Has Quality Fade Become Irrelevant?

Many years ago, a number of people (china consultants, in particular) were applying the concept of quality fade to China. The idea was that once a foreign buyer becomes comfortable with its Chinese manufacturer, it should expect its Chinese manufacturer to start skimping on quality to save money. In other words, your product might go from being 10% copper to 5% copper without your Chinese manufacturer telling you of the change. Or your laptop bag handles might go from being strong enough to hold a laptop to not being strong enough to hold a laptop. Nearly everyone, it seemed (including me) bought into the idea of quality fade.

The Wall Street Journal just did a story, Chinese Asbestos in Australia? Blame “Quality Fade”, in which it talked of how “two leading Chinese car companies, Great Wall Motor and Chery Automobile, confirmed that they are recalling 23,000 cars and trucks they’ve sold in Australia because asbestos was discovered in their engine and exhaust gaskets.”

I just got back from speaking at a massive consumer products fair on sourcing product from China successfully. As you can imagine, I talked a lot about preventing quality problems. I did not bring up a statistic I was once told by a higher up at the US Consumer Protection Agency on how China has product safety/recall problems at a rate of more than six times that of any country every single year. And this is per product made, not overall. China is undisputedly the worst country on earth at making products “right.”

But something one of my audience members told me after my speech has really stuck with me. After the show and by way of small talk, I asked an audience member what he thought of the products show. I expected him to say something like “it’s huge” and then move on. Instead, he launched into a sophisticated and thoughtful discussion on how almost everything at the show was junk and how he had always thought that as the United States and Europe (he had lived in Spain for ten years) became wealthier and as technology advanced, product quality would improve. Instead, he said that “people just don’t care about quality any more.” I told him of how Nordstrom was thriving and his response to that was that they are a bastion of quality and so they are getting people from other stores because of this, but most Americans and Europeans have become focused on price to the exclusion of quality.

He then went off on how it is America’s and Europe’s fault that China produces “crap” and it is the fault of the Western consumer because we buy it. He analogized it to our blaming foreign countries for our own cocaine problem. He then talked of how he had sought to have a product well made by a Chinese company and the Chinese company said it was making similar products for ten or so other American companies and that none of those companies were requiring it make the product at the standards he required and so no matter what the price, “it would be too difficult and they were not interested.” He insisted his quality standards were not all that high and they were pretty much the same as the quality standards at which he had made the product in the United States years ago.

I’m starting to believe the concept of “quality fade” has become irrelevant because in the final analysis you will get the quality you demand and if you do not get that quality, it is up to you to go elsewhere to attain it.

What do you think?