything else. This is only achievable if the company continues to make an outrageous profit.

When you see a high return on your investments, you will be inclined to invest more. Soft returns and you’ll pull your money out and place it with the winners. Do you really care that a company laid-off 700 North American workers and sent its manufacturing overseas to rake in that huge profit that shot your earning per share up 25%?

Wonder why CEOs appear so ruthless at making a profit? Truth is most of their contracts have heavy performance bonuses directly linked to the success of the stock. Essentially we are paying and encouraging them to get that stock up as far as it can go, any way possible.

If you would rather have good returns on your investments and not worry about the consequences, that is alright as you are free to do what you want with your money. However, do not cry foul when the factories close up and suddenly you find that your domestic product selection has all but vanished. Don’t forget: corporations are also free to do what they want with your (yes “your” as in you as a shareholder) money.

If you want to start making a difference, find out where your money is. If you don’t like the companies that are holding your dollars, pull some or all of your money out and support someone you are more satisfied with. With a little bit of homework, you can still expect good returns as there are plenty of high tech companies here in North America that are increasing profit by streamlining their operations, working more efficiently and coming out with breakthrough technologies – all while being regulated by environmental, tax and social laws.

There are also plenty of new mutual fund packages that promote growing businesses that meet certain social or environmental responsibilities. These new funds have been created due to popular demand, a demand that you can create.

Vote with your dollar. Your money should be supporting the companies you believe in and trust, not invested in the very companies you are denouncing.

Make a Statement Where it Counts - the Bottom Line

Now, on the home front: Boycott is a strong word, but comparative shopping when it comes to commodities is the key. If you want corporations to stop thinking only about money, then you should also stop thinking only about the price you’re paying. Let the market decide who wins and who loses, but instead of only looking at the price tag, look at other factors such as origin of the product and the company image.

If you do not like the fact that companies offload their manufacturing on low-cost countries, DO NOT BUY THEM. Look at alternatives and vote with your dollar by buying elsewhere. Complain to the manufacturer and the retail outlet. Ever hear the story about Dell’s now-infamous offshore customer support center? You’d be surprised how fast companies wake up when profits are at stake. If not, there will be others vying to work their way up and take their place.

Take your Time to Find what You Really Want

The main advantage to products made in low-cost countries is that they are usually inexpensive. Therefore, finding other sources for your goods at reasonable prices is hard to do. For example, walk into any toy store and you’ll see that most toys are made in China.

News Story

However, keep hope. The products you want are out there, you’ll just have to look a little harder. It’ll take time and effort. The solution is to shop smartly and start early. You may have to start looking in new or different places – perhaps online or at a lesser-known local store. I will not openly plug any businesses or websites that I did not purchase and evaluate a product from, but there are several online outlets that offer interesting domestic-made items.

Another advantage to starting early is that you will have enough time to check for promotions or sales to help offset any increased cost with buying domestically. This is not something you can do on December 20th to find your Christmas gifts.

Change your Mentality on the “Hot Items”

Sadly, most toys I found that were made in North America and Europe were quite different from what you’d see on most kids’ Christmas wish list, and it doesn’t look like it’ll change soon. Therefore, the only solution is to change our children’s (and our own) expectations.

While most popular plastic figurines where impossible to find domestically, I found lots of wooden toys and building block sets that are made right here in Canada. There were also a wide variety of educational toys, stuffed animals and sporting equipment that is made entirely in North America. Changing our kids’ expectations from playing with another Dora doll to using a building set requires a bit of effort from parents, but an effort that may be worthwhile.

Buy Yourself Some Time to Save When You Buy

I will not pretend that the toys you’ll find made here are cheaper than the ones imported from overseas. However, a good way to save money and bring down that extra cost is to start shopping early and use the extra time to find sales and other deals.

Making a multiple purchase (why not buy all the kid’s birthday gifts at one time and store them?) will help you save on shipping costs when buying online, and perhaps enable you to take advantage of minimum purchase amount discounts and other multiple-item promotions. Buying items when they are out of season (like a hockey jersey in the summer) and keeping it aside until the right moment is also a good way to find a deal. The only thing I would suggest is to make sure the item is tried out before the warranty or exchange policy expires if you will be hanging onto it for a long time.

National Pride

Time to take pride in that “Made in …” sticker. Why not support the hard working men and women of this country that are paying into your government pensions, sustaining your healthcare system and other programs than trying to save a few dimes? I don’t expect people to pay ridiculous amounts, but there are times where you’ll be surprised at what you’ll find for just a few pennies more, or even less.

Hey, if I can find Canadian-made packing tape at Dollarama, I’m sure you can find some goodies out there too. You just need to have the will to look.

Avoid Counterfeits

A lot of counterfeit merchandise comes illegally from overseas, and there is very little that can be done about it.

News Story

The solution is to cut it off at the end of the line. By buying these products, you are essentially giving your money to people who are working outside regulations and outside the system, both here and overseas. Increasing the demand thus encourages them to continue; decreasing demand makes it no longer worth it for them. Don’t pretend that Lacoste shirt you bought for $15 at the flea market isn’t a fake. Counterfeits are fairly obvious to spot, and if a deal is too good to be true, it probably is.

If you like your counterfeits because you can’t afford the real thing, fair enough, it’s your decision to make. But don’t go complaining about problems with our regulators and lawmakers when the toys your children play with bypass the system the same way as your shirts and watches.

Final Verdict:

We have every right to be upset at shoddy, dangerous products made in China (or anywhere else for that matter) and against the domestic corporations that carelessly design and sell them to us. Forget about mobilizing the masses to protest against corporations. I’ll say it again like I’ve always had: we are consumers, and we must vote with our dollar.

Now it’s time to tell cheap outsourced manufacturers what we think.

- Average Joe

A Little Clarification on My Opinion of Dollar Stores

Just wanted to set the record straight on some feedback concerning my “Told You So” sidebar and April review (why are people still focused on April?):

If you read my review from start to finish, you would realize that I am not denouncing the dollar store genre. I think that like in any type of store, there are some great deals and some bad deals that the average consumer can find. To summarize:

-In my books, when you pay a dollar and get a product that’s worth a dollar, you’ve got a fair deal.

-If you pay a dollar but get a product comparable and/or equivalent to a similar product that is worth more than a dollar, you got a good deal.

-If you pay a dollar (for whatever intent – I understand not all people can shop at other stores for financial reasons) but get a piece of junk that can’t do its main purpose or is of such unreasonably low quality that its practical use is impossible, well then you’ve got a bad deal.

Enough said!

- Average Joe