Probing the Limits: Skin-Deep Quality

December 1, 2006
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Have you ever considered how shrink-wrap has affected product quality? Shrink-wrap has created an interesting quality issue.

Shrink-wrap makes it impossible for consumers to inspect products. Before shrink-wrap, I never hesitated to open a box in the store and inspect the contents before I purchased it. Now, I’m forced to evaluate shrink-wrapped products based on what the marketing department at the company want to show me on the box.

Every quality professional knows that product quality cannot be evaluated if only the best features are presented in the most positive light.

When I talked to an owner of a local toy store about potentially carrying our new product, I learned that nearly all the products in the store are shrink-wrapped and his primary criteria for selecting toys to carry in his store was not based on the toy, but on a box that would sell product.

This was insightful to me-not just when it comes to toys, but when it comes to quality in general. For many years, I’ve wrestled with the question of why top management seems to care so little about product quality. Now I’m beginning to see that the product marketing is often more important to distributors and buyers than the actual quality of the product.

While I find it sad that kids are getting toys that have high-quality boxes that contain not-so-high-quality toys, I’m also gaining an understanding that the adults buying these product are often getting what they want.

While doing market research on our product, one mom told me, “When I buy a birthday present for one of my son’s friends, I really have no idea how good the toy inside the box really is. All I can do is find a box that is attractive and looks like I tried to find something good.”

I know that few readers of Quality Magazine work in the toy industry, but I believe these insights concerning skin-deep quality have real implications for all industries where employees are frustrated with management’s apparent lack of concern for quality improvement.

Most companies, whether they sell toys or cars, usually have a corporate emphasis on sales and marketing. I’ve observed that most companies put more effort into creating an image of quality instead of actually trying to improve their quality to world-class levels.

Sadly, that makes sense because saying you have high-quality is much easier and cheaper than actually achieving that level of quality-and top management wants things done in the most efficient manner.

Even though my observations about shrink-wrap are derived from looking at the toy industry, I think this insight can shed light on issues in many different industries, such as the auto industry. It seems to me that several auto manufacturers are trying to take the shrink-wrapped approach to quality by emphasizing the perception of quality rather than actual product improvement. The problem, though, is that cars are not shrink-wrapped, and it is easy to learn about a car’s actual quality with a little bit of research and a test drive.

In my own company that sells children’s products, we are trying to leverage our high quality as a strategic advantage by not selling in stores and by allowing our customers to use the opened product before they buy it. But the way we do business is very different from most companies. I don’t know how to address quality issues of other shrink-wrapped consumer products.

When it comes to the automobile industry, though, I do think there is something they can do about the shrink-wrap factor. I think the struggling automakers need to realize that customers are never going to accept the marketing of the superior quality of their nonshrink-wrapped products until the test data and the test drive back it up. It seems that improving quality could be a real strategic opportunity-again-for U.S. car manufacturers and other similar industries. The quality profession is eager to help them gain this advantage, if and when top management at these companies comes to that realization.

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