The Singer brand name

One real, if trivial, puzzler during our time here concerns the brand name Singer. In the US, Singer is known only for sewing machines and for having been associated with Sears, the one-time retail giant, the mother of all department stores, the of its day. In the US, Singer and Sears rose and fell together. Sears, Roebuck, and Company created a catalog mail-order business that catered to rural America. That catalog had solid, basic, practical products. The early Singer sewing machines were among the offerings in the catalog. Solid, straight-stitch machines that lasted forever. There were treadle machines if your farm did not have electricity, or you could add an electric motor to the same basic machine if your farm did have electricity.

But US demographics continued its inexorable shift of people from the farms to the cities. Sears added retail outlets and pioneered the three choice sales model. There was the basic, low priced model. There was the expensive, high priced model. And then there was the intermediate model that the vast majority of people ended up buying. Sears called the choices: Good, Better, and Best and this sales psychology is still used by many companies to this day. For example. You tell the used car salesman what you can afford. He then shows you a disappointing, clearly worn out clunker at your price. You hesitate. He then shows you a really sharp model sports car or SUV that turns out to be well outside of what you could possibly pay. And then, more often than not, you buy the next car he shows you that costs more than you had planned to pay, but is a step up from the clunker. You tell yourself that you have been thrifty and responsible for not splurging on the SUV and drive away happy. The salesman has milked you for all that you are worth and so he is happy as well.

To update itself, Singer added machines to their sewing machine lineup that did a zig-zag stitch and decorative stitches.   But the new Singer sewing machines simply did not work very well, for all their fancy new stitches.

Neither Sears’ nor Singer’s adjustment to the times was entirely successful. Sears began an agonizingly slow decline to the point today where it is only the Craftsman brand of tools that keep it from disappearing entirely.

Kris is an accomplished and skillful seamstress. She waxes poetic about learning the basics with an old Singer “Featherweight” sewing machine. When she finished college, Kris’ mother wanted to give her a very special present. She purchased a brand new Singer sewing machine and presented it to Kris, who was thrilled. But the thrill turned to frustration and then to anger. The machine just would not work right. Kris took it to a repair shop multiple times to no avail. She developed one of those good news/bad news relationships with the sewing machine repair man. The good news was that she learned a lot about sewing machine cleaning, oiling, and repair that has helped her maintain her later sewing machines. The bad news was that every lesson was due to a failure of her new Singer sewing machine. Eventually, Kris gave up on the brand-new Singer and purchased a used Bernina and the rest was history, as they say.

However, I do not think Kris ever forgave the Singer company for turning the milk of her mother’s kindness into the bitter bile of such frustration. Thus, it was a bit of a shock to come to Sri Lanka and discover that Singer seemed to have a virtual monopoly on the sewing machine market. Determined never to give any more of her money to Singer, Kris searched the island for alternatives. We found a shop in Pettah, the famous shopping district of Colombo, and met a man who started his own, local, brand of sewing machines: Chears. After a couple of hours of talking about politics, watching the technician set up a machine, Kris trying the machine out, the technician fixing the problems Kris pointed out, comparing Singapore to Sri Lanka, Kris getting a lesson in oiling the machine, we bought one. The Chears machine does 64 stitches and cost $150, about half the cost of comparable Singer machines. Kris has been using it for a couple of months now and her verdict is that it is no worse than a Singer.

But we remained surprised that Singer was such a big brand name here. And not just sewing machines, but all sorts of household appliances. In Sri Lanka, a Singer store is a high-end (for Sri Lanka) home appliance store.

There is the Singer washing machine in our house. The machine is clearly ancient. It’s front panel calls itself a “semi-automatic” washing machine. The only thing that is automatic about the machine is that it has a timer that stops the agitation after a set amount of time. Otherwise, you have to fill the tub with water from a faucet, start agitation with the timer, throw a switch to drain the tub, remember to reset the switch before filling the tub with the rinse water from the faucet, repeat for two rinses, then transfer the clothes from the tub to a separate tub where the spin drying will take place, set the timer for the spin dry, then take the clothes and hang them on the line outside to dry in the sun. I think “timer operated agitator” is more descriptive than “semi automatic.”

Just like me, the washing machine developed a leak last week. The throw rug at the door to our bathroom had a wet spot. Not feeling well, I did not do a thorough investigation and blamed the dog. (That poor dog. She was locked up in her dog house as punishment. Another injustice I am going to have to explain to Saint Peter someday soon.) A few days later, the rug is soaked again, but this time I notice a thin trail of water coming from under the washing machine. I pull the machine away from the wall to get at the back access cover to investigate. I am greeted by this:

Dead spider behind washing machine

Dead spider behind washing machine

For scale, that guy/gal is at least 130 mm (5 inches) from leg tip to leg tip. I generally encourage spiders in my house. They eat other insects and do not bother me. When they get this size though I draw the line. Or I would have drawn the line if I had know he was there. And if he was not already dead, of course, which he was. Well, I could not be sure he was dead and so I gave him a mighty whack with a rolled up newspaper. The dog cleaned up the juicy mess, perhaps considering it a small consolation prize to make up for the previously cited injustice.

With no small trepidation, afraid of what I might find there, I then removed the service panel on the back of the machine. The inside of the machine was as dry as dust with most of the volume filled with cobwebs. Shining a flashlight around, I spotted the problem. The drain valve had sprung a leak. Clearly a new part was needed.

Not very hopefully, Kris called the Singer service center listed in the phone book. They would send someone that day. Kris had to run an errand, but I was resting at home after my illness, so it fell to Rani and me to host the repairman when he finally came in the early afternoon.

The repairman was nice, clean, and efficient, and apparently had long since lost his fear of rooting around in the cobwebby insides of old appliances. He confirmed that the machine was thirty years old. He disassembled the drain plug housing and discovered that a rubber boot had developed a crack that was responsible for the leak. I was braced for the bad news. No one could expect a company to still be manufacturing  rubber boots for a thirty year old, hardly automated, washing machine.

But how wrong I was. He went out to his truck and returned with the required rubber boot. He installed it and checked that the valve did not leak. Then he did an expert check of all of the washing machines other systems. Then he wrote out the bill. Total cost inclusive of parts, labor, and the fee to come to the home, $12.50. Then he gave me his personal phone number and insisted that, if there were any problems, I should give him a call directly. Oh, yeah. And the repair was warranteed for one year.

Now I could see why Singer might be a better respected brand name in Sri Lanka than in the US. This was service and quality that we would associate with Maytag. So how could one brand name have such a schizophrenic reputation?



1 Comment

  1. Kris said,

    February 2, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Thanks for the sewing compliments! The rest of my old Singer sewing machine story is that it eventually landed back with my mother, who also took it to multiple repair shops and finally smashed it with a hammer.
    And there is more to this story. We all must try to do business with companies that back up their products. Sometimes it might cost a little more, meaning we have to wait longer or save longer. But it is our only weapon in the new economy. My 50-year-old Bernina is a steel wonder, built to last by Swiss engineers who studied the long haul before producing machines. After WWII, many European companies invested in research and development in order to compete for the consumers’ thrifty dollars. American companies did some, but soon started making things for a short term profit, no matter how unhappy their customers were after the first glow of ownership passed. Singer outsourced production to Japan and now to China, which in itself is not bad, but the quality of their U.S. products declined and they would not stand behind repairs or replacements.
    It is one of the challenges of living far from familiar markets, to find out what is going to be worth one’s precious earnings. But I am committed to the process of rewarding companies that are responsible, that make products that perform at least no worse than promised, and that respond to customers in a useful way. Singer seems to have left its U.S. integrity; maybe it learned its lesson on U.S. customers and is doing better in the rest of the world.
    Tim forgot to mention that my Chears machine included a sturdy table, and that it can be converted to treadle power if necessary!

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