Weekly Walk of Shame: The Death of Quality

This Motley Fool series examines things that just aren't right in the world of finance and investing. Here's what's got us riled up this week. If something's bugging you, too -- and we suspect it is -- go ahead and unload in the comments section below.

Today's subject: This week, both Toyota Motor (NYSE: TM  ) and Honda Motor (NYSE: HMC  ) announced new recalls. Toyota is pulling back some 750,000 North American cars and trucks including Lexus models. Honda is recalling 470,000 Acura RLs and Odysseys.

All told, the auto industry has initiated 56 recalls in the last six months, CBS News reports. Do the math. About once a month, each of the majors cops to a gaffe, blushes, and then offers to fix it. It'd be funny if it weren't so damn infuriating.

Call the time, Fool. Quality just died on the table.

Even Ford (NYSE: F  ) , the newly anointed darling of the auto industry that once claimed quality was its number 1 job has initiated five recalls. Five! Some Ford vehicles also suffer from problems with fires started by their cruise control systems, according to National Highway Transportation Safety Administration warnings. Yet revenue for Toyota, Honda, and Ford were all up substantially last quarter.

Why you should be indignant: When as a society did we decide its OK to just buy crap on the cheap? Did it coincide with the rise of Wal-Mart? Perhaps, but you can't blame the Waltons for the auto industry's miscues.

I blame ... me. And you. Neither of us is demanding enough. We spend hard-earned money on crappy food, crappy mortgages, crappy entertainment, crappy service, and yes, crappy cars. Can we really blame the auto industry for trying to get away with serving up steaming piles of junk metal these last few years when so few of us investigated what it was we were really leasing?

We got ripped off, and it's at least partly our own fault. We were OK with buying crap.

Let's start the finger pointing with yours truly. Just recently, my wife and I bought a $185 clarinet for our son in a cash deal at the local market. We were thrilled at first. He's in the school band and needed an instrument, but most music stores were quoting us $1,500 for a new clarinet. Finally, we had to settle for a $40/month rental. We didn't have the cash for a new model -- until we went to the market, that is.

Just one day after bringing the tightly wrapped clarinet home, our son took it to school, where it broke. Oh, and we found out it smells like gasoline. Yeah, you read that right. Gasoline. Awesome.

But it's my own fault. I knew $185 was too cheap after the research my wife had done. We bought it to cut corners, and paid the price. Stupid.

Other times, I've simply refused to pull the plug on services that stink. Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH  ) tops the list at our house, and judging by its history of suspect sales practices, for good reason.

Meanwhile, Dish CEO Charlie Ergen has a reputation as a cheapskate who won't pay content partners or TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO  ) what they're due. Unfair? I've no idea; I don't know Ergen. All I know is that when I need service on my satellite system for a problem I didn't create, Dish wants to charge me for the privilege of a visit. That, I call cheap.

The only reason I haven't switched from Dish is because I don't want to spend on a new entertainment system. And yet I'm sick of digital video recorders that don't record, and satellite service that conveniently disappears at the moment I'm trying to watch the football game. In my opinion, you're serving up crap, Mr. Ergen, and I've had enough.

But haven't we all? I can't be the only one who's reached his limit.

What now? Frankly, you'd think I would have learned my lesson a long time ago. As an investor I know that quality pays. Quality management beats poor management every time, and often leads to outsized stock returns. An obsessive emphasis on quality is part of what's made Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) a multibagger these last few years.

So as both consumers and investors, let's take a pledge. Say it aloud with me: "I am officially DONE accepting crap. I'm paying for products and services I need, and I expect them to work."

For me, this means no more Toyotas. I'm done buying from an automaker that doesn't respect the time I put into earning the cash needed to buy the Sienna minivan I'm now stuck with because it's paid off. (And because I'm loath to trade it in for more crap.)

Now it's your turn to sound off. Who's stuck it to you? Which products and services are you dropping because of poor quality? Let your voice be heard in the comments box below.

True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community.

Apple and Ford are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He had stock and options positions in Apple at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Wal-Mart and is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. The Fool's disclosure policy thinks quality should always be Job # 1.


Read/Post Comments (31) | Recommend This Article (16)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 22, 2010, at 8:22 PM, deemery wrote:

    And this is a big part of Apple's success in the computer and electronic device markets. Apple's not perfect, but they're a heluva lot better than the competition, and I think quality has to be perceived as a 'relative value' these days.

  • Report this Comment On October 22, 2010, at 9:12 PM, rh33 wrote:

    Mr. Beyers is almost entirely wrong, here. Cars are much better than they used to be. A few decades ago, the recalls we see today could not have been sustained, the cars weren't good enough to be recalled as they are now. Neither the owners nor the builders could have afforded to carry on such a program.

    Forty years ago, cars needed engine overhauls at about 70 - 100,000 miles. Maintenance intervals were shorter and problems between maintenance visits were more common. They consumed mountains of fuel and stank up the environment. Tires lasted about 10,000 - 25,000 miles. Some people carried tools in their trunks in hope of being able to repair something if it failed on the road.

    Today, recalls are often based on as few as a dozen, often less than a hundred incidents, and sometimes tens and even hundreds of thousands of cars are recalled to be inspected or repaired to address those few incidents. Recalls are often at the initiative of the car company, not the safety agency.

    Even inexpensive cars are frequently driven 150,000 miles and 200,000 to 300,000 is common. "Road failures" are so rare I hardly remember the last one I experienced.

    To call today's cars "crap" is indefensible and shows a lack of knowledge of the history of the industry and the engineering. It's also bad manners.

    I think cars of today are a marvel of engineering and manufacturing technology. I believe Mr. Beyers will come to believe so also if he will go out to his garage and try to build one. If he does, I hope his car building is better than his research.

    Okay, it's not fair to ask Mr. Beyers to build a car as a test of the quality of cars today, so let me suggest some other tests. One, he might buy a car that is forty years old and see what it takes to keep that puppy running. Two, he might talk to his father or grandfather (I'm guessing Mr. Beyers is young) and see what they think about the cars of today.

  • Report this Comment On October 22, 2010, at 9:21 PM, belseware wrote:

    Tim:

    I sense you want to be another Rick Santelli.

    Hear this: That happens once in a great while. It's not been long enough yet. Wait your turn (if we live that long).

    We're buying Lexuses "on the cheap"?

    Cars are complex. The supply chain is deep. Overall quality is way up. Occasionally a flaw is discovered after sales begin. How long it takes to identify and publicize a problem and a fix is a better measure of an automaker.

    Let's see (recent record, let's not relive ancient history): Toyota 3/10, Ford 9/10.

  • Report this Comment On October 22, 2010, at 10:20 PM, Varchild2008 wrote:

    Yeah I am really really glad APPLE execises such top notch quality... They don't have ANTENNA issues with their iPhone 4s.....err wait.

  • Report this Comment On October 22, 2010, at 11:22 PM, wigginsrl wrote:

    Whoa, I'd like to suggest a new name for your article: ....the Death of Good Journalism.

    Take Ford's "fire related" recall for example? You say Ford vehicles have issues that can cause fires, as though it were a current problem - the last of those vehicles was made in 2003!

    But more importantly this suggests you are ignorant of the whole Mullaly "one Ford" stategy that has been all the news. His plan of course was to reduce the number of models worldwide by 2/3 so that engineering efforts would be less diluted. He seems to be succeeding with the plan, and a better article here would be about steps taken to improve quality in recent years. The tangible promise of improved quality is the story worth telling.

  • Report this Comment On October 22, 2010, at 11:24 PM, TMFMileHigh wrote:

    @rh33,

    Thanks for writing.

    >>To call today's cars "crap" is indefensible and shows a lack of knowledge of the history of the industry and the engineering. It's also bad manners.

    It's only bad manners when acting or reporting out of ignorance, and I'm not. I own a 2005 Toyota Sienna with a run-flat tire sensing system engineered so poorly that it failed to detect a 100% flat tire as it was virtually burning at the seams. Toyota has yet to cop to the design issue in my vehicle, and the dealer still feigns ignorance.

    >>Tires lasted about 10,000 - 25,000 miles.

    Funny you bring this up. This is roughly the current life of the so-called breakthrough we call run flat tires.

    I'm certainly not suggesting (here, or in the story) that all cars are crap or that there are no good auto engineers. Far from it. But it would be ludicrous to deny that serious quality issues exist.

    Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehighfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On October 22, 2010, at 11:25 PM, TMFMileHigh wrote:

    @belseware,

    >>I sense you want to be another Rick Santelli.

    Nope. I 'm just a common Fool who's baffled that we're willing to accept poor quality as standard fare.

    Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehighfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On October 22, 2010, at 11:30 PM, TMFMileHigh wrote:

    @wigginsrl,

    Thanks for writing.

    >>You say Ford vehicles have issues that can cause fires, as though it were a current problem - the last of those vehicles was made in 2003!

    No, I don't. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration does.

    Also, isn't it at least a little specious to refer to the date as if no one drives a 2003 model Ford? We know Ford cars last. I'm still driving a 2000 model year Mercury Mountaineer.

    >>The tangible promise of improved quality is the story worth telling.

    And it has been told here: http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2010/09/30/fords-decep...

    Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehighfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2010, at 1:09 AM, wigginsrl wrote:

    But Tim you wrote of the Ford problem as though it is a currrent problem - I am suspicious that you were being deliberately misleading! It sure reads like it. You can't use a problem that hasn't reccurred in eight years to enforce your claim of "the death of quality". The NSTA records don't show that many owners came in for repairs - that's all it shows. Taking news out of context - that's another "wall of shame".

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2010, at 9:01 AM, TMFMileHigh wrote:

    @wigginsrl,

    >>The NSTA records don't show that many owners came in for repairs - that's all it shows. Taking news out of context - that's another "wall of shame".

    You're presuming the NHTSA hasn't considered this to be a serious problem for years. That would be incorrect. The agency issued this press release on Thursday:

    http://www.nhtsa.gov/About+NHTSA/Press+Releases/2010/Consume...

    Here's the relevant excerpt:

    According to NHTSA, approximately 17.5 million Ford vehicles have been involved in the recalls since 1999 because of a faulty cruise control disconnect switch which can overheat and burn - potentially causing a vehicle fire long after the engine has been turned off. NHTSA noted that Ford Motor Company has been diligent in contacting owners of the affected vehicles, including sending re-notification letters to owners in many cases. Despite notification efforts, NHTSA estimates that there may be several million vehicles still on the road with the dangerous defect.

    Thanks for writing and Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehighfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2010, at 12:05 PM, bellrunner wrote:

    Tim Beyers......Put yourself on the WALL OF SHAME

    for poor and biased reporting......Get your facts straight before you make another attempt at what you call journalism. You make me almost want to give up my Fool membership.

    A very serious Fool.

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2010, at 12:29 PM, TMFMileHigh wrote:

    @bellrunner,

    Thanks for writing.

    >>Tim Beyers......Put yourself on the WALL OF SHAME for poor and biased reporting

    With respect, no. First, this is an opinion piece. Second, the facts in this story are accurate as reported.

    This doesn't mean I'm closed to criticism, only that I stand by the story as I wrote it. I am open to listening to more specific concerns, however. Fire away.

    Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehighfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2010, at 5:43 PM, bellrunner wrote:

    Tim, How about first trying to compare apples to apples, and not apples to oranges. No pun intended.

    The Ipod, Ipad, Mac and Iphone can not compare in complexety of the tens of thousands of parts in the most basic structure of an automobile..... Not to mention legacy of warranity and libility that tracks with each auto purchased......Granted you pay for this, but non-the-less Quality control issues have a much greater chance of occuring.

    serious FOOL.

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2010, at 6:11 PM, TMFMileHigh wrote:

    @bellrunner,

    >>The Ipod, Ipad, Mac and Iphone can not compare in complexety of the tens of thousands of parts in the most basic structure of an automobile

    So your beef is a perceived comparison between the quality control procedures of automakers and Apple? That's hard to swallow as legit, especially when I never made a direct comparison.

    But even if I had, you're suggesting (erroneously, I believe), that the sensitive nature of miniaturized electronics is easier to quality control than car assembly. I find that impossible to believe, especially when software is as much a part of the electronics experience as hardware, and even the simplest devices contain hundreds of thousands of lines of operating system and applications code.

    Thanks for writing. Moving on to other questions.

    Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehighfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2010, at 6:34 PM, Alwayzwrong wrote:

    I'm glad to see such positive responses to the article. I drive a Hyundai, because I believe that they are the most well-run car company in the world, and have top-notch customer service. If we were to replace "Ford" with "Hyundai," I don't believe we'd have read the level of vitriol in the responses. It's only a car, and believe me, this article won't have any affect on Ford's share price.

    Perhaps where quality is truly suffering is in customer service. Few companies understand the importance of customer service. I had a problem at a redbox, and the company quickly addressed the issue. Netfilx let me know about a problem, before I even experienced it.

    Then there's Sprint, Mediacom, Comcast, and, yes, even Toyota (of late).

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2010, at 11:22 PM, casinojohn wrote:

    Part of my portfolio is in real estate: I bought six houses in Phoenix over the past year and a half. I am remodeling a couple of them and renting the others. Hopefully I will see a good ROI when I sell in five or ten years. More to the point I buy most of the materials at Home Depot because I have credit with them. I can't believe the junk they sell! I bought a shower curtain rod for about $21. It looked decent in the package but when I took it out; it was plastic! and the screws were the wrong kind, no instructions and the item was falling apart. I bought the more expensive one thinking the quality would be better. The old saying "you get what you pay for" needs to add "sometimes"

  • Report this Comment On October 24, 2010, at 1:42 PM, bancroft1a wrote:

    Dish network everytime it rains .

  • Report this Comment On October 25, 2010, at 8:47 PM, leaderoftheback wrote:

    re: Toyota quality and buying smart

    1) read Consumers Report

    2) identify most reliable two or three year old models

    3) search e-bay for same, watch actual sale prices.

    4) buy two or three year old car with "high" miles of, say, 35,000 per year with high carfax score, adequate service records, and only one owner.

    5) buy that car for less than half the price of a new one and drive it for at least 100,000 miles, ideally paying cash for it (it'll be less than $10,000).

    My 2002 Camry is still on the road (now owned by somebody else) and had 350,000 miles when sold; my NEW 2006 Camry was purchased for $9,000 with 81,000 miles on it 18 months ago, now has 132,000 trouble free miles. What more could I want?...oh yeah, electric...only have to wait until 2013!

    Keep writing Tim!...and throw the DISH out. They don't deserve you.

  • Report this Comment On October 26, 2010, at 5:52 AM, jaketen2001 wrote:

    As long as we are piling on Dish, I had my own personal experience with them. They charged over $400 to my credit card. One problem. I never had a Dish account! When I called them about it they told me that an (actual) Dish customer had given them my credit card data, and said that I had agreed to pay the account! Which was also apparently several months in arrears. They credited back the account with a letter from me, months later. But anyways, it just gave me flavor of the type of operation that they are. Scums.

  • Report this Comment On October 26, 2010, at 8:19 AM, TMFMileHigh wrote:

    @leaderoftheback,

    That's good strategy, taking advantage of Toyota's brand damage to buy quality on the cheap. (In particular, I like your advice to use the CarFax score as a quality imprimatur.)

    @jaketen2001,

    Ugh. That sounds awful. I've not had a similar experience with Dish, but I have removed the screen from one of the upstairs windows -- the one with the closest access to the dish -- in order to be able to clean it after even the lightest snow. Reception can be that bad at times.

    Thanks for writing and Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehighfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2010, at 2:19 PM, artemis021 wrote:

    So have you canceled DISH yet?

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2010, at 2:22 PM, toriwill wrote:

    Dodge Intrepid

    No more needs to be said about poor quality.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2010, at 4:28 PM, ChiefNoseeum wrote:

    "For me, this means no more Toyotas. I'm done buying from an automaker that doesn't respect the time I put into earning the cash needed to buy the Sienna minivan I'm now stuck with because it's paid off. (And because I'm loath to trade it in for more crap.)"

    Tim,

    Weren't you stuck with it when you drove if off the lot. Now that it's paid off, you can more easily sell it since there is no lien on the title.

    What am I missing here?

  • Report this Comment On October 28, 2010, at 4:32 PM, whre2 wrote:

    I agree that quality is hard to find. Looking at the broad context, not the particular item call-outs in the article:

    -The choice is usually between bad and worse for most consumer goods and services.

    -Overpriced "premium" brands typically have better marketing or packaging.... not better product.

    -Most offers of "Personal" service have become a facade for increasing the net sale while providing no additional value.

    -While everyone has their own tolerance for crap, I will not buy unless I find what I truly want or need.

    -This delay to find quality and service that I can trust gives me time to assess need, as well as research alternatives and, sometimes, make do without or with something else.

    All that said, I make our meals from scratch (mostly,) have well-maintained vehicles that are 11 years on the road with no major repairs (yet,) electronic devices that work well and are replaced only when no longer useful (we do not need the newest thing on the market.)

    Not everything needs to be brand-spanking-new, either... I'm with leaderoftheback on this.

    When I do buy crap, I do it knowingly, with grinding of teeth.

    Finally, a question: As a clarinet at $40 per month would take just over 3 years to reach that $1,500 price tag... how long would you anticipate needing a clarinet? 3, 8, 20, or more years? What is the wiser investment (keeping in mind that quality re-sells best, too)?

  • Report this Comment On October 28, 2010, at 7:15 PM, fantoozler wrote:

    A part of the problem is that there is no sure indicator of quality. For example, pyrex glass bowls. On ebay you can search for "vintage pyrex bowls" and pay more for these used bowls than for new ones. Why? The vintage bowls are heat-shock resistant. Over time, that quality was removed; the name "Pyrex" used to be synonymous with that quality. Now, it's not.

    Similarly for other consumer items.

  • Report this Comment On October 28, 2010, at 10:08 PM, Stanoi wrote:

    Quality has been dead for a while now and sure I should know having experienced the deplorable attitudes evn in HIgh tech critical Industries.

    I have seen and witnessed many such .. one which is currently packing off to China

    And comes out of drastic cutting cost and wrapping all kind of wrappers to justify them .And indirectly comes and has much to do with use less executives ( where ever such usless ones are allowed ) to exist and muddle thru and simply exist .

  • Report this Comment On October 29, 2010, at 1:04 PM, watertreat wrote:

    Re. WalMart: at the very least they allow you to spend less on their stuff. Pretty convenient too.

    It is amazing that so many products are engineered so poorly. At obvious weak or wear points, for example, a company will use a plastic component instead of a metal one that would strengthen the product. Perhaps it saved the manufacturer $.05 on an item that cost $10.00 to build and sells for $30 or $40. One would think that the gain in reputation to well-known companies (often such an improvement or two would put the Mfg. at the top of it's competition) would be worth it.

  • Report this Comment On October 29, 2010, at 3:56 PM, muddlinthrough wrote:

    "It's only bad manners when acting or reporting out of ignorance, and I'm not. I own a 2005 Toyota Sienna with a run-flat tire sensing system engineered so poorly that it failed to detect a 100% flat tire as it was virtually burning at the seams. Toyota has yet to cop to the design issue in my vehicle, and the dealer still feigns ignorance. "

    You're relying on a system sensor to tell you that you have a 100% flat tire.

    This amuses me to no end. "Hey, basic maintenance like checking tire pressure is no longer my responsibility, I've got this government-mandated crappy system to tell me my tire pressure because the chip manufacturers figured it'd be a good scam to have a mandated market to replace the lucrative military market and the insurance agencies said it'd prevent rollover accidents on high COG (center of gravity vehicles)."

    And I should buy Apple, because they make high-quality devices. Uhm...it's a marketing boutique company that has made 'flimsy and plastic but white and chic" a necessity among the marginal and gullible. But...it's at $300/share, because they don't make the product (iTunes--you buy music, Apple pays crappy royalties, near 100% margin), iPhones and iMacs (Foxconn--billionaire owner, suiciding workers...connection, maybe?).

    But Apple's a quality company.

    A guy that will depend on a run-flat system to burn up a tire because he can't check the air pressure or notice the ride has gotten REALLY bumpy...and pay $185 for a GREAT deal (made in China...go figure, everything else in the world is, 'CAUSE IT'S CHEAPPP!) for a $1K item.

    And I'm supposed to buy your advice for a stock pick?

    I'm not really this bitter and curmudgeonly...but you seem to really have hit a nerve.

  • Report this Comment On October 29, 2010, at 4:07 PM, muddlinthrough wrote:

    You're defending your position from a specious point, but teaching you logic 101 ain't within my abilities. But I'll try...

    "Despite notification efforts, NHTSA estimates that there may be several million vehicles still on the road with the dangerous defect."

    Okay, several million are STILL ON THE ROAD. That means it's a POTENTIAL defect. People that haven't responded to the recall, mean they haven't had the problem...and may never.

    So it's a potential time bomb. You have a couple of billion cells in your body that could go cancerous. One day, 100% of them will be dead, courtesy perhaps of the one or two that go haywire. Are you going to have all of your cells removed? It'd solve the problem, so you could avoid the risk...

    Jeez. What StarTrek universe do you live in, where you have a data point and you expect it to be universal? Or that a possibility in one location is a certainty in another?

    Best example of this 'quality perception' that you seem to have confused with reality is " The Deacon’s Masterpiece

    or, the Wonderful "One-hoss Shay":

    A Logical Story

    by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)(http://holyjoe.org/poetry/holmes1.htm)"

    Holmes. Great man, wonderful Justice. They don't make them of that cloth anymore--instead, we get quibblers like 'It depends on the definition of "is" out of Harvard Law.

    And articles like 'Weekly Walk of Shame.' I seriously would recommend your arguments for "Most Specious in Journalism," if I could find such an award category.

  • Report this Comment On October 29, 2010, at 4:25 PM, muddlinthrough wrote:

    Ah, for a more quality memory.

    Corrections: I merged father & son; Holmes Sr. was the writer, Holmes Jr. was the jurist.

    The quibbler I semi-quoted was actually a Yalie, not a Hahrvad grad.

  • Report this Comment On October 29, 2010, at 9:10 PM, mythshakr wrote:

    It seems I have one of those Ford vehicles with the potentially defective cruise control. Well, in fact no, I do not. It does not have cruise control at all (and it never did). But somehow I could not convince Ford that it did not until I took it to a dealership to do the recall. After sitting in the dealership for two hours for the recall to completed the service manager came by and said the recall was completed successfully. So I asked what was changed? "Nothing, your vehicle is not equipped with cruise control".

    ARGH!!!!!!

    It turned out that that number of vehicles recalled is not the number of vehicles equipped with "cruise control" but the number of vehicles which COULD have been equipped with that particular TYPE of cruise control. Two very different things. Not better or worse, just different.

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