What could be worse than the stereotypical smooth-talking salesman, all unctuousness and flattery? Now we know: It's the gloomsayers of today's appliance departments, who are cultivating a new apocalyptic style in retail rhetoric.
I heard it myself last week, when I phoned a big chain store to change an order for a microwave oven. Once that was done, the salesman, George, went into his extended-warranty spiel.
Now, in my family we tend to shun extended warranties; sometimes, when I'm face to face with the salesman, I'll explain the economic rationale, just for the fun of watching his eyes glaze over. But we were on the phone, so I just said no thanks.
George wasn't having it. He launched into the sad tale of his own microwaves: The first one, the house brand, had lasted less than two years, and the next failed before its first birthday. If not for his warranty he'd have been screwed.
"I'm sorry you were so unlucky," I said. "But my last one was still going strong at 20 years."
"Well," said George testily, "I can guarantee you this one won't last that long!"
What's next? Buy the warranty or we'll shoot this dog?
Turns out Consumer Reports ran a story on this spreading phenomenon in the August 2006 issue. They found salespeople at several big chains assuring shoppers that only a warranty would keep that fridge or dishwasher alive. “Manufacturers are cutting corners," said one salesman. "Everything is being made in Mexico, and God only knows what they’re doing down there.”
The truth? Warranties are cash cows for stores and ripoffs for consumers. CR quotes a warranty trade newsletter: "You sell a $400 television set and maybe make $10. But you sell a $100 warranty and make $50.”
For margins like that, apparently, salespeople will say just about anything to customers – even "You knucklehead, that appliance I just sold you is a piece of junk."
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.