Monthly Archives: August 2009

Of Vacuum Cleaners and Obsolescence

What follows is the text of a letter I just wrote to the Kirby Company. Kirby makes vacuum cleaners. Really, really good vacuum cleaners. The Kirby I inherited from my grandmother a decade ago cost her more than I paid for my first car. Yet, I may very well hand it down to my daughter, it’s so well made.

Whither product quality?

“To Whom It May Concern:

“I was discussing the relative decline of product quality today with a friend. The subject of Kirby came up, as an example of a company that puts a very strong focus on product quality. I just wanted to pass along a personal story.

“My grandmother died 13 years ago at the ripe age of 86. She lived a good life. In that long life of hers, she owned exactly 2 vacuum cleaners, both of them Kirbys. I inherited the second one, which she bought 3 years before her death. The first one she received as a gift in the late 1930s.

“So that first Kirby lasted 50+ years. Because of her second vacuum’s heirloom status, I expect that I won’t need to buy another vacuum again until at least 2035.

“Thanks for making a truly great product! I wish more companies were as committed to quality as Kirby is, almost 100 years after its founding.

Sincerely,
Brian”

Most of our home appliances and the like today (especially computers and electronics) are built with planned obsolescence in mind. They’re only designed to last until the next version comes along. Think Swiffer, Microsoft Office 2000  and iPod 3G. Products have generations now. Today’s latest and greatest will be replaced sooner or later (usually sooner).

Certainly there have been many advancements in vacuum cleaner technology since Jim Kirby started making dirt separators in 1906. Yet Kirby continues to make a product that is built to last. They have improved their product regularly over the years, and the brand is one of the most respected in its industry. Why do so many companies make products that are built with their eventual demise in mind? Theoretically, one could repair a Kirby vacuum indefinitely. Certainly this would cost you far less over a lifetime than buying a new Hoover or Dyson at Costco every 5 years.

Dear reader, in your opinion, are there any other companies out there whose products are still built to last?

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