Quality Magazine

Probing the Limits: Overall Product Quality

April 1, 2007

What does that stack of catalogs sitting in your mailbox have to do with product quality? I think it has a lot to do with quality and it exposes some important issues that I feel the quality profession has not addressed.

Who do you think paid for that stack of catalogs in your mailbox? You did. The companies that send them are smart. If they didn’t have good reason to believe that you would buy plenty of stuff to justify sending you a catalog, then they would stop sending them. I know there are cases where you keep getting a catalog from a company that you rarely buy from, but generally speaking, you are getting those catalogs because you keep paying for them with the products you buy.

I had a normal mail day today with six catalogs in my mailbox. They averaged 100 pages per catalog-that’s 600 pages in a normal day.

I’m no expert on direct mail marketing, but I did some rough calculations and figured that companies are spending at least $4,000 a year sending me catalogs-and that number could be a low estimate.

When I recently purchased a shirt through one of those catalogs, I wondered how much of my money was going toward the shirt and how much of the shirt money was going toward paying for all those fancy catalogs, many of which I never open.

What if they just sent me one catalog a year and I kept it stored away until I needed new clothes? That’s what we did with the old Sears catalog when I was a kid. What if they took all that money spent on catalogs that I throw in the trash and lowered the price of the shirt-or used that money toward higher quality fabric? Either way, the product quality would be better.

The companies that send me all these catalogs know what they are doing, and I’m not naive either. Consumers value convenience and the more frequently a catalog is put into their hands, the higher the chance of making a sale. As retailers have evolved from sending the annual catalog to the bi-weekly catalog, the situation has become worse because now consumers have been trained to expect a steady stream of catalogs in their mailbox and don’t look at them until they need something.

This daily stack of catalogs in my mailbox does bother me because it's wasteful and impacts what I really care about: product quality, I can’t be critical of it from a broad perspective. Retailers have figured out what people want and they are giving it to them. By their own behavior, consumers are saying that they are willing to pay more, or get a little lower quality product, for the convenience of having catalogs put in their mailbox so frequently that they never need to save them.

So where does the quality profession fit into this? I think this is a major quality issue that affects every consumer. What theory in the quality profession’s “Body of Knowledge” can I apply to this situation where marketing issues become a significant part of the product cost and product quality? Because consumers seem to value getting catalogs from the same retailer every other week, then a proper, full evaluation of the “product” quality must extend to the marketing of the product. Quality starts to encompass issues such as the frequency of mailing, the quality of the catalog photos, the attractiveness of the models, the graphic design of the pages and the catchiness of the text.

These marketing quality issues have been a real eye-opening experience for me throughout my employment history. I made a big mistake in thinking that marketing is not important if the product quality is superior.

I wish there were some quality theories out there to help me with this. I wish the quality profession were less product and production process-centric and more business-centric. If you think you can help, please let me know. Until I gain more insight, I’ll just keep focusing on the theory that over time, consumers will see beyond marketing and will become frequent repeat customers when they know they will get superior quality.