April 2006

No good deal goes unpunished

By David Feela

I had this feeling in my gut when I hung up the phone that deals like the one I was being offered ought not to be taken seriously. I’m not sure how such an awareness worked its way into the winding tracts of my intestines in the first place; if it had stayed in my head where it belonged I would have slammed the receiver down on the salesman’s ear, a reckoning to be recorded on the Richter scale, felt all the way down the California coast, which is where the company said it was supposedly located.

The special promotion arrived through our school district’s e-mail system, an educator’s advantage to save big bucks on the purchase of wireless laptop computers. You’d think I’d reached the age where I knew a company that employed the phrase “smokinhot” in their promotional web address should not be taken seriously. Smoke in advertising is always a diversion. And really, the only true educator’s advantage starts in June, one that most of the business world is still upset about.

The man I talked with on the phone at a toll-free number should have set off any number of alarms. For one thing, the computer company, EPC Parts, builders and distributors of BuiltSmart computers, had a nice-looking web site, but the site was a dead end: Buyers couldn’t order a computer off the site; they had to call an 800 number. Then the salesman who convinced me to buy the computer was unavailable for a few follow-up questions the day after I ordered it, and another salesman apologized, saying my sales rep had quit his job yesterday. No wonder he sounded so cheerful.

Still, I persevered. I was determined to get a good deal and nothing – not even rational thought – was going to talk me out of it. I asked my technical questions and settled for vague, evasive answers because, I reasoned, the new guy in the sales seat lacked the experience of the man I talked to the day before. I authorized $895 to be withdrawn from my checking account, contacted the bank to make sure no more was withdrawn, then turned my hourglass over, prepared to endure the excruciating 30- day waiting period before my laptop would be prepped and shipped.

I waited.

Keeping a few notes, especially with names and numbers, is a good practice for conducting business over the phone. Exactly 29 days after I placed my order I called customer service and reached James at extension 691 where I politely inquired about the status of my delivery. When my order couldn’t be located, I asked to speak with Joe at ext. 295.

“Joe? I don’t think anyone named Joe works here.”

I started hyperventilating before I remembered that Joe had quit over a month ago. I scoured my notes, apologized for my mistake, and asked to speak with Rick at ext. 823. Unfortunately, it was Rick’s day off, but James transferred me to Miguel, confident that Miguel could answer my questions. He must have heard the panic in my voice when he asked for my order number. After shuffling a few papers (I could actually hear paper rustling over the phone!), he said, “Yeah, I see your order right here.”

He named the model, confirmed my confirmation numbers, and assured me the paperwork was fine. But one problem: It would be another week before my computer could be shipped. Because of the successful-educator promotion, I was told, orders had been backed up. I would still be getting the quality machine I had ordered and since I would have to wait, EPC would add a 20-megabyte memory upgrade to my computer. Miguel said, “A smokin’ good deal.”

When I called a week later, Rick was back at ext. 823. I asked about the promotion backlog, how soon before my computer would be shipped. He said, presumably without blinking, that the boat bringing motherboards from China still hadn’t arrived, but when the ship docked and unloaded, my order would be assembled and shipped, ASAP. Priority mail. Overnight delivery. Free of charge.

“A slow boat from China?” I gasped. “Miguel never mentioned any boat when I called last week.” I pictured a bamboo junk with ragged sheets for sails, packed precariously with flimsy Chinese food cartons containing computer parts. Clearly, my worries had been magnified; my shipping problems had taken a turn toward the literal.

Calls twice a week for the next month produced no results. I pleaded, I reasoned, I badgered. The boys at EPC were impervious to the idea of accountability, and I say “boys” because never – in over a dozen phone contacts – did I ever talk with a woman. I was getting screwed all right, but it amounted to an all-male $875 laptop dance.

Finally a snickering but sympathetic friend from Chicago suggested I contact the state’s Better Business Bureau while he contacted the California Attorney General’s office. It seems an FTC Mail Order Rule requires ordered products to be shipped within 30 days. California law demands that money be refunded within seven days if the company cannot make good on its delivery. I faxed this information to EPC, on school-district letterhead, implying that the Attorney General might pursue my complaint as a federal crime since school-district e-mail was used in the promotion.

Two days later my money was returned. Using promotional logic and putting the best possible spin on my entire computer experience, I’d have to say the laptop I never received could have been the best one I never had.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.