On Jan. 1, 1985, I ordered a pair of ski pants from your winter catalogue and charged the $79.95, plus shipping and tax, to my Visa card. Two months later, the slopes were melted and I still hadn't received my pants, but a post card from you assured me my order would arrive in two or three weeks. I waited patiently. In May, I wrote and asked about my order and was told it would be traced. Do you think I'll get my ski pants for this ski season?
A typical mail-order complaint.
Delayed deliveries unfortunately are not the only snafus that occur when you order by mail. Fragile objects like china and crystal arrive in Humpty Dumpty-like fragments. Or, a Size 36 slip, which looks full length in the picture, is so small even a 10-year-old couldn't squeeze into it.
But for those who must necessarily or who prefer to shop from their homes, here are some guidelines:
Read descriptions carefully; pictures can be misleading and they're not always to scale.
Print legibly or type your order, and keep a record of it (whether it's written or by phone). Include the company's name, address and phone number, information about the item you're purchasing, the page number in a catalogue, price, code number and the date you mailed or phoned it in. Always keep the canceled check or a copy of it until you receive all parts of the order. Never send cash.
Make provision for delivery to a neighbor if you're not at home.
With all these precautions, foul-ups still may occur. In such cases, contact the company as soon as possible using the 800, toll-free number. If it's not listed, try toll-free information at (800) 555-1212. Make a note of the company operator's name or number. Often, if you explain your problem, the company operator can make helpful suggestions.
If the company is at fault--as in the case of their sending the wrong item--request that the merchandise be picked up at the company's expense and that your refund include the original shipping charges.
If the company uses United Parcel Service pick-up, ask that they leave a receipt--proof you returned the item in question.
Then if nothing happens in two weeks, follow up with a letter. Here are some tips for your letter writing:
--Start at the top--address your letter to the president of the company.
--Always type or write clearly and concisely. Time is money to busy executives.
--State the problem and your complaint, and give the date you wrote or called about your complaint (including the operator's name and/or number).
--State your name, address and telephone number (day and night), and describe the item, including stock number, catalogue page number, price and where you saw the product advertised--such as in a Christmas catalogue or magazine.
--Be clear about whether you want the item to be replaced, or repaired or your money refunded, and set a date when you want the complaint resolved. Otherwise it can drag on for months or even years.
--Allow one billing cycle for a credit to appear on your charge account. Longer if you've used a credit card.
--Include any copies of billing statements, order forms or canceled checks or money orders. Never send the originals.
--Unless you know that the company with which you're dealing is reliable, you may want to insure the returned item so you have a receipt. Or you may want to hold onto the disputed or damaged merchandise until your complaint has been handled.
--Let the tone of your letter reflect the assumption that the company will want to help solve your problem.
When all else fails and you're not satisfied with the company's response (or lack of it), don't despair! There are other approaches:
Contact the Mail Order Action Line, c/o Direct Marketing Assn., 6 East 43rd St., New York, N.Y. 10017.
According to Karen Wysocki of the association about 9,000 complaints were handled in 1984, and most were solved to the customer's satisfaction if the company was a member of the association. They will send informative booklets on request if you send a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
If the company ignores your complaint and the Direct Marketing Assn. can't help, advise the firm that you expect to take further action, and notify your local or state consumer protection agency--see the white pages in your phone directory.
You can also send a letter to the state attorney general in your state and in that of the company. Write to your local postmaster, and ask that the appropriate postal inspector be notified.
Send copies of your correspondence to the Office of the Secretary, Federal Trade Commission, Washington D.C. 20580. Their Los Angeles phone for information is (213) 209-7575. Though they do not resolve individual disputes, your information may be part of a pattern of abuses requiring their action.