Monday, April 20, 2015

Adventures in E-Commerce - The Kettle Conundrum


Introduction

“Can he really be that bitter?”  A reader of my holiday newsletter, years ago, asked this.  He was set straight by his wife, who correctly construed my newsletter as tongue-in-cheek.  That said, I really can be that bitter, especially after spending half my Sunday shopping online in pursuit of a single basic item.

In terms of making well-informed decisions, consumers have never had it better ... or worse.  We are drowning in (albeit highly useful) information.  Read on for a one-way trip into the retail Heart of Darkness.

No plastic!

My tea kettle died.  (Long, painful story I’ll touch on later.)  My wife suggested we try an electric version this time, remembering the one we’d used when house-swapping with a Glaswegian family.  I have now looked at several hundred electric kettles online.  Every single damn one of them is unsuitable for one reason or another.  Most of them fall down because of:  plastic.

My wife concedes that using Botox is unwise, but it’s amazing how much more passionately she decries the evils of plastic housewares.  If I wash anything plastic in the dishwasher, I hear about it, except when it comes to my bike water bottles.  (I’m guessing that my wife isn’t that concerned with my health, which is my own damn problem, but she’s determined not to expose our children to possible toxins.)  We’re gradually switching to glass storage containers, which don’t stack.  This is inconvenient, but to be honest, I’m wary of plastic myself, especially where boiling water is involved.

I’ve been unimpressed with the electric kettles out there.  Most of them look ugly and bloated, and have these stupid plastic water level indicators like you find on a steam iron.  (Why settle for the heft/swish test when you can have a cool product feature like this?)  Other kettles don’t have the level indicator, but have plastic lids or mesh screens in front of the spout.  Others don’t appear to use plastic, but what if there’s hidden plastic inside?  This is the problem with shopping online.  Fortunately, when shopping on Amazon you can look at the Q&A section, which is often incredibly thorough.

For example, the owner of one kettle assured shoppers that there’s only a little bit of plastic inside the kettle, and it’s up high where the water doesn’t reach.  She even included a link to a YouTube video of the product, where a helpful pair of baristas give an incredibly long demo.  That kettle looked pretty good, until another helpful commenter reminded us that steam will condense on the plastic and drip down into the water.  Reading that was the equivalent of being chased by the boogieman, rushing into your house, managing to slam the door and deadbolt it in the nick of time, sighing with relief, and then turning around to discover that this same boogieman is unaccountably seated on your living room sofa, waiting for you.

The search became even more fraught when we realized some electric kettles are insulated—they have the two layers of stainless steel with the vacuum between them—and once we knew about this, it became really hard to accept the idea of a non-insulated version.  The problem is, all the insulated ones are hideous and/or gigantic and/or contain plastic.

So I went to various non-shopping web pages to research insulated electric kettles, and found dozens of people geeking out over this topic without actually turning up anything useful.  My favorite entry was one guy chiding another for not solving the problem through simple ingenuity:  using a standard non-insulated kettle and pouring the water into a double-wall steel thermos.  This person suggested that to do otherwise was to damage your “greene” cred.  The next question/answer pair established that a) he meant to type “greenie,” and b) I really need to find a better way to spend my time.

I finally did find a really nice, possibly non-plastic insulated electric kettle—the (albeit pricey) Vektra—but it’s only made for the English market.  I guess there aren’t enough Americans drinking tea to warrant a 120-volt version, or maybe the Brits are still sore over the Boston Tea Party.

Perhaps the most exasperating user comment concerned an electric kettle that didn’t have any plastic, but which somehow caused its owner to get headaches.  “I returned it, and now I boil water in a saucepan, and my headaches have gone away,” the paranoid blithering idiot concluded.  I made the mistake of mentioning this to my wife, who (while agreeing this guy was probably a nutjob) suddenly decided she wanted a kettle made somewhere besides China.

Of course I was tempted to argue, since just about everything these days is made in China, but as it happened one of the kettles I’d looked at—a Chinese-made Breville which was made of glass except for the lid—carried a one-star review complaining of a disclaimer printed on the inside flap of the box:  “This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.”  Curses!  How could I feel good about using this product, knowing I’m ignoring a possibly important warning?  Moreover, this heightened my cynicism about the rampant dangers of cheap, mass-produced goods.

(It also reminded me of the sunglasses I bought in Hawaii last summer.  A bible verse accompanying the packaging stirred my curiosity, and when I Googled the product name and the verse, I got all these hits about a lawsuit against the company for failing to disclose carcinogens to Californians.  I tried to return the sunglasses, but was denied.  Now, whenever I wear them, I take flak from my family and from the little voice in my head.  We call these sunglasses the “cancer goggles” and lately I’ve abandoned them in favor of some Ray-Bans I found on a riverbank.)

The search for a non-Chinese kettle

Consider Le Creuset, the venerable French brand.  They make a nice kettle, but is it French, like their Dutch ovens?  Amazon, you will find, is very coy about where things are made.  That said, when paying top dollar, many consumers expect a first-world pedigree, and “Where is this made?” was the first topic in the Q&A for the Creuset kettle.  The responses?  1) “China.”  2) “China ... says right on the box.”  3) “I don’t know.”  4) “France.  I love this kettle!”

Why do people answer “I don’t know?”  Do they not grasp that answering the question is optional, and that “I don’t know” serves nobody?  I see this a lot and it does little to burnish my faith in the human race.  Neither does the response “France” when it’s a) wrong, and b) the fourth response.  Did this responder not see the first three answers, two of which were pretty definitive?  And for that matter, why does anybody answer a question that has already been answered?  It’s not like country of origin is something we can put to a vote.  Someone asked, someone answered ... move on.

I searched Amazon for “tea kettle made in USA.”  I got almost the same search as for “tea kettle.”  Some of the products listed under “made in USA” only seem to be American made; many don’t even pretend (such as Breville).  What ‘s the point of this search?  A Google search was basically useless as well.  I did find some very specific patriot-run websites like usalovelist.com, tea-kettles-made-in-usa.blogspot.com (a retail venture posing as a blog), madeinusaforever.com, etc.  They turned up a lot of products that might have once been made in USA, but no longer are.  It’s kind of sad, the thought that patriots are paying a little extra or giving up a feature or two to buy American, little knowing they’re still getting Chinese products.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t turn up a couple bona-fide American kettles.  One was a funny-looking copper job by Jacob Brumwell ($399.99 from manufacturer; $499.99 at madeinusaforever.com).  What do you get for your money?  Well, for one thing, the website points out that “Copper is sky-high on the commodities market today.”  I looked it up.  True story:  it’s up to almost $3/pound.  This kettle, which looks like it would only make a few cups, putatively weighs three pounds.  That’s almost $9 right there, in materials alone!  The website also points out, “Buy American and save jobs.”  Fair enough, but how many Americans are employed making $400 kettles?  And how good are these jobs?  A few decades ago I worked for awhile at an American factory, and it was staffed entirely by Filipinos with green cards who were making minimum wage with zero opportunity for career growth.  I’m sure they were better off in the U.S. than in their homeland, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t being exploited.

The other American kettle I found carried this caveat (from madebyyankees.com):  “The parts are German, assembly occurs in the U.S.”  I think I can handle that.  And the price was quite a bit better:  $9.86.  You might assume I was thrilled to see this, but for that price I was skeptical.  It’s made of glass, which just seems weird for a stovetop kettle, even if the glass is German.  Sub-$10 just says “shoddy.”  And I’ve had enough of shoddy kettles.

(Which brings me to how my family came to need a new kettle.  Our beautiful English-made Simplex copper kettle, the platonic ideal of tea kettle, was ruined when one of the kids failed to put the lid on properly so it didn’t whistle, and all the water boiled away.  The replacement, miraculously, came in the form of another Simplex copper kettle my wife found at a garage sale right next door.  Our neighbor sold it for practically nothing, out of sheer bitterness.  “It’s not like the old ones,” he warned.  “It’s a piece of shit.”  It really did seem chintzy compared to our old one.  For one thing, the knob on top was plastic instead of wood.  I could live with that, though once you’ve enjoyed the platonic ideal of anything, it’s hard to come down.  The big problem was that the lid didn’t fit right.  We went into this second kettle knowing that sometimes, randomly, steam would escape around the lid so it wouldn’t whistle.  Eventually somebody failed to notice a whistle failure, and the kettle boiled dry, following which it would randomly drop bits of metal in the water, probably detached lead solder so we’re going to go crazy.  I can see why my neighbor was so bitter:  this is a $200 kettle.  Both Simplexes are in the garage now, haunting me like ghosts.)


So, the $9.86 American-made kettle, made by Medelco, has a four-star average Amazon rating, across 2,773 reviews.  That’s a lot of positive press.  On the other hand, one of the one-star reviews complained that the kettle “randomly shattered in my hands.”  That’s a bit more solid than “gave me headaches,” but I still take 1-star reviews with a grain of salt.

Which brings me to the Q&A for this little number.  The first question was, “I love the font on the kettle in the photo—a nice helvetica—but i hate the writing on the kettle that i received—comic sans? can I trade it in?”  For the record, the text printed on the kettle, “Whistling Kettle,” is as ugly as it is pointless.  Still, this seemed nit-picky for a $9.86 product.  There were eight responses to this question.  The first:  “that was a photo from a beta release of the kettle. it turns out that helvetica will disrupt heat distribution and cause the water to heat unevenly. comic sans works much better for this purpose.”  I burst out laughing, and realized how generally irked I’d become through my hours-long kettle research.  The snotty response gave me a nice release.

So did some others.  “We should get together and have a Medelco Kettle smashing rally to punish this insolence!! I'm with you on this. I've had a deep-seated hatred for Comic Sans ever since our local county used it on my grandfather's death certificate.”  And, “I was about to buy this kettle until I found out the font was not the one pictured. Ugh. The sheer nerve of tea kettle companies these days. Disgusting.”

After that mirthful interlude I got back to business.  This damn Medelco appears to have a plastic top.  I looked at more Q&A to confirm this.  But first I happened upon questions about the kettle’s true country of origin.  Two buyers contacted the company and were told the glass is made in Germany, the lid in China—of phenolic plastic no less, which the second correspondent helpfully pointed out is “corrosive to the eyes, the skin, and the respiratory tract... and can be very harmful to the central nervous system and heart; causing dysrhythmia, seizures, and even coma... and if that isn't enough, it can also negatively affect the kidneys and liver.”  (You know what?  The first four ailments were enough.)   A third guy disagreed:  “I spoke with the owner and met her dogs. The freakin' thing is completely assembled here in the US. The plastics are made in the USA and the glass is from Germany.”  Met her dogs?  Is that the gold standard for establishing one’s authority, or is this guy just another joker? 

Un-American, but still somehow okay

Finally, I found my kettle.  It has absolutely no plastic, and is practically made in the USA.  Practically?  Well, here’s the deal.  It’s made by All-Clad, which is an American company that makes extremely pricey stuff.  The Amazon product description of this kettle includes this little tidbit:  “Today, All-Clad cookware is still handcrafted in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, with American-made steel—the same way it was four decades ago.”  Even a savvy consumer could be forgiven for concluding that this kettle is made in USA, which it isn’t.  The Q&A tally responses to “where is this made?” are as follows: 
  • 3 ambiguous responses  (“I do not know,” “Nothing indicating ‘made in ...’ & I can’t recall CoO listed on original box,” and “Where ever  All-Clad is made!! ??”)
  • 4 incorrect “USA” responses (“Made is [sic] the US,” “definitely made in the U.S.A.,” etc.)
  • 10 “China” responses (the most useful being “I called All Clad and they said the tea kettle is made in China ... [but] in an All Clad factory, not sub-contracted out”).
Well, at least the product description is (essentially) honest.  After all, a kettle isn’t (technically) cookware.  You don’t cook tea, per se.  I mean, it’s not like water is raw.

Meanwhile, the All-Clad folks recognize that stainless steel is a horrible conductor of heat, and thus use an aluminum core in the base of their kettle.  I have to respect their design work, which was almost certainly done by an educated American citizen with straight teeth and bright prospects.

My wife happened by, saw the photo of the All-Clad, and was immediately smitten.  I told her the inconvenient truth of its being Chinese, but she didn’t balk.  I think she’d given up on the not-made-in-China dream, just as she’d abandoned all hope of an insulated electric kettle or an electric kettle that wasn’t part plastic.  Myself, I was so exhausted by silly Internet research, I’d have settled for a stolen, Klingon-made kettle with phenolic plastic bits and an asbestos liner.  I suggested to my wife that she head over to Sur La Table (or “Sur La Yuppie,” as I call it) and buy  the All-Clad. 

(Is it ironic that, instead of wasting the time and energy of a salesperson at a brick-and-mortar store, only to purchase the product online just to save a few bucks, I instead wasted the computer server cycles and Internet bandwidth of an online retailer before purchasing the product in a brick-and-mortar store, even though this cost a few bucks more?  Perhaps it is.)

My wife, accustomed to my tirades about wasting money, said, “I can’t believe you’re sending me to Sur La Table.”  I clarified:  “Yes, but only for this kettle!  I don’t need any backup grapefruit spoons.”  We really do have a set of needlessly exquisite grapefruit spoons from Sur La Yuppie.  When my wife brought them home, I said, “Where have these been all my life?!”

So, you may be wondering, how is the Chinese-made, all-metal, non-electric, non-insulated, local-tax-base-supporting All-Clad kettle?  Well, it seems fine.  It whistles.  It looks good.  It’s nice and hefty (which has doubtless earned it a few one- or two-star reviews because someone’s grandma struggles with the weight).  It does boil water (though it takes 50% longer to do so than our old Simplex copper kettle).  I’ve had several cups of tea and no headaches.  If the Iron-Clad gets discolored, or the handle gets too hot, or it gets liver spots on the inside, or any of the other pitfalls occur that I’ve been warned against by helpful Amazon reviewers, I’m going to look the other way.  I don’t intend to do any more kettle shopping unless this one randomly shatters in my hand.


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