The pitfalls of lifetime warranties

Jan. 1, 2020
I have a question for you. As a consumer of clothing, do you expect that a pair of shoes you purchase will eventually wear out? What about a toothbrush?

I have a question for you. As a consumer of clothing, do you expect that a pair of shoes you purchase will eventually wear out? What about a toothbrush? Does there come a time when it gets softer than you like it? More to the point, would you expect the makers of shoes or toothbrushes to provide you with a free replacement when their products wear out?

I suspect that as a reasonable consumer you answered the preceding questions with a no. It is unrealistic to expect any product that is essentially designed to wear out, not to do so? It is even more absurd to think that the makers of such wear items would guarantee them against wearing out. If you agree, then tell me, why on earth do automotive aftermarket companies provide lifetime warranties on products like brake pads, mufflers or shock absorbers?

Reflecting on how we got to this state of absurdity I can only assume that it was driven by marketers at both the manufacturing and distribution levels who were looking for the proverbial “hook” to set their products apart from their competitors. Perhaps it was to bolster a claim that their private label was as good as the national brand, or to make the case that their lesser-known brand was as good as the well-known one. Marketers are always looking for ways to “prove their claim” and a lifetime warranty probably seems like an easy way to do this.

But has their marketing genius taken them to the place they’d hoped to go? To answer that question for yourself, take a few minutes and Google “lifetime warranty auto parts.” If you react as I did, you will be stunned by what you find.

I came across one blog where a gentleman was complaining that he had bought a set of lifetime warranty brake pads and had returned them for the third time in ten years to get a new set. He was infuriated when the counter person told him, after giving him a new set, that it would be the last time the warranty could be honored. He indignantly asked why and was told that the store’s supplier no longer offered a lifetime warranty. He said he thought he should be “grandfathered” in and went so far as to write a letter to company headquarters.

Equally as shameless was a DIYer who had bought a muffler that he claimed “didn’t fit” his vehicle. After banging on it in a failed attempt to get it to fit, he took it to an installer who told him it was damaged beyond repair. The consumer then alleged that it was a factory defect and was enraged when the store would not accept it as a return. His argument: “It has a lifetime warranty.”

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It appears that in an attempt to differentiate their products, many marketers have chosen to apply a lifetime warranty to mechanical products that inevitably wear out. It also appears that they probably have done more to damage their products and reputations than to help them. The expectation that is created around the warranty translates to a rip off or a fraud when reasonable limitations are placed on claims.

In their attempts to establish quick credibility for their brands, marketers have trained consumers in certain product segments to think that they only need to purchase a replacement part for their vehicle once. After that they are entitled to a lifetime supply of them.

And to compound the matter, I now observe that we are plowing full speed ahead into another very similar situation. In the last few months another marketing ploy has surfaced that is hauntingly familiar to the lifetime warranty. Some of the leading retail chains have begun offering to pay “full labor rate claims” on any warranty comeback to a professional garage.

Just as with the lifetime warranties, competitors are quick to match the policy to avoid finding themselves at a competitive disadvantage. That leaves no one with an advantage, and yet the bar has been raised for everyone. Soon, the same sort of outrageous behavior found on the Internet related to consumer abuse of lifetime warranties will begin to manifest itself in the installer market. Retailers will look to pass the expenses associated with the claims back to their suppliers. In this scenario, who benefits? Not the retailers who conceived the concept since their competitors have matched their policy. Not the suppliers who will assume the expense for the program. Not even the competent installers who almost always install parts correctly and almost never have a customer return.

The only beneficiaries will be marginal or incompetent installers who perform substandard work. They now will have a means of demanding compensation for their incompetency.

From a marketing perspective, lifetime warranties on wear items and loose payment of labor claims may seem like a good idea on the front end. But when you sell your commercial soul in this manner for short-term gain, you probably will find there is hell to pay on the backside.

I have a question for you. As a consumer of clothing, do you expect that a pair of shoes you purchase will eventually wear out? What about a toothbrush? Does there come a time when it gets softer than you like it? More to the point, would you expect the makers of shoes or toothbrushes to provide you with a free replacement when their products wear out?

I suspect that as a reasonable consumer you answered the preceding questions with a no. It is unrealistic to expect any product that is essentially designed to wear out, not to do so? It is even more absurd to think that the makers of such wear items would guarantee them against wearing out. If you agree, then tell me, why on earth do automotive aftermarket companies provide lifetime warranties on products like brake pads, mufflers or shock absorbers?

Reflecting on how we got to this state of absurdity I can only assume that it was driven by marketers at both the manufacturing and distribution levels who were looking for the proverbial “hook” to set their products apart from their competitors. Perhaps it was to bolster a claim that their private label was as good as the national brand, or to make the case that their lesser-known brand was as good as the well-known one. Marketers are always looking for ways to “prove their claim” and a lifetime warranty probably seems like an easy way to do this.

But has their marketing genius taken them to the place they’d hoped to go? To answer that question for yourself, take a few minutes and Google “lifetime warranty auto parts.” If you react as I did, you will be stunned by what you find.

I came across one blog where a gentleman was complaining that he had bought a set of lifetime warranty brake pads and had returned them for the third time in ten years to get a new set. He was infuriated when the counter person told him, after giving him a new set, that it would be the last time the warranty could be honored. He indignantly asked why and was told that the store’s supplier no longer offered a lifetime warranty. He said he thought he should be “grandfathered” in and went so far as to write a letter to company headquarters.

Equally as shameless was a DIYer who had bought a muffler that he claimed “didn’t fit” his vehicle. After banging on it in a failed attempt to get it to fit, he took it to an installer who told him it was damaged beyond repair. The consumer then alleged that it was a factory defect and was enraged when the store would not accept it as a return. His argument: “It has a lifetime warranty.”

PAGE 2

It appears that in an attempt to differentiate their products, many marketers have chosen to apply a lifetime warranty to mechanical products that inevitably wear out. It also appears that they probably have done more to damage their products and reputations than to help them. The expectation that is created around the warranty translates to a rip off or a fraud when reasonable limitations are placed on claims.

In their attempts to establish quick credibility for their brands, marketers have trained consumers in certain product segments to think that they only need to purchase a replacement part for their vehicle once. After that they are entitled to a lifetime supply of them.

And to compound the matter, I now observe that we are plowing full speed ahead into another very similar situation. In the last few months another marketing ploy has surfaced that is hauntingly familiar to the lifetime warranty. Some of the leading retail chains have begun offering to pay “full labor rate claims” on any warranty comeback to a professional garage.

Just as with the lifetime warranties, competitors are quick to match the policy to avoid finding themselves at a competitive disadvantage. That leaves no one with an advantage, and yet the bar has been raised for everyone. Soon, the same sort of outrageous behavior found on the Internet related to consumer abuse of lifetime warranties will begin to manifest itself in the installer market. Retailers will look to pass the expenses associated with the claims back to their suppliers. In this scenario, who benefits? Not the retailers who conceived the concept since their competitors have matched their policy. Not the suppliers who will assume the expense for the program. Not even the competent installers who almost always install parts correctly and almost never have a customer return.

The only beneficiaries will be marginal or incompetent installers who perform substandard work. They now will have a means of demanding compensation for their incompetency.

From a marketing perspective, lifetime warranties on wear items and loose payment of labor claims may seem like a good idea on the front end. But when you sell your commercial soul in this manner for short-term gain, you probably will find there is hell to pay on the backside.