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Consumer Battle Needs Detailed Plan of Attack

December 30, 1985|S. J. Diamond

This has been a seasonal period of almost full-time purchase. Now everyone's trying to get some satisfaction from those purchases or, failing that, from their vendors. Here, therefore, are some turn-of-year thoughts, gleaned from readers, consumer advocates and rich, full personal experience, on how to be one's own caped crusader, consumer-style.

One warning: Consumers have rights and recourse, but doing battle is a full-time job. Unfortunately, most consumers already have a job, a home life and obligations and don't have that kind of time.

First, one might put some squabble preparation into every transaction: Any purchase could turn sour. Everyone keeps sales receipts, warranties and packing materials. Too few collect names of everyone dealt with, whether a one-man shop or a multi-operator national reservations line--not necessarily to find the same person again but just to give credibility to one's story later.

Problems do arise. The most common involve advertised price claims, billing errors, retailers who refuse responsibility, point-of-purchase promises later denied (fits all cars, can be washed, can be returned for cash, covers all membership benefits).

When they do, the first rule is calm. This doesn't mean shrinking: Squeaky wheels still get grease fastest, and one shouldn't hesitate to question or voice dissatisfaction. But it should be dispassionate, because the converse rule is, "Act like a hysteric crock, get treated like a hysteric crock."

Let Things Run Their Course

One should also let things run their course. This means hearing a whole spiel in return, eliciting information and explanations about customary policy. Sellers should be asked to define words in a problem ad, allowed to knock other stores ("They're cheaper because their goods are gray market"), bemoan problems with the product or manufacturer. Letting things run their course helps build a record, should one be needed.

If that first contact isn't enough, consumers must go one higher, to managers, supervisors, buyers. These people may provide satisfaction, explaining perhaps--a strange assertion--that they just can't control underlings ("We tell them our policy is money back, but they think they're helping us"). Sometimes they don't help either, but they add to the record ("We always have trouble with those," or "It wasn't supposed to be on the floor 'til the sale").

At this point, the consumer may start spinning wheels, firing off letters not just to company presidents (alas, rarely by name), but to law enforcement officials, consumer affairs departments, Better Business Bureaus and newspapers, seeking personal help. Forget the personal help. Such people, flooded with calls, can themselves only build records, looking for patterns or themes to base larger investigations or stories.

They do need complaints on file, however, and they can provide vital information for battling consumers. Given the story and a focal question (what do certain ads imply, what are warranty rights, can all responsibility be put on the manufacturer, can payment be withheld?), they can explain what laws pertain and what recourse is available. They may clarify state "lemon laws" to car owners, define "regular price" and "sale price" as they should be used, cite previous and maybe similar landmark consumer suits.

'Go Higher' Again

One might also talk to any party (manufacturer, wholesaler, retailer) to whom blame was shifted. They, too, may have interesting information--maybe even help--to offer.

Once armed, it's "go higher" again. Chain stores have headquarters. Manufacturers have plants, corporate offices, maybe even regional offices. Faraway companies may have toll-free numbers; libraries have directories of large corporations.

One should certainly try the president (actually, the president's secretary, who may know exactly where to refer which problem), or vice presidents of marketing, sales or public relations. Customer service people are usually better on replacement parts and engineering problems than on questions of misleading advertising.

Following the rule of calm, one should explain the problem, mentioning law, local custom, consumer expectations, the treatment received, the adjustment preferred. No one should threaten to hire a lawyer unless he really intends to. Small claims court may suffice.

(Few businesses really want to spend time and money on such fights. A Los Angeles woman recently filed suit against an electronics store that advertised, ambiguously, "If, at the time of purchase, we fail to beat your best price, we'll give you your purchase FREE!" She asked their best price on a VCR she'd found elsewhere for $495; it was $515, so she said, "Here's a better price; give me a free one." Two hours before their scheduled appearance in small claims court, they did.)

Court shouldn't be necessary, however. Today's manufacturers and retailers know that today's consumer is no longer a gullible schnook, that there are consumer-protection laws, organizations and agencies, and that consumerism (consumer protection, vigilante form) is alive and well, if not as fervent as yesteryear.

Seller and buyer may be natural antagonists but should at least be equals--the belief of a small but growing number of consumers who bill vendors for time they have to spend straightening out their own accounts. Indeed, one Californian even billed a large credit card issuer 19.2% annual interest on money it owed him for months. He got it.

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