Riddle: What’s the difference between two office chairs made by the same Chinese company, sold by the same big box retailer, with the same registration number, with the same bad weld that sends users flying backwards when it breaks?
Answer: One was recalled in April 2012 and one wasn’t.
Bonus Answer: The chair that wasn’t recalled actually garnered more complaints than the one that was!
This is a riddle not easily solved – especially by consumers unfortunate enough to have purchased the Gibson Leather Office Chair from Office Depot. In March 2010, Nancy Losey of San Antonio, Texas was sitting in a Gibson Leather Office Chair, manufactured by the Wonderful Year Furniture Company, imported by Swinton Avenue Trading Company, based in Boca Raton, Fla, and sold exclusively by Office Depot, when it suddenly collapsed. The seat plate underneath her chair had separated from the chair base, because of a weld failure at that juncture. Ms. Losey fell to the floor and broke her hip, requiring a hip replacement surgery.
The Gibson Leather Office Chair has the same design and product registration number as the Office Depot Biella Office Chair, which is manufactured by the Wonderful Year furniture company, imported by Swinton Avenue Trading Company, based in Boca Raton, Fla, and sold exclusively by Office Depot. But in April, Swinton Avenue Trading Company was forced to recall 307,000 Biella chairs. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission press release, Office Depot had received 11 reports of the breaking chairs and falling consumers with injuries. Consumers could go to Office Depot for a $55 store card – the price of the Biella chair – to replace it or to be used for other Office Depot merchandise.
In October, Attorney Paula Wyatt, who represented Losey in a product liability case against Swinton Avenue Trading, wrote to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission alerting them to the similarities between the Gibson and the Biella. Same product registration number, same bad weld in same critical place. A couple of key differences: Office Deport got more complaints – 18 – about collapsing Gibson chairs between 2009 and 2010, and the Gibson retailed at $39.00.
CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said he could not comment on any action the agency might take regarding the Gibson Office Chair, citing Rule 6B, which gives a manufacturer 10 days to respond to any CPSC comment about its products and allows the manufacturer to block any inaccurate statements.
Nonetheless, “we are taking the information very seriously,” Wolfson said.
The office chair that collapses without warning is common enough that the agency made a 30-second spot about it, called Chair-tastrophe. The video shows the hapless occupant flying backwards when two support bolts pop out of the back of the chair. Flat on his back, the man moans that he’s okay, while his wife, seated nearby at her own computer smiles knowingly, and reports it immediately to the agency’s public complaint portal, saferproducts.gov. (Presumably, she fetches the ice pack and the painkillers right afterwards.)
“Ever had a chair-tastrophe? Report it, or any safety problem with a consumer product, at SaferProducts.gov. Plus, find out if others have experienced safety problems, too,” the website advises.
Not counted among the 18 complaints Wyatt reported to the CPSC was the experience of Jess Clackum Herman, a feisty Florida-based blogger. In late 2006, Clackum Herman suffered a chair-tastrophe when her 14-month-old Swinton Avenue Trading Company chair collapsed, after the weld at the base of the chair failed. Clackum Herman immediately contacted Office Depot looking for restitution, on the theory that a chair should not shatter right after its first birthday. Clackum Herman's model cost $119. Same defect for twice the price! From there it was a quick descent into consumer hell, with Office Depot managers politely telling her they could do nothing for her. Too bad, she didn’t purchase the extended warranty, they said.
As saferproducts.gov was then nary but a twinkle in consumer advocates’ eyes, Clackum Herman used her web-based pulpit to detail the retail detective work it took to track down the manufacturer – the Swinton Avenue Trading Company, an entity which turned out to be unreachable:
“In checking out the info on the company on the bottom of the chair, it was Swinton Avenue Trading Company in Boca Raton, Fla. No phone number listed and a PO Box address,” she wrote. “I could find nothing on the Internet. When I checked the Florida occupational license database online and it shows the company with a similar name in South Florida did exist, but not anymore.”
“So ... WHO is the manufacturer? Well, your guess is as good as mine. The furniture guy at OD INSISTS that he gave me the correct information, the manufacturer insists that they are not the manufacturer. When I called Office Depot yesterday' and explained all this to the furniture exec, he kept telling I should have purchased the extended warranty and there was nothing he could do.”
This tiny flag, planted on the hill of consumer outrage, attracted a whopping 300 comments over the course of five years. Yes, five years’ worth of frustrated Swinton Avenue Trading office chair owners with broken arms, sheared castors, and of course, bad welds on the seat plate. Clackum Herman had plenty of company.
“I couldn’t believe it got 300 comments,” she says. “I had no idea how many people would have problems with this chair.”
Safety Research & Strategies found this trail of tears and provided it to the CPSC.
Comments like these were typical:
“The same exact thing happened to me. It broke in the EXACT same spot and I f[l]ew back, ripping the headset off my head! I almost broke my neck. Class action is needed here.” Wrote someone in January 2007
"Same thing happened to me this morning. I hurt my back and neck. The post and base just snapped apart. It looks identical to what happened with your chair. I could not find a phone for Swinton Avenue Trading, just a P.O. box.”
“I’m thrilled to find and join the fraternity of Swindle, er, Swinton Chair owners who end up on the floor after their chair breaks and falls apart.”
The post apparently got the attention of Office Depot. In April 2009, a Senior Customer Relations Manager named Casey Ahlbum weighed in, to defend the company’s honor:
“At Office Depot Taking Care of Business is the unwavering commitment that we make to our customers, providing unprecedented value, selection, quality and service,” he wrote.
It was too little, too late. For Clackum Herman, the lip service was as weak as the weld on her chair.
“It never changed. They never got back to me. There was no resolution. I sent continuous emails and never heard anything. I blogged it because I was so angry. I just wanted to get anyone to help me, but there was nothing. I threw the chair away.”
Wolfson said that consumers alleging a safety defect in a product associated with an elusive manufacturer should consider filing a report on saferproducts.gov.
“CPSC has a track record of finding the responsible party when a company is not responsive,” he said. “In some cases, when the manufacturer has gone out of business, for example, we have experience working with the retailer on a remedy. This is a case where it’s an appropriate response for consumers to file a report and make the CPSC the next place they go to.”