Like many recalls, the Bumbo baby seat recall is a situation with no winners—parents are no doubt worried and frustrated, and "infant skull fracture" is not a phrase that a company would like to be associated with.
Bumbo and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall of nearly 4 million Bumbo baby seats this week. Since 2007, there have been more than 84 instances in which babies fell from the popular baby seats, with 21 infants suffering skull fractures as a result.
The company is trying to right the situation, keep its tiny customers safe, and reassure parents. In the process, Bumbo will have to answer a litany of tough questions that face any company facing a potential recall:
Was it our fault (and does it matter)?
Before a recall is even considered, the manufacturer of a consumer product has to know what customers are complaining about—and whether the company truly is to blame.
"It happens frequently there are consumer complaints because the product is being misused," says David Reibstein, professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "The companies want to be polite and handle that in the best way, and try and direct people into the correct way to try and use it, and there's really nothing wrong with the product."
While Bumbo is issuing kits to parents that allow them to attach restraint belts to the chairs, it is also emphasizing to parents, as it did in a smaller 2007 recall of 1 million seats, that the seats should be used only on the floor—thus trying to reduce "user error" even while it makes the product safer.
Even if a company is firmly convinced that it is not to blame, negative attention can force its hand. An example of this could be found in the early 1980s, when Audi customers complained of unintended acceleration. A 60 Minutes segment on the problem furthered the damage, though the segment was later shown as depicting rigged cars, and a later study showed that driver error could have been to blame. Still, the company suffered.
"It was very costly, there was tons of negative publicity, and it dramatically hurt the company for several years," says Reibstein.
Can we handle it?
After recalling the seats and announcing it would issue restraint belts, Bumbo briefly took down its hotline and website to fix technical difficulties, meaning longer waits for parents wanting to claim their kits.
That sort of onslaught is something that companies have to prepare for, says Mike Rozembajgier, vice president of recalls for ExpertRECALL, which helps firms through the recall process.
"Your phone lines can't go down. Your website can't go down. People have to call and talk to a live person," he says.
In addition, the company now faces potential supply difficulties.
"You've got to make sure you've got a supply of the fix-it kit ready to go, because the last thing you want is a disgruntled consumer base."
All of this is complicated by the fact that the recall isn't just for a faulty electronics device; it involves infants, meaning very worried customers who want a fast response.
"It involves children, and when it involves children, we're in a whole different ballgame," he says.
Pay now or pay later?
Recalls can be very costly, but not nearly as costly as the blow they can deliver to a company's reputation, says Reibstein.
He points to a 1982 recall of Tylenol. where capsules laced with cyanide led to seven deaths. Those deaths led Tylenol to recall 31 million bottles of the pain reliever, making for a $100 million recall process.
A company facing only a few faulty products may not want to take on that level of action. But in Tylenol's case, Reibstein believes it paid off. "Johnson & Johnson got so much credit for being out in front and wanting to protect consumers," he says.
A Bumbo spokesperson declined to provide information on how much the recall is estimated to cost, but one can imagine that the process of manufacturing straps and mailing them to millions of Americans could be a heavy burden.
What are they doing on the other side of the world?
If you're a manufacturer, globalization means keeping your eye on a supply chain that can be in many countries all at once. California-headquartered Mattel had to recall more than 400,000 Chinese-made toys in 2007 because they contained high levels of lead.
"We now live in a society where whether you're manufacturing a product or it's a food product, because of the nature of the world we live in, the vast complexities of a supply chain means that all industries have to be critically careful," says Rozembajgier. Understanding exactly where all parts of a product came from and where they were sold is absolutely necessary to being able to reverse the supply process.
How can we predict the future?
It's an exaggeration, but only by a little. Once a recall is issued—or even before one is issued—a company has to imagine how a product might fail. For example, Bumbo might ask itself how parents are going to use the product—on a table instead of on the floor—and how children might potentially wiggle out of it.
Still, while manufacturers of children's products need to pay close attention to these details, this kind of thinking is eventually a fool's errand, he says, meaning that companies simply have to monitor their complaints closely.
"At some point people are going to do what people do," says Rozembajgier. "Nobody's perfect. No company's perfect."
Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter at @titonka or via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.