A big market for little parts?

We can all agree that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a boon for e-commerce. Existing players are minting money while local shops are scurrying to set up their own online offerings. After all, as a consumer, if it isn’t safe to go to the shops you naturally turn to hours of incessant browsing on e-commerce sites to window shop. And sometimes the persistence and patience reveal some really interesting finds and deals that are worth your wallet. So, you whisk out your card but pause before you click buy. Why? Because the product is tantalizing, but (one of or) a last piece. You take the plunge. Then comes the wait with growing anticipation for days as your parcel snakes its way across the country slowly. Only to discover when it finally arrives that it’s missing a part. A manufacturing defect or a fault of the seller you can’t be sure. It doesn’t render the product unusable, but you have that unsatisfied nag in the back of your head of an incomplete customer experience. This product already doesn’t spark joy completely for you. As the volume of your online purchases increase so does the probability that you face recurring purchases that are missing a little something.

Now Amazon does have a 10 day no questions asked returns policy, which is what makes it amazing. So do many e-tailers. Returning it seems to be a no-brainer. However, when there is no more stock of a certain item, you are left with the very real dilemma of returning the entire product for the refund or keeping said product and making do. Especially if this happens to be a gift or a collector’s item you are usually inclined to keep it. Here are few real-life examples.

The first case was part of a Transformer toy – the Earth Rise Starscream which was missing the front canopy. This was a brand-new toy available in limited stock and had the hallmarks of a true collector’s item. Bought during early days of the pandemic, Amazon wasn’t offering its standard returns policy at the time. Yes, yes, I know you are thinking I am a bit too old to be buying Transformers. But the boredom induced by the pandemic has seen me pandering to my habit of collecting things that remind me of my favourite childhood franchises. To add on to the few things I do have from my childhood and collectibles I picked up in Singapore. As such this defect was only noticeable when you transformed Starscream into a jet. Yet this small niggle made me want to find a solution. I reached out to the original manufacturer – Hasbro and Funskool to see if they could help. But they said they didn’t have spares to sell. I was politely told to talk to Amazon. Truth is the product is manufactured in Vietnam and nobody was going to take the pains to procure or destroy an existing product just for a little customer satisfaction.  

Another such item more recently received was a collector’s edition black Mercedes-Benz 500K Roadster from Maisto, which I recently received as a gift. This beautiful car model was a birthday present for me by my mother. It was missing a small transparent piece in the headlamp. This headlight glass sits within such a shiny chrome piece that at first inspection we really didn’t notice it missing on our initial inspection. Returning it was out of the question because we missed the return window (I only opened the box on my birthday) and apparently this was the last piece of the model and Amazon de-listed the product. I took the missing glass to be a bit of a life lesson in itself. Not to obsess over a 1% imperfection when something is 99% perfect. As such Maisto didn’t seem to have an Indian customer service support to contact anyway.

Missing pieces can be anything from a bundled together accessory or a part of the main product itself, like a battery cover. But make no mistake, missing pieces differ from the replacement parts you find on e-commerce sites. Replacement parts are parts that are known to fail in any given product and require replacement and thus there is a bigger market for this than missing pieces. Such as how I found a rare replacement battery  on a website selling laptop parts for my HP laptop. Or buying a replacement power supply for my desktop computer. You can even find the replacement gas arms for our ageing Ford Fusion’s dicky (which Ford servicing said they couldn’t procure).  

Missing pieces are different – well they should have been present in the first place, they rarely fail or break. So this is a more niche market when you are looking for a replacement. It could be for both new or old products. In India if you have an old product that needed a part it used to be that you could take it to your corner repair shop or a market like Chennai’s Burma Bazar and he’d find a spare, a substitute, or scavenge an old part from a discarded product. I even remember a certain NCIS episode where Gibbs visits a junkyard of sorts and finds a spare handle for an ancient razor of his. But the truth is that it is such a small market that today even the long tail of the internet doesn’t cater to this. Yet. Truth is, today we have access to the technology to make this possible. With 3D printing we could someday see a new e-tailer that manufacturers replacement product parts on demand and charges a small premium for it. Helping you complete almost perfect products. What is needed though is a closer collaboration from the original manufacturer or a strong enough fan base that provides the 3D models necessary for these suppliers to 3D-print or manufacture to order the parts that are missing. Seems farfetched? If you were to visit the Amazon America website you find that there is already a niche product for 3D printed parts as accessories to existing toy transformers being sold on Amazon. Such as the six wheeled ‘Roller’ for Optimus Prime or weapon additions to the Jetfire model. People with 3D printers at home are trying to make a buck out of their investments. This is proof that such a business model could work. Till then I resort to some home-grown ingenuity to solve these problems. Like managing to cut out a piece of transparent plastic from a product packaging to use as the headlight glass for my beautiful Mercedes-Benz 500K roadster. It’s now 99.5% perfect.