Consumer Reports, the nation’s most respected source of product reviews and buying advice, does not mince words about extended warranties. It calls them a bad idea and money down the drain. The website Consumerist agrees, calling extended warranties useless and usually a bad deal.
So why on earth would you consider shelling out an extra $50 to $150 for a couple of extra years of warranty coverage on your new appliance, computer, or mobile gadget?
Well, dear reader, try to suspend your cynicism for a moment while I tell you about a 200-employee company in San Francisco called SquareTrade, which works with bricks-and-mortar chains like Costco and TigerDirect and e-retailers like Amazon, eBay, and Buy.com to offer protection plans for laptops, smartphones, tablets, and other electronics.
Steve Abernethy, the company’s energetic CEO, says he’s well aware of the extended-warranty industry’s dreadful reputation. But he thinks SquareTrade has a shot at salvaging it, mainly by offering broader coverage and better service at lower prices.
He also has some interesting thoughts about the physical and financial risks we’re taking as we become ever more inseparable from our smartphones and tablets. Sure, the chances that your new Frigidaire will conk out within the warranty period may be tiny. But what about that $700 chunk of glass and integrated circuits that you’re carrying in your pocket? How sure are you that you can go three years without accidentally sitting on it or dropping it in the toilet? (It happens more often than you might think.)
I’m not saying SquareTrade has won me over, and I haven’t bought extended warranties for any of my own devices. But I’ll say this: I went into a recent interview with Abernethy as a hardened warranty skeptic. I came out thinking that the industry might be changing, and that buying an extended warranty might be a good idea for some people.
To start, Abernethy knows why people are suspicious about extended-warranty offers. He acknowledges that it’s been “a business done poorly, with a fundamentally flawed business model.”
You can file most of the historic problems with extended warranties under lack-of-transparency. To start, it’s hard to make an informed decision about buying a warranty, since they’re usually pitched at the point of sale, when customers tend to be hurried, and it’s difficult to inspect the fine print or research alternatives. It’s also hard to predict whether your new $200 microwave oven will go kaput in the next two years, and therefore, whether a $50 two-year extended warranty pencils out.
On top of that, it’s often tricky to figure out who’s actually behind a warranty offer. Companies like Apple and Dell have their own protection plans. But the warranties that many big-box stores sell under their own brand names actually come from third-party providers; the stores essentially buy the plans wholesale and mark up the price.
This outside provider is the company you’ll have to talk to if you ever need to get an item repaired or replaced. In the gadget sector, the largest warranty provider is Nashville, TN-based Asurion, which might just be the biggest company nobody has ever heard of. It works with Walmart, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, among others. In 2010, it reported $3.8 billion in revenue.
Then there’s the claims experience. If your laptop, TV, or tablet shorts out, it’s often difficult to get definitive word about whether or when it will get fixed or replaced. That’s assuming you were even able to dig up your receipt and your warranty papers before you called in your claim. (Abernethy says other warranty providers count on a certain level of “breakage,” i.e., customers who are entitled to file claims but forget they even bought a warranty, or don’t have the documents to prove it.)
These kinds of flaws and frustrations are exactly what attracted SquareTrade to the warranty business in the first place, says Abernethy. He co-founded the company in 1999 with fellow Harvard Business School alum Ahmed Khaishgi.
Up to 2006, the company was in a completely different field: mediation and dispute resolution for buyers and sellers on eBay. When it turned out that there wasn’t much demand for that service outside the auction site, Abernethy and his team started looking for other sectors where … Next Page »