It used to be that if you saw the words “product recall” and “China” in a headline, the story was almost certainly about dodgy Chinese goods being recalled from a foreign market.
But times have changed, and foreign goods are increasingly being recalled in China as safety standards rise and consumers become conscious of their rights.
The most recent example – involving Swedish furniture maker IKEA – falls into the second category.
Last month IKEA agreed to recall some 36 million chests and dressers in North America after US safety officials blamed the models for toppling over and killing six children.
Markets outside America and Canada were not affected, the company said, because the recall was based on US standards relating to furniture stability.
The furniture models that IKEA was recalling were legal in other countries, it said, and it stressed that all storage units should be attached to a wall using one of its free attachment kits.
But while other markets questioned whether a partial recall was right they largely accepted it. China, a relatively new market for IKEA, did not.
Public anger grew online as state media began accusing IKEA of “racism”, “bullying” and “arrogance” for not recalling the dangerous products in China.
Some netizens even called for a boycott of the popular store.
“Shame on IKEA for its double standards,” wrote one angry weibo user. “We should stop shopping there till it changes it decision,” wrote another.
Well, on Tuesday it did, publishing a list of over 100 types of chests and dresser it is willing to secure to walls for free or offer a refund.
“The threat to household safety from furniture overturning is a serious problem for the entire homeware industry. IKEA promises to play an exemplary role in addressing this challenge,” it said.
“Product safety, especially children’s safety issues, has always been the focus of IKEA’s work,” it added.
IKEA has enjoyed a relatively good image in China. People have used its stores as a set for fashion shoots, a destination for a day out, or a place to go for lunch and a nice nap. IKEA said it didn’t mind customers making themselves at home in their stores (within limits) because it allowed them to experience the quality of its products. Possibly as a result, Chinese sales soared, totalling $1.55 billion last year.
The question now is how much damage the recall debacle will do to the Swedish giant’s reputation in China.
In 2013 Apple faced similar trouble when Chinese consumers learnt that the warranties on locally purchased iPhones did not offer the same protection as those on American-bought versions.
Apple tried to tough it out – much as IKEA has done for the last two weeks – but it eventually caved in, apologising for the discrepancy and vowing to improve its Chinese customer service.
Over the last two years the iPhone has lost some market share to local brands and, according to one recent research report cited by Bloomberg, it is now only China’s fifth favourite smartphone.
The same year Volkswagen also had to recall 380,000 vehicles after CCTV’s annual consumer rights programme said that some of its cars were fitted with faulty gear boxes.
The current IKEA recall could see up to 1.7 million dressers returned in China.
Despite their initial outrage, many consumers have said they won’t seek a refund, only the free kit that allows people to fix the dresser to the wall.
“I blame China’s standards agency as much as I blame IKEA for this. If these cupboards are a danger they shouldn’t be allowed,” wrote one. “Why is the US consumer protection agency doing the work our government should be doing,” asked another, who said she wouldn’t have known about the hazard if a US recall hadn’t taken place.
But others were still offended that IKEA didn’t initially decide to include China in the recall.
“Chinese people turn to foreign products precisely because we think they are better and safer than domestic ones. If they are just as bad as each other, what’s the point?” asked one.
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