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Don't tread on us

National | Lawmaker won't divulge data on tire safety, retailers rediscover good service, and other business news

Issue: "Trading places," June 30, 2001

High-maintenance chairman
The relationship between Firestone and Ford Motor Company unraveled faster than one of the tiremaker's Wilderness ATs, creating competition among Firestone's rivals to see which companies would land lucrative tire-replacement deals with the automaker. But in a hearing last week, the House Commerce Committee chairman said that at least seven tires on Ford's approved replacement list have worse safety records than the recalled Firestones that had allegedly caused fatal accidents in Ford's popular SUV, Explorer. Michelin, Continental, Goodyear, BF Goodrich, and Uniroyal manufacture the 26 different replacement models. At the hearing, Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) disclosed sketchy details of a congressional safety investigation, but refused to reveal which tires had higher failure rates until the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) analyzes the data-a process that could take up to 30 days. Although Mr. Tauzin later revealed that the Goodyear Wrangler HT and General Grabber AP XL were among the suspect tires, his refusal to reveal the other models drew fire from watchdog groups, Ford, and even fellow committee members. Senior Commerce Committee Democrat John Dingell of Michigan said Mr. Tauzin is withholding data about which the public has a right to know. During the hearing, Mr. Tauzin dropped only data crumbs: He said congressional investigators found that one of the replacement tires has a property damage claims rate of 124 per million tires, well above the Wilderness AT's 15 claims per million alleged by Ford. "Are we going to be replacing worse tires for the tires that come off these cars?" Mr. Tauzin asked Ford CEO Jacques Nasser. "Mr. Chairman, we shouldn't be waiting 30 days," Mr. Nasser shot back. "If that data you have is accurate, we should be acting in 30 minutes." Back to basics
Retail gurus in recent years have heralded the emergence of the "experience economy," predicting that American consumers would shun plain-Jane good service in favor of businesses that deliver service-plus-experiential extras. But a new study by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young (CGEY) suggests that the "experience" most shoppers value is based not in sensation, but in common sense. CGEY asked 5,000 consumers to rate the relative importance of 60 different qualities in a retail store. The result: Shoppers want a clean, well-maintained store; courteous, respectful employees; damage-proof bagging or packaging; and easily visible, honest prices that have not been artificially tweaked. How did "experience-oriented" features rate? Near rock bottom: Fun, "entertaining" stores; being personally recognized by staff; and enhancement of the "shopping experience" with music or videos ranked 55th, 56th, and 58th out of 60. The CGEY study also asked consumers to select chain stores they believed delivered best on key retail attributes like ease of shopping, price/value, product, and service. The overall winner: Wal-Mart. Survey respondents said they appreciated Wal-Mart's consistently honest pricing and emphasis on basic service, such as the store's no-questions-asked return policy. CGEY concluded that "honesty, courtesy and respect are building blocks of a basic system that should prove to be increasingly valuable in coming years." But this "new" trend really goes back at least to the Sermon on the Mount: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Not as I do
Most parents feel they have a handle on handling finances, but they don't demonstrate that to their kids, according to a "Parents, Youth and Money" survey cosponsored this year by the American Savings Education Council (ASEC). While 51 percent of parents surveyed consider themselves financially savvy, 55 percent admitted that they roll over credit card debt each month and pay the requisite interest, and less than half create a budget and stick to it. Guys ... gabbing
Of the two sexes, women have always had a reputation as telephone talkers, stereotypically burning up the phone lines for hours on end. But telecommunications firms may soon have to change marketing strategies as cellular phones change who's doing the talking. Men talk 35 percent more on wireless phones than do women, according to a survey conducted for cellular firm Cingular Wireless. Guys use an average of 372 wireless minutes a month versus an average of 275 minutes a month for women. But when it comes to traditional home phone use, women still dominate, using the family phone 52.6 percent more than men.

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