This article was written by Thomas Opsomer
Say you replaced your corded vacuum cleaner with a battery-powered one a few years ago. Initially you were thrilled with the convenience of not dragging a cord around, but by now the battery barely holds enough of a charge to make it to the other end of your living room. So, you pass by the store to ask about a new battery – only to learn that just the part costs about as much as a new vacuum and on top of that there will be labor costs, so it would make much more sense to replace your vacuum with this great new model they have on sale. Sounds familiar?
For many years, Right to Repair activists have been denouncing outrageously high spare parts prices that effectively eliminate repair as an option, often making it more expensive than replacement. And while over these last few years, a lot has happened for the right to repair both in the EU and the US, not that much has actually changed for consumers faced with broken appliances.
For vacuum cleaners, washing machines and a handful of other products, repairability requirements have now been laid down in Ecodesign regulations. Manufacturers need to make sure that key parts are removable with commonly available tools and are made available to professional repairers for a number of years after the last unit is sold. All of which goes a long way toward making repair possible… But these requirements still ignore one of the biggest problems: the price of spare parts. (1)
The part is more than the whole
For about 5 years now, we’ve been keeping an eye on the price of a particular circuit board for a washing machine as it fluctuated between 299€ and 1073€—which is more expensive than the whole of the machine ever cost. Surely a glitch? Don’t be so sure. When looking into spare prices in more detail as we were preparing for our ‘Price is Right’ game, we had no trouble at all finding similar examples for various products, ranging from a Samsung LCD panel that costs nearly 25% more than the TV that it’s used in, to a 60€ motor for a Gardena grass trimmer that costs only 37€, shipping included (see image).(2) That’s over 160% of the product price, for a single part! Unless you find a repairer that’s willing to pay you for the opportunity to repair your lawn trimmer, that doesn’t leave much room for any repair scenario, does it?
37€ for the whole trimmer, 60€ for its motor. That’s a bad day for repair.
Now these are quite extreme examples, but it actually takes much less to kill any chance of repair. Most people will only consider a repair if the total cost of the repair is less than 30–40% of the product value.(3) Given that the cost of any given repair is usually composed of labor cost and spare parts cost (assuming there is no transportation cost for the repairer), in order for the repair to stay below the critical threshold, it is reasonable to estimate that the price of spare parts should stay below 15-20% of the product price.(4)
Key parts such as batteries, motors, control boards and display panels very often exceed this threshold, but even the most mundane of parts can come at a surprisingly high cost. Imagine being charged 253€ for a replacement charger for your MSI laptop, or 214€ for a wire basket for your Beko dishwasher. Or perhaps breaking the door glass of your 299€ Ikea Matälskare oven and finding out that just the glass costs 92€…. You will quickly realize that it doesn’t make much economic sense to have a repairer come over to your house to replace it. With no room left for any labor cost, it’s no wonder that small repair businesses are having a hard time keeping afloat.
One typical reason why parts can be very costly, is a practice called bundling. This means that instead of selling individual parts, manufacturers only offer certain spare parts as an assembly or group of parts. This can be related to poor design choices—as in the case of a Macbook Air with a failure-prone keyboard that cannot be separated from the top housing, leading to a 500€ repair cost. However bundling can also just be a matter of policy. This is the case for the above mentioned washing machine example, for which you have to buy a set consisting of two circuit boards, a knob and several other plastic parts even if just the display goes bad. These are technically different parts that can be individually replaced; it’s just that the manufacturer chose to not sell them individually. You could break something as trivial as a closing lid for a laser printer and find that it is only available together with the laser unit, setting you back a hefty 553€.(5) A particularly striking example we came across is a single, non-standard screw (if you must know it has a left-hand trapezoidal thread) used to fix the base plate to a 265€ Metabo jig saw. The screw is not available for sale separately: you have to buy the whole base assembly (see image). Cost: 49€.
These are all the parts of a jig saw you have to buy even if you just need the screw at the bottom left…
Bundling is just one of the ways in which some manufacturers make parts unnecessarily expensive. The simplest way is obviously to just set a high price for the parts. So what determines the price of spare parts? As with any product, a manufacturer’s price setting takes into account a series of considerations including production, transportation and storage costs as well as supply and demand, market segmenting and of course general company strategy. Hence, there can be a number of reasons for the high prices of spare parts.
Now we’re not saying that cost doesn’t play a role. It is true that managing a parts inventory over time is a costly affair—it’s definitely easier to sell a container of gadgets and forget about it. But the spread of prices that we encounter in the parts market is so absurdly large that it’s hard to explain based on cost factors alone. In some cases, it seems clear that manufacturers are simply applying extortionate profit margins to spare parts (a member of the EU Parliament leading work on new regulations to enable repair recently said that it reminded him of cartels). The very least one can say is that most producers wouldn’t be upset if you bought a whole new appliance instead of paying for a part.
Lack of competition and transparency
Astute readers may have noticed one typical element missing from the price setting factors listed above: competitiveness. Indeed, competition is normally a key element that affects product prices, and it is counted on by many policy makers to also solve the repair cost issue. However, when it comes to spare parts, there is very little actual competition. At the risk of stating the obvious: you can’t just go shopping with Bosch and Miele to find a cheaper part for your AEG washing machine. Once you’re at the repair stage, you’re pretty much at the mercy of the brand owner, who often has a monopoly on spare parts and can therefore charge you any price they like. Whatever you choose—pay for an overpriced part or buy a new appliance—it’s a win for the industry.
So the trick is to take spare part prices into account well before you’re in need of repair: that is, when deciding which appliance to buy. However, this requires transparency on spare parts prices at that point in time. Some brands, such as those of the French SEB group, have made repairability into a major selling point. In principle, SEB aims to limit spare parts prices to max. 50% of the product price—although you may still end up paying about 18€ for the motor of a 28€ Moulinex chopper (produced by SEB), for a 60% part-to-product price ratio.(6) Other brands don’t share any information about their spare parts price policy, making it impossible for you to make an informed decision.
For some products, the French indice de réparabilité can help you take this into account, in order to choose a washing machine that scores 10/10 for spare parts price instead of one that scores 2,5/10, or a TV that scores 7,5/10 instead of one that scores 0/10.(7) However, you cannot search for or filter products by spare parts score on any website. You have to check them one by one by reviewing the scoring grid, which may not even be available online—although the seller is legally required to provide it upon request.
Ideally, we would create the necessary transparency at the EU level. However, our efforts to get spare part prices included in the first EU-wide repairability score (for smartphones) were to no avail. Smartphone manufacturers will have to communicate parts prices from 2025 onwards—but nothing says they can’t change them at will after you’ve bought your phone.
Wouldn’t it be so much easier if all manufacturers (not just for the handful of products we can expect to cover with new Ecodesign rules in the following years) had to list spare part prices on their website? Better yet, what if manufacturers had to stick to their originally published prices over time (or at least keep variations due to inflation or changes in logistics within reasonable limits)? Together, these two transparency measures would ensure prices stayed comparable instead of having them fluctuate all over the place, as was the case for that washing machine board that ranged from 299€ to 1073€. Add to that an EU repair score taking parts prices into account, and consumers would finally be able to make an informed choice when shopping for repairable products.
Now interestingly, when competition is at work, it does indeed drive down prices—and it gives us an idea of the sometimes insane profit margins that brand owners apply to spare parts.
For instance, various models of washing machines and dishwashers use the same type of pumps, valves, heating elements and such, which appliance manufacturers often get as off-the-shelf parts from their own suppliers. In such cases, a repairer may be able to source the same or a similar part from an aftermarket supplier, who could even be the original manufacturer of the part—even though, contrary to automotive parts manufacturers, the part manufacturer can’t advertise the completely identical part as ‘original’ if it doesn’t carry the product brand name.
It is not rare for such aftermarket parts to cost only a fraction of the brand price: a Samsung heating element costs a repairer over 50€ (ex. VAT) whereas a generic one only costs 12€, and a generic inlet valve replacing a 51€ Candy part will sell for around 5,50€ (see image).
Prices (ex. VAT) for ‘original’ vs aftermarket heating element and inlet valve for a washing machine as offered on Visynet, a spare parts distribution platform aimed at professional repairers.
The same goes for your Dyson vacuum cleaner motor and your Bose headphone earpads. And should the carburettor of your Husqvarna brushcutter need servicing, a set of just three rubber gaskets the size of a postage stamp will set you back 47€ when bought from the product brand, 12€ when bought from the very manufacturer that makes them for the brand, and only 5€ from a generic aftermarket supplier. While there may be subtle differences in quality between some of these parts, a 900% markup is hard to justify —and one can understand how some repairers would simply call this a rip-off.
Second-hand parts scavenged from discarded products may also offer a solution. Remember that 500€ keyboard repair we mentioned earlier? You can also get a refurbished keyboard for 99€. This may also save you if you need a part that the manufacturer no longer provides, such as a cooling fan for that same MacBook. Long-time repairers and thrift stores that recover electric appliances often have shelves full of harvested parts that they can use to fix a variety of appliances both old and new (see image).
Vienna’s Repair and Service Centrum’s founder Sepp Eisenriegler with their vast stock of used parts. Picture © Foto Stickler
Serialisation limits opportunities
However, the use of aftermarket and used parts might soon come to an end, as product manufacturers are increasingly using a technique called parts pairing to restrict the use of non-original as well as recovered original parts. This means that the product refuses to operate normally, or even at all, if it detects the presence of a part – ‘original’ or not – that was not installed at the factory. Parts pairing is already used in a wide variety of products ranging from smartphones, computers and game consoles over coffee machines and blenders to tractors and other machinery, and it may soon spill over to just about any product that has any electronic components.
What’s the solution?
The spare parts price problem could be solved with regulations, through competition, or both. If we’re serious about repairing products instead of chucking them out, manufacturers should simply be required to offer spare parts at reasonable prices. The current proposal on common rules promoting the repair of goods offers a unique chance to create an obligation for fair prices for all spare parts. If on the other hand we are counting on competition to really drive spare parts prices down, we need transparency on the prices charged by brand owners as well as a level playing field for the use of new original parts, aftermarket parts and used parts. This requires a complete ban on anti-repair practices such as parts pairing and parts bundling. Ideally, we need all of this… In short, we need a Universal Right to Repair.
(1) The recently published Batteries Regulation does require spare batteries to be made available with a reasonable and non-discriminatory price, if only from February 2027 onwards and without defining what reasonable and non-discriminatory precisely mean.
(2) All prices mentioned are inc. VAT unless mentioned otherwise. The prices referenced were accurate and the links were valid at the time of publication; however if you read this at a later point in time, you may find that some of the prices have changed or that some of the links no longer work.
(3) Deloitte quoted 30% for French consumers and 30-40% for Swedish consumers (presentation from Expert workshop towards increased repair of household EEE (Brussels, 2017), p. 48-49). This may be a high estimate: according to Sahra Svensson-Hoglund ea., Barriers, enablers and market governance: A review of the policy landscape for repair of consumer electronics in the EU and the U.S. (2021), “generally, the willingness to pay for repairs of small electronics has been estimated to be 20% of the replacement cost” (p. 6, citing McCollough (2007)). See also the European Commission’s Behavioural Study on Consumers’ Engagement in the Circular Economy (October 2018).
(4) This threshold is proposed in Florent Curel e.a., Guide pratique: Rendre la réparation accessible (Club de la durabilité, 2023), p. 4.
(5) This example is cited in a study by the German Environmental Agency looking at the repairability of printers. Out of 36 key parts investigated for laser printers, 9 were not available at all and 6 cost more than half of the printer, with the lid-plus-laser-unit example coming in at 115%. See Ritthoff e.a., Methods and standards for assessing the repairability of electrical and electronic devices Strengthening material efficiency under the Ecodesign Directive, p. 98.
(6) SEB / Moulinex also offer default prices for the repair of many small household appliances, and would repair this 28€ chopper for… 25€. Believe it or not, that looks like a good offer in today’s market.
(7) The situation is particularly bad for TV’s. Spareka (who are hosting the website https://www.indicereparabilite.fr/) found that across all of the models they have the data for, the average score for the spare parts criterion was only 1.2/10.