A five-month-old girl from Shawnee, KS, strangled to death on Aug. 21 when she became entrapped between the metal bars of a bassinet. Her death, and that of a four-month-old girl from Noel, MI, who died nearly a year earlier under similar circumstances, called into question the product’s safety,

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission contacted the products’ manufacturer, Simplicity Inc., with the intention of issuing a joint voluntary recall for 900,000 bassinets. But, guess what? The new owner of the Reading, PA, company refused to cooperate, claiming it was not responsible for products distributed before it took over Simplicity’s assets via an auction in April.

“The products in question were manufactured and distributed by Simplicity Inc., a company that is no longer in business,” SFCA said in a written statement, according to the Chicago Tribune. “SFCA purchased Simplicity’s assets at auction after Simplicity Inc. went out of business and has no legal liability for any products distributed previously by Simplicity.”

Undeterred, the CPSC issued a “product safety alert” on Aug. 27. It warned consumers to stop using convertible “close-sleeper/bedside sleeper” bassinets manufactured by Simplicity. The federal agency also took its recall battle to the retail community. Within a day, six major sellers of Simplicity products issued recalls of their own, including Wal-Mart, Toys ‘R’ Us, Kmart, Big Lots!, Target and J.C. Penney. Eleven other retailers, including Amazon, Bed Bath and Beyond and Kohl’s, began pulling Simplicity bassinets from their stores’ shelves less than one week later.

 A PR Nightmare

The steadfast refusal by SFCA to work with the CPSC on the recall of the bassinets is the latest public relations blunder involving the Simplicity brand. SFCA, an affiliate of Blackstreet Capital Partners LLC, a Bethesda, MD-based private equity firm, has done little to engender the confidence of its retail customers or consumers with its head-in-the-sand stance.

Shortly after purchasing the assets of Simplicity Inc., Ric Miller, chairman of SFCA, boasted in a press release, “(W)e expect to build a leader in the baby furniture industry and we’re excited to work with our retailing partners to bring the most safe and best value products to consumers.”

SFCA wanted the name and valuable retail distribution network that had been built up over the last six decades, minus the headaches or liabilities that have dogged Simplicity products for the past three years. But SFCA is finding that it is not easy to escape the black cloud of recalls that forced its preceding owner into foreclosure.

My October 2007 column chronicled Simplicity’s lengthy recall record, which then culminated with the recall of 1 million baby cribs on Sept. 21, 2007, the largest crib recall in U.S. history. This followed three other recalls of Simplicity children’s furniture. Even though some of the previous recalls involved faulty instructions that directed consumers to assemble the crib rail upside down, Simplicity had maintained on its Web site that its products met or exceeded every safety requirement published and that “(o)nce our products leave our hands, parents need to be knowledgeable, proactive and careful.”

SFCA executives can argue until they are blue in the face that they should be held harmless for the product woes of the past ownership. But while this may or may not serve as an adequate defense in the eventuality of lawsuits, it is clearly not resonating well with retailers, consumers or the CPSC. In fact, as a capper to its sullied safety track record, Simplicity has the dubious distinction of having two products – bassinets and cribs – on CPSC’s “most wanted” list.

A Stronger CPSC

Moving forward, Simplicity and other companies subject to scrutiny of product safety will have to contend with a stronger CPSC. President Bush recently signed into law the Consumer Product Safety Act that cruised through both houses of Congress in July. Among other things, the bill will bolster CPSC’s budget and create a public database to track injuries or illnesses caused by allegedly flawed products.

In a potential harbinger of retailers taking product safety into their own hands, Toys ‘R’ Us announced that it is developing a crib standard that goes beyond any that currently exists. The company said it will impose a wood density standard for wood slats. The proposed standard follows the recall of 320,000 cribs manufactured by Jardine Enterprises, and sold at Toys ‘R’ Us stores. The recall was partially based on 42 reports of broken slats; children were injured in four of the incidents.

In essence, Toy ‘R’ Us is standing up and shouting that it is tired of being made party to recalls of defective products. For better or for worse, other recall-weary retailers can be expected to follow suit.

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