SaferProducts.gov: One Month Later
Last month, I looked at the implementation of SaferProducts.gov and what it could mean for suppliers and distributors of promotional products. Since then, a number of complaints have started to trickle onto the website, so I thought it would be worth taking a look to see what consumers are saying.
To read consumer reports, click on the "Search" tab and select one of the categories; for this example, we're going to look at "Dolls, Plush Figures & Action Figures." You will immediately be greeted with over 100 postings, most of which are official product recalls. On the left panel, change the search from "All Types" to "Reports," and this will show you the consumer complaints that the CPSC deems to be valuable, or at not "materially inaccurate." Under this category, the results are reduced from 155 to a more realistic 6.
Some of the reports on the site are legitimate, and some are heartbreaking. USA Today wrote about one of the first complaints submitted, from a mother whose 10-month-old son was strangled by unsecured rails on a crib. Other parents have complained about toys containing hazardous chemicals. In the household category, there are a slew of reports detailing appliances overheating, smoking and shorting out. These are all good examples of what the site should be doing: warning consumers about potential dangers.
At the same time, there are far more questionable submissions. One parent complained about a stretchy toy that the son used to choke the daughter; certainly bad, but hardly a product defect. Another user seems to believe that a 7-month-old chewing on a hat counts as a malfunction. And if you do a search for "shoe," you'll find a dozen complaints about people tripping and injuring themselves, and blaming their footwear.
Several of the manufacturers have responded to the accusations. Sneaker company Sketchers has had six complaints about their Shape-ups line of shoes, which you can view here: 1 2 3 4 5 6. You'll notice that most of these issues are the result of either not reading the instructional materials or from users injuring themselves by falling, neither of which sound like manufacturing defects of an unsafe product. Sketchers' offered a pat response to five of the six complaints, and I think the company is in the right, but does it matter? The complaints are live, and whether or not they are legitimate, many consumers will assume them to be valid because they appear on an official government website. Sketchers gets to respond, but the damage is done, and the complaint will remain online.
How this will affect you is hard to say. Many industry organizations feared a flood of unjustified complaints from bitter consumers and false reports from competitors, but that's far from the case. If there are untrue reports being submitted, the CPSC is doing a decent job of filtering them out. Of the thousands of searchable files, there are only a few hundred reports live. Still, as in the Sketchers example, some of the reports are not product defects yet will be listed on the site indefinitely, unfairly slandering the company and product.
SaferProducts.gov is not going away any time soon: the site received $3 million in funding as part of the federal budget, despite Republican attempts to gut it from the proposal. And personally, I don't think it should go away. It serves a useful purpose, one that the automotive industry has had for 15 years, but it needs to be managed well. Is this the right way to do it? I don't know. It's important for the CPSC to protect people, as consumers, from being hurt by defective products; it's equally important to protect people, as business owners, from being hurt by false claims that could put them out of business.