By Gretchen Kast
Health and safety have been at the top of everyone’s mind over this past year, but as we prepare for a post-pandemic world, it’s important to remember that those concerns are not limited to just the coronavirus. Consumers are more cognizant than ever of what kinds of chemicals and materials go into the products that they buy. But the concept of product safety goes well beyond just individual purchasing choices; its also on retailers and manufacturers to provide consumers with safe, quality options. This week, the news of a reissued class action lawsuit against the online mattress brand Zinus came to light—bringing with it some larger questions about product safety and consumer protection. Given that retailers selling big-ticket items will often have to face the brunt of consumers’ post-purchase complaints, it’s important to have a clear understanding of safety issues, concerns and protections—and a plan in place for what to do when something goes wrong.
A class action lawsuit against Zinus was refiled this week, newly amended from the original version that was filed back in April. According to Attorney Lloyd Cueto, the suit includes over 200 plaintiffs in all 50 states who have complained of trouble breathing and skin irritation after unzipping the cover off of their Zinus mattress and being exposed to loose fiberglass in the fire retardant layer. While this specific material is standard in the mattress industry, the design detail in question is the inclusion of the zipper on the cover. On the Zinus website, the company states that the mattress cover is not washable and should not be removed from the mattress, as doing so could “inhibit the fire safety barrier.” But Cueto argues that the “very existence of a zipper invites the owner to unzip it, or certainly makes you think that it’s safe to do so. And there’s not nearly appropriate enough warning about the exposure to the glass fibers once you open it.” He is calling for a full product recall, but spokespeople from both Zinus and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have denied that there are any issues with the mattress and referred owners to the FAQ page on the company website to learn more about proper care and handling of mattress covers.
“CPSC has mandatory requirements for mattresses and mattress pads,” noted Nychelle Fleming, a public affairs specialist at CPSC. “The regulations are performance standards, not design standards. So they do not specify the use of specific materials or individual components.”
While this particular lawsuit is an individual case, it does serve as a warning sign for the bedding industry to take the time to reflect on how FR materials are incorporated into mattresses. Even if something is technically up to regulatory standards, is there any potential that a customer could accidentally put themselves at risk?
This case also opens up more questions about the very nature of product safety testing. While there are a number of product categories that are held to very high standards of regulations and testing, there are even more that do not have to adhere to any sort of safety specifications. Of the nearly 15,000 product categories overseen by the CPSC, only about 70 are actually required to follow a mandatory standard. The rest are governed by voluntary standards from independent organizations like ASTM International and Underwriters Laboratories. And while many of these rules are comprehensive and well-researched, the voluntary nature of them means that some manufacturers choose to simply ignore them.
And yet, most American consumers assume that all the products that hit store shelves must adhere to some sort of agreed upon safety standards. According to a 2020 Consumer Reports survey, 97% of the consumers said that they “expect that manufacturers have tested their products for safety before selling them.” This assumption makes it all the more difficult when something does go wrong as it breaks the consumer’s trust.
Of course, even though many of the safety standards are voluntary, it is often in the manufacturer’s best interest to make sure their products are safe and reliable no matter what—if, for nothing else, than having a reputation for delivering a shoddy product will likely hurt sales. But many consumer safety advocates argue that simply relying on reactionary market pressures is unacceptable because it still puts people at risk.
What should you do when it turns out one of your products has a safety issue?
No one ever really wants to do a product recall. They’re expensive and logistically complicated, not to mention they can be a blight on your brand’s reputation. But even though that may be true, retailers and manufacturers can easily make a bad situation much worse by trying stall or ignore a product recall if it proves to be necessary.
“Products recalls are going to happen,” Todd Harris, VP of Recalls at Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS, told Retail Dive. "In fact, there are five to ten recalls happening each day. The ultimate outcome of any recall will depend on what the manufacturer does, and how quickly and effectively they do it. This comes down to accomplishing three goals — protect the public, protect the brand, and close the recall as soon as possible.”
In fact, being swift and proactive about righting any post-purchase issues can actually help improve your brand image as it reinforces that level of trust the consumer had initially. No-risk returns have been a stalwart feature of online DTC bedding brands, one that appeals directly to consumers. And, if you do a good job fixing a problem, it’s more likely that the consumer will continue to shop with you after the fact.
Avoid health and safety risks before they happen.
While the voluntary safety standards may not be stringent enough for some advocates, they can still provide some level of accountability and reassurance. Be rigorous about researching the products you’re looking to stock—and wary about ones that may cut corners in production. Safety standards are most obviously important when it comes to mechanical products like adjustable bases, but Zinus is a good example for why the question of safety should be top of mind when choosing any product for your store.
The changing face of consumer product safety.
Put in place in 1972, the Consumer Product Safety Act is an umbrella statute that gives the Consumer Product Safety Committee the authority to pursue recalls and ban products under certain circumstances. Recently, there has been some action on Capital Hill in the hopes of repealing one of more controversial aspects of the provision. Section 6(b) requires that the agency follows a certain procedure before publicly disclosing information about a product safety issue wherein the name of the manufacturer can be easily identified. Designed to ensure that product safety updates are fair, accurate and reasonable, this provision requires the CPSC to first notify the manufacturer directly, provide them with the details of the impending disclosure and give them the opportunity to comment on the issue. Those against the provision argue that this slows down the process and prioritizes the manufacturers over consumer safety. They also note that other governmental regulators, like the Food and Drug Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration do not have to follow such a procedure before releasing data about food or vehicle safety information.
The repeal was introduced in the Senate in April and has broad support from Robert Adler, the current Acting Chairman of the CPSC Commission—leading many to assume it is likely to happen in the coming months. While this is only one change within a much larger apparatus, it may reflect a shift in priorities when it comes to government regulation in the consumer products sphere—and signal more changes down the line.
Remember: trust is key, no matter what.
Buying a new mattress can be a confusing process and many consumers go into the process wary of getting duped by pushy salespeople. Trust, honesty and transparency are all essential to the sales conversation, and that extends too product safety as well. Being proactive about safety is important; that includes promptly fixing an issue, of course, but also stocking quality, reliable products and making sure to educate your customers about how to properly install, use and even launder their purchase. When you prioritize the consumers’ health and safety from the get-go, you not only minimize future risks—you are more likely to create a return customer as well.