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Fix or Replace? The Consumer Conundrum

Freezer compartment in distress

Last Sunday, at 7:30 p.m., we were anxiously waiting for the “fridge guys,” aka the repairmen who were about to assess the dead freezer compartment. Would we have to spend many evenings at Best Buy, Lowe’s and The Brick to find a new fridge-freezer or did we just need to pay an acceptable fee to save the one that had been standing in the kitchen for eighteen years?

Over-the-phone diagnosis had been inconclusive. Compressor failure was the worst outcome because this is an expensive part—as in “just buy a new fridge.” But maybe the freezer was simply on strike, tired of dealing with vanilla ice cream and chicken nuggets.

We were hopeful. A couple of years ago, the same repair team had fixed a clogged defrost drain.

The repairman, who was initially coming between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., had rescheduled for the inconvenient 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. slot. There was a false alert at 6:30 p.m. but it was just my in-laws bringing food (that we couldn’t store in the broken freezer). Finally, at 8:15, the bell rang again. The three of us rushed to the door.

I hate when stuff break. First, it’s frustrating because presumably, if I’m using the products/appliance/furniture/item it’s because I need it. Second, I don’t know what to do with broken stuff. Should it be fixed or thrown away and replaced? And who can fix stuff? I fix sentences, occasionally I provide emotional comfort, I can change a lightbulb, but that’s about it. I can’t sew, disassemble electronics or repair a leak. I don’t have the tools, the parts, and no, YouTube videos can’t replace experience.

“Looks like the fan motor died,” the repairman assessed after a few minutes. “We can change it right now… should take about 45 minutes.”

“Yes, YES!”

“Please, do so!”

“We’ll stay out of your way!”

“Just give us a shout if you need anything!”

“I’m glad we don’t have to replace the fridge,” I added, in case the relief wasn’t obvious enough.

“Don’t,” the repairman warned. “This is a good brand, sturdy model. New ones are crap, they don’t last five years.”

I knew exactly what he meant, and this was partially why Feng and I were reluctant to buy a new fridge—how do you know a product will last? It’s a gamble.

An interesting side effect of moving to a new country is that you don’t know most of the brands and stores and you shop blindly for a little while. This was especially true “back in the days,” when online reviews were rare and I couldn’t make an informed decision. When I had to trade my used French shoes, jacket, computer, etc., for Canadian products, I didn’t know where to start.

As a one-woman panel doing comparative testing, I wrote my own consumer report based on my experiences. Take shoes, for instance. I can tell you Skechers are crap and fall apart, while I feel I get my money worth out of Cougar and Clarks. I will never buy another Apple product because the battery started dying in minutes with my two iPod Nano. On the other hand, I’ve been carrying my Kindle everywhere for over five years and even if it breaks tomorrow, I won’t hesitate to replace it because it’s a durable product. I had good luck with Anker’s Bluetooth earbuds as well, and their customer service department is amazing.

Right before we went to France, the strap of my Coach bag broke. I didn’t think much of it and brought it to the retail store, hoping for a quick fix—after all, I bought the bag just over a year ago, surely the brand could have it repaired!

It didn’t quite go as I was expecting. First, the sales associate frowned. “This model is like… over a year old,” she assessed as if he bag was pure garbage.

“Huh… yes. But I kind of expect a bag to last longer than a year.”

“Well… we can send it for repairs. It’s gonna take a few months and cost $55.”

“Oh, that’s a problem. I don’t have…—”

“Meanwhile, you can use your other Coach bag.”

“… Like I was saying, I don’t have another Coach bag, or another bag, period.”

I left the store and had the strap fixed within 24 hours for $14 at Chinatown. And I probably won’t buy another Coach bag because fuck this, I’ve had bags from Zara that lasted lasting longer.

Few brands make durable products. Fewer people have the skills to repair stuff. And the rest of us, consumers, are left dealing with planned obsolescence and endless consumerism. We are being tricked into buying garbage and into disposing of items faster than necessary because our value to the system is how much we buy from it.

“Okay guys, I think we’re good here! Be back in a second with the invoice.”

The three of us gathered around the freezer compartment.

“It buzzes like it used to!”

“It feels cold!”

“Mommy, can I get a story?”

One of us wasn’t on topic but we were grateful and relieved to have a working fridge again.

Repair: 1. Replace: 0.

The broken fan
It’s working again!

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