Right to repair mystery shop part 2: The barriers and solution to tech repairs
Repairs can be eye-wateringly expensive, take a long time and, in some cases, are just not practical. Here's how we can change that.
Part one of our mystery shop showed we need a repairability index to get reliable and unbiased durability information at the point of sale. Tech is a global market, but we need a local solution.
In part two of our series, we look at the barriers to repairing tech, as well as the solutions.
Sick of wasting money on products you can’t repair?
Let’s put the pressure back on manufacturers to do better. Show them you want products you can repair and help us demand a mandatory repairability label.
The problem: expensive repairs
When I was a kid growing up in Timaru, there was a repair shop called Cockcroft’s. I remember going there with Mum to pick up a toaster that had been fixed. The whole back wall of the workshop was chocka with kitchen appliances and gadgets that had been repaired.
Back in the ’80s, it was cheaper to get an appliance fixed rather than just chuck it out and buy a new one. Nowadays that’s not the case.
When one mystery shopper asked about repairing a Vodafone Smart N12 ($87) and V12 ($207) at Harvey Norman, the salesperson suggested it would just be cheaper to buy a new phone rather than repair it.
If a fault developed during the warranty period, salespeople generally said the device would be sent back to the manufacturer.
However, when our mystery shoppers asked whether the repairers were local (within the city), the answers were vague. Often, they’d just repeat that the item would be sent back to the manufacturer.
If we did want a repair outside of the warranty period: “You can send it away for repair if you don’t mind funding the cost,” the salesperson said to the shopper at Noel Leeming who was looking to buy a Nokia smartphone.
Yet, when shopping for an Oppo and Samsung phone at Noel Leeming, the mystery shopper was told spare parts could be $500.
It was much the same for shoppers of laptops. Noel Leeming warned that repairs are expensive.
However, Noel Leeming salespeople didn’t tell our shoppers it charges a bond to assess smartphones for faults, even if it is under warranty.
An assessment bond of $55 is required upfront and is fully refundable if the device is deemed to have a manufacturing fault.
If you have to stump up for the repairs yourself, the bond will be taken off the total cost of repairs.
We think having to stump up to get a smartphone fault assessed is just another barrier to repairability.
We asked Harvey Norman whether they have a similar process, but a spokesperson said it didn’t wish to comment. We didn’t receive a reply from PB Tech.
The problem: limiting your consumer rights
The salespeople’s attitude to repairs highlights two issues here. The first is that they can mislead consumers about their rights. The second is the lack of affordable repair options available for consumers.
Under the Consumer Guarantees Act (CGA), products must be of acceptable quality and fit for purpose. If a product is faulty, it’s up to the retailer to put it right, regardless of whether it’s still under warranty or not.
Consumer NZ’s product test manager, Dr Paul Smith, said warranties are a sales tool. The manufacturer “sets the conditions of the warranty … there’s no legal obligation to offer one, but there is an obligation to comply with consumer law”.
In terms of getting a device fixed, it is true that spare parts and repairs are expensive. Why? Because devices have become increasingly complex and because manufacturers have tied up the repair game to restrict competition. This has made it too expensive and time consuming for shoppers to repair faulty devices.
Dr Smith also said that to save cost, manufacturers choose cheap assembly methods, such as gluing parts together rather than using removable fasteners, which makes products difficult to disassemble and repair.
Last year, the Australian Productivity Commission investigated concerns that repairing consumer products is becoming increasingly difficult. It also looked into worries that the longevity of products is unnecessarily short, leading to squandered resources and piles of e-waste.
The Australian Productivity Commission found evidence that for some products manufacturers were restricting repair supplies, such as specialised tools and manuals.
Even if a manufacturer did choose to fix your device, given the repairer is unlikely to be local, it will have to be sent away. And so, you’re without your phone or laptop for some time.
This means, for a consumer, getting a replacement device can be more appealing because you’re not without your phone or laptop, or left facing a big repair bill.
“It’s not fair asking a consumer to wait while a faulty product is assessed and repaired,” Dr Smith said. “They’ve paid for the product and should have access to the service it provides.”
But what happens to all those faulty devices if you’ve been sent a replacement?
In Aotearoa we throw out about 97,000 tonnes of unwanted or broken electrical waste each year – one of the highest per capita in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). We think manufacturers should take responsibility for the e-waste they create.
When we tracked the journey of broken benchtop food mixers we returned to stores, we found many of them went straight to landfill.
Solution: remove the barriers to repair
Having repairable and durable products is possible. It takes good product design, reuse of materials that would otherwise end up in landfill, and greater awareness of consumer rights.
The Australian Productivity Commission said barriers to repairability could be removed if:
manufacturers provided software updates for a reasonable time after a customer buys a device;
consumers could get devices fixed anywhere; and
manufacturers provided spare parts and instruction manuals to repairers.
We asked the manufacturers of the smartphones and laptops we mystery shopped how long software updates are available for, and whether spare parts and instruction manuals are available so devices can be fixed by an unauthorised repairer.
Software updates depend on the operating system (OS) used by the device:
Laptops: Microsoft and HP (Windows) and Apple (MacOS) will continue to be supported for up to ten years.
Phone: Oppo and Vodafone (Android) and Apple (iOS) will continue to be supported between four and five years for top-end devices, or up to two years for low-end devices.
When it comes to the restrictions on spare parts and instruction manuals, manufacturers often say keeping them to themselves is a way of reducing poor-quality repairs. And it can help reduce cybersecurity risks, as well as avoid damage to the brand’s reputation and environmental standards.
A spokesperson for Oppo said approved repairers assure quality control, guarantee the devices are repaired accurately, and uphold a high standard of health and safety.
While Microsoft said having authorised repairers means devices are handled and repaired by trained technicians using genuine parts, it’s also “expanding availability of parts and repair documentation, and we’re working towards enabling local repair options”.
A spokesperson told us Microsoft doesn’t have any accredited repair providers in New Zealand, but it will arrange for faulty devices to be sent to its facility. It didn’t tell us where that is.
We think not having any accredited repair providers based here could contravene the CGA. Under the CGA, when goods are supplied, there is a guarantee that the manufacturer will take reasonable action to ensure repair facilities and spare parts “are reasonably available for a reasonable period after the goods are so supplied”.
If repairs can’t be done easily, the customer is meant to be told at, or before, the time they buy the device.
We also asked Microsoft for the ratio of faulty devices that are repaired or replaced. It said it didn’t have the data. We find it a little hard to believe that a global tech giant is not keeping tabs on the number of devices it replaces or repairs.
Other tech giants have more repairability options available for consumers. In Aotearoa, Apple has 64 repairers. It’s also expanding the availability of parts and tools for those who can repair their own phones and laptops, but at this stage the parts and tools are only available in the US.
A spokesperson for HP said it has online videos for those wanting to do DIY repairs, and genuine parts are available to buy online.
HP has three service centres, in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. PB Tech, which has 18 stores across the country, is also an authorised repairer for HP devices.
Yet some manufacturers may void your warranty altogether if you decide to repair your device yourself or send it someone not accredited to carry out repairs.
This is the case with Oppo. It said it’s unable to check whether faults have been caused by the unauthorised repairers or if the device is faulty, “therefore the warranty becomes void”.
“The recommendation is that customers seek repair work from certified repairers.”
The fine print of the Acer warranty also states the warranty is void if it’s repaired by an unauthorised repairer.
However, such warranty conditions don’t restrict your rights under consumer law, as long as the repairer hasn’t damaged the device. The CGA doesn’t require repairs to be done by authorised people – it’s just a condition of the warranty.
HP said it will cover the device if you’ve done your own repairs but won’t cover a broken spare part if it isn’t made by HP.
We also contacted Dell, Samsung, Nokia, Lenovo and Acer but didn’t hear back from them before publication.
Aotearoa needs a repairability index
France rolled out a repairability index in January 2021. We need one in Aotearoa so consumers have accurate and unbiased repairability information when they buy goods.
In a world first, France’s Indice de Réparabilité requires manufacturers to display a repairability score from 0 to 10 at the point of sale. This means when consumers buy goods, they can see how easy it is to repair.
The score is based on five factors: whether product manuals are freely available, the availability of spare parts at a reasonable cost, the right tools, whether the product can be easily taken apart, and a product-specific criteria.
The index focused on five product categories initially: smartphones, laptops, televisions, lawnmowers and washing machines. Five more product lines – top loading washing machines, vacuum cleaners, tablets, dishwashers and high-pressure cleaners – will be added from November 2022.
While the index raises the awareness of repairability for shoppers, it also extends the life of products, meaning less e-waste. It’s also a tool in the fight against obsolescence (whether planned by manufacturers or not) and helps to preserve the natural resources used in production.
Consumer NZ is using available French repairability scores as part of our product testing, starting with smartphones.
But there are limitations to us using the data, said Dr Smith. Most of the repair information is in French, and some spare parts are only available in France.
So, it’s essential that we have our own index based on best practice overseas, to make sure our distributors don’t slack off. We want Samsung NZ to offer the same service as Samsung EU. If we don’t have rules, they are likely to take the lowest cost route – and we miss out, Dr Smith said.
Improvements to the French repairability index
While commentators believe the French repairability index is a step in the right direction, improvements need to be made.
The French consumer organisation, UFC-Que Choisir (UFC-QC), and Halte À L’Obsolescence (HOP), a not for profit which has been campaigning since 2015 for durable products, have evaluated the repairability index one year on.
While both organisations welcome the repairability index, they believe improvements could be made. Enhancements to make a more robust index include:
The creation of a watchdog to check manufacturers’ scores are accurate, and that the score matches the consumer’s experience of a product.
Ensure repairability information is easily accessible when shopping online.
More transparency – information which forms the basis of the repairability score should be online for all to access. This transparency would enable consumers to hold manufacturers to account for their scores.
Review the criteria to ensure manufacturers that have a bad score in one aspect can’t fudge the numbers by scoring highly in another.
The European Union is assessing how a repair index could be implemented across member states.
Checking the manufacturers’ scores
In its 2022 report on the French repairability index, HOP assessed six products to see whether its score for durability matched the manufacturers’ ratings.
Out of the three smartphones it assessed – Apple iPhone 7+, Samsung Galaxy A41 and the Vivo – the HOP score was lower than the manufacturers’ rating.
While HOP noted the difference is small for the Apple iPhone, it means the product is labelled with a green sticker, which suggests it can be easily fixed, rather than a yellow one, which suggests it’s not so easy. HOP also noted it relied on information from Apple for one criterion that formed the score.
The HOP assessment was also lower than Samsung’s. What let it down was the absence of a spare parts list.
It also noted that with both smartphones, disassembly was difficult because of welded or glued parts which meant some faults couldn’t be fixed.
The score for the Acer Laptop was more reliable, with HOP deducting only 0.1 from the manufacturer’s evaluation (8.3 to 8.2).
There was more of a difference with the Apple MacBook (6.2 vs 5.8), which was down to a lack of information about the cost of spare parts due to confidentiality agreements with Apple.
This shows that manufacturers can’t be left to devise their own scores.
Instead, we need a watchdog to make sure they’re not misleading consumers about the durability of its products.
If consumers can choose what product to buy based on how long it will last and how repairable it is, manufacturers will be forced to lift their game. We've launched a petition to make it happen.
About our mystery shop
We mystery shopped four retailers – Harvey Norman, Noel Leeming, PB Tech and Warehouse Stationery (most Warehouse Stationery stores were located in The Warehouse) – for smartphones and laptops between April and August 2022. We asked the salespeople whether there were common faults with the devices, what happened if it broke outside of the warranty period, whether the phone was repairable, and where it could be repaired.
We shopped for big-brand smartphones: Apple iPhone, Oppo, Samsung, Nokia and Vodafone (various models) at each store. We also shopped for big-brand laptops: Apple MacBook, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer and Microsoft (various models) at each store. Shoppers may have enquired about two devices in one shop.