How to Squeeze More Life Out of Warranties

Such promises! Magnalite Professional cookware is “guaranteed for 100 years!” Calphalon cookware has a lifetime warranty. Brown Jordan outdoor furniture-- outdoors , for heaven’s sake--has a lifetime warranty, too.

Such warranties, not just pieces of paper hidden in a carton, are sales tools, making promises about both product and manufacturer. “The connotation is that nothing is going to go wrong with the furniture,” says Bill Markowitz, vice president of sales at Brown Jordan’s El Monte headquarters. “And if something goes wrong, and it was not abused, we’ll take care of it.”

But consumers are cynical, especially those with some experience in trying to exercise warranties. Well they might wonder what’s different about these warranties, besides their extraordinary term, and whether it’s really a benefit.

As defined in the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and detailed in subsequent Federal Trade Commission rules and guidelines, consumer product warranties must disclose all terms and conditions of the coverage, and be available before the purchase is made. They can be “full” or “limited,” the former a comprehensive coverage, free of any charge, the latter-- more common--is limited in certain ways that are clearly disclosed.


Terms Defined

The FTC further spelled out what must be disclosed--the parts and defects covered, the period of coverage, the consumer’s responsibility, the remedies the manufacturer is offering. And it defined some terms: “lifetime,” for example, could mean the life of the product or the original purchaser, or the “life,” or duration, of ownership.

Until recently, consumers who thought about warranties at all probably associated them with autos or appliances, and with terms of one, two or five years at the most. Then U.S. auto makers, eager to recapture their market from foreign imports, began to advertise longer warranties as an indication that their cars, too, were built to last, and they, too, stand behind their products. This stance, surmises Carl Hein III, general manager of Baltimore’s Casual Furniture Galleries, “trickled down to other consumer products.”

The longer warranties tend to be put on “higher-end” goods because “people pay more for them and have higher expectations,” says Karen Klein, administrative manager of leisure furniture for Grosfillex, which makes plastic furniture with warranties of up to six years. Sometimes longer warranties are associated with product advances, as when Brown Jordan introduced “powder-coated” aluminum frames in 1986 and boosted its warranty from five years to lifetime. Some are just changed: Farberware, too, made its five-year warranty a lifetime term in January, 1986, without changing the 45-year-old cookware at all.


Careful Reading Necessary

Actually, except for their duration, most of these are fairly traditional warranties, crying out for careful reading of terms and conditions. Like all warranties, moreover, their application may depend on judgments of fault.

Some cover only certain parts of the product. Revere Ware’s 25-year warranty on cookware doesn’t cover the black knobs or handles or glass percolator tops. Brown Jordan offers a lifetime warranty for the aluminum frame and powder-coat finish, but not the straps, which are covered for only two years.

Most also limit damages covered to those caused by defect in materials or workmanship, not by consumer abuse or misuse. “If there’s blatant misuse,” says Magnalite senior product manager Ted Conrardy in Terre Haute, Ind., “we won’t do anything--if they left for church and left a casserole simmering for three to four hours and the pan welded itself to the stove.”

But it’s not always so obvious, and “the difficulty for the manufacturer is how to determine whether it’s a valid manufacturing problem or misuse by the consumer,” says Klein at Grosfillex. Sometimes the very type of damage is consider proof of abuse: nicks or chips in the Grosfillex lacquer finish indicate improper handling, while flaking and peeling indicate a flaw in the finish. Similarly, says Markowitz, Brown Jordan “can tell whether (its furniture) was dragged or stacked or has metal fatigue from someone leaning back.”

According to Magnalite, misuse may also include “failure to adhere to the manufacturer’s care and use instructions.” With Magnalite Professional cookware, that means not cooking over high heat, and in spite of the name, no “use in commercial establishments.” With Calphalon, it means never putting the cookware in the dishwasher. And with Grosfillex lacquered furniture, warrantable “normal use” includes periodic cleaning according to enclosed instructions.

As with everything, it’s the interpretation and not the initial offer that reveals company attitude. “The company has to stand behind their warranty or it’s worthless,” says Joe Upton, consumer service representative at Revere Ware in Clinton, Ill.

What’s more, a limited warranty doesn’t obligate the manufacturer to cover the costs of his product’s return. Most of these goods must be shipped back prepaid, and the freight charge and the hassle--on patio furniture, for example--weighs against the benefit.


‘Warranty Wars’

Alternatively, the retailer might handle the return, although retailer behavior on manufacturer guarantees is probably more variable than manufacturer behavior. Department stores often feel, says a spokesman for Robinson’s in Los Angeles, that “we are in the business of customer service, and if the customer isn’t happy with the product we sell, we will take it back.” Smaller specialty stores may do the same thing, given the assurance and the experience that the manufacturer will cover the expense.

But retailers who accept responsibility can be put in a bad position by unrealistic warranties--one result of the current “warranty wars” in which manufacturers rush to offer 15, 50, or 100 years of coverage. “Some retailers are saying this is ridiculous,” says Hein. “A lifetime is unbelievable.”

Indeed it is. The product or the manufacturer or the consumer may be gone (Magnalite’s 100-year warranty, restricted to the “original owner,” allows for 120-year-old cooks). Even if all are extant, “the consumer needs to understand,” says Hein, “that 40 years down the road, it’s unlikely we can give him a new one.”