What can we learn from the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play recall?

Source: fisher-price.mattel.com
May 08, 2019


Presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

In mid-April, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Fisher-Price issued a voluntary recall of a product linked to the deaths of 32 infants since 2009. What took so long?

The infants apparently died of accidental suffocation as they rolled over in the Rock ’n Play Sleeper unrestrained.

In its recall announcement, Fisher-Price, owned by Mattel, claimed the infant deaths occurred because the sleepers were used “contrary to safety warnings and instructions.” A number of pediatric experts, however, have found the product is too dangerous for infants.

Some see regulators failing to act decisively and fast enough.

“Their job is to create stability and safety and to act as a countervailing force versus commercial interests that would want to innovate, perhaps in reckless ways,” said Robert Hurley, professor of leading people and organizations at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business on the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM. “Regular people are not going to read the fine print.”

Fisher Price is also being criticized for allowing the design to go forward and its reaction to the problem. A changing lineup of CEOs at Mattel, steady revenue and stock price declines and the fallout from the Toys ‘R’ Us bankruptcy may have caused management to overemphasize growth at the expense of safety or compliance.

“It’s a paradox — growth versus safety, growth versus stability,” said Prof. Hurley. “So many times when we run companies, we don’t balance that paradox.”

Critics have also called out Fisher-Price’s response that came from a general manager rather than Mattel’s CEO. Mattel may have restrained its response due to a desire to avoid further inflating the headlines and as protection from expected lawsuits.

Fisher price may need to take steps to reclaim lost ground in trust and brand value, such as showing a deeper level of remorse than Mattel’s initial recall statement. Hiring a new CEO who has a record around quality and safety and helping spearhead an industry-wide effort to uplift toy safety standards may also be beneficial.

“Fisher-Price should take every opportunity to repeatedly note their No. 1 goal is children’s safety,” said Wharton marketing professor David Reibstein.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Where do you see the oversights or faults that led to the tragedies surrounding Fisher-Price’s Rock ’n Play Sleeper? What do you think of the reaction from Mattel and Fisher-Price and what should be its next steps?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Mattel dropped the ball here, big time."
"It simply is not fair to families to ask them to be the risk assessors on products that are readily available at every retail store that caters to childcare needs."
"Key takeaways start with, “Own your own mistakes.” Next, “Never blame the customer, especially when there are dead children around.”"

Join the Discussion!

9 Comments on "What can we learn from the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play recall?"

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Mohamed Amer

When we posit safety and growth as a paradox, we are erroneously suggesting they are inherently contradictory. Not only do we have painful examples from Fisher-Price slow walking their decision, but the vivid failures in the ongoing Boeing decision-making and communication fiasco.

Whenever we frame safety and growth as competing optimization scenarios, we create faulty and incomplete decision options and avoid responsible leadership. Culture is set at the top but is exercised each day thousands of times as decisions big and small are made about products, investments, hiring, and conducting meetings.

Bottom line: this is a cultural issue that is years in the making, and what we see (good or bad) is only the tip of the iceberg.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Vice President, Retail Marketing, enVista
3 months 12 days ago

Well said Mohamed! Product safety should be the number one priority in product development and it should never be compromised for revenue growth. The Boeing fiasco is a perfect example of many people looking the other way or ignoring warning signals. It is time for everyone to demand higher safety and ethics from companies.

Evan Snively
As a parent who has recently used this product for my two boys, hearing about the repeat tragedies makes my heart break. We used the Rock ‘n Play when my boys were younger than three months old and did so knowing of the suffocation hazard if they were to flip. But as a parent even if you are hyper aware and cautious, pretty much everything holds some kind of risk for little ones – and there are so many products in the market that parents will be using for the first time – so it becomes extremely difficult to discern what level of serious risk a product holds. Which leads me to my point – it shouldn’t be the parents’ responsibility to have to sort that out. If a product is in question like this one had been for such a long time, it needs to be taken out of market (or redesigned). It simply is not fair to families to ask them to be the risk assessors on products that are readily available at… Read more »
Georganne Bender

There are so many things wrong about this recall. First of all, manufacturers need to design easy to use products and simplify the instructions. We already know that people do not read safety warnings and instructions that are four pages long and printed in an 8 point font. The reason it’s four pages is because the manufacturer knows there could be an issue, the document is to cover its ass. Take it down to a few sentences.

It took 10 years to recall this item, in the meantime, 32 babies died. That’s criminal. Mattel dropped the ball here, big time. The company has an obligation to respond faster when it knows little lives are at stake.

Ryan Mathews

Let’s look at the second question. Key takeaways start with, “Own your own mistakes.” Next, “Never blame the customer, especially when there are dead children around.” And we could add, “Jump on a problem as quickly as you can.” This doesn’t mean you should panic, but certainly after the first report the line should have been thoroughly — and publicly — examined. Next, safety is not the antithesis of growth. In fact, lots of companies from Volvo to Disney have demonstrated that safety is a prerequisite for sustainable growth. And, of course, there are lots of questions about how design thinking was carried out — starting with, “Was this a case of design/production that started with a product rather than a child and, if it was, how was it allowed to go forward?” Finally, the lesson for all retailers and manufacturers is that trust is not something you can command, it is something customers give you. And without that trust you don’t have a real brand.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Certainly Fisher-Price’s reactions call into question their stated claim of putting safety first. Approving and marketing a product that could be problematic is one mark against safety. Blaming consumers is another mark against safety. The worst mark is waiting to have overwhelming evidence presented in the media to make a decision to recall a product. This whole scenario calls into question Fisher-Price’s commitment to safety first and could be a problem for them.

Doug Garnett

Nothing looks good here for Mattel, but I’m not close enough to the situation to know the full reality.

So let’s focus on the dysfunctional truth this reveals — a desperate demand for products to be different from last year.

When a product is sold to be used with a human life at a vulnerable stage, this change must be controlled. A good product with known safety should not change merely to retain shelf space. It should not risk being kicked off the shelf by a product with more gizmos and unknown safety.

I don’t say this lightly. My entire business is wrapped up around new products. Yet I am also a parent. My kids are now 18 and 21. It has been shocking to me how many unimportant (or useless) changes have been made to kid products when we shop now.

gordon arnold

The problem is communication and project management. Too many people in too many directions with no job one ownership or authority. In short, corporate chaos. Next is the layoffs, followed by the closings and then the sell offs.

James Tenser

What was the fault? In a word, DELAY. This product had a fundamentally flawed, ultimately dangerous design concept. If probably should never have been brought to market. It certainly should have been recalled following the first infant death a decade ago. Falling back on carefully-worded safety instructions or disclaimers amounts to victim-blaming.

The financial losses caused by recalling and cancelling this product pale in comparison with the loss of trust and damage wrought to Fisher Price’s brand equity. If it had been addressed sooner and in a forthright manner, the harm could have been at least partially contained — for both the company and its customers who suffered tragedies.

The lesson here for brand marketers is to own your mistakes and fix them fast, before somebody else gets hurt.

"Mattel dropped the ball here, big time."
"It simply is not fair to families to ask them to be the risk assessors on products that are readily available at every retail store that caters to childcare needs."
"Key takeaways start with, “Own your own mistakes.” Next, “Never blame the customer, especially when there are dead children around.”"

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