With all the promotional plush bears around this season, current ads for a $5 mail-order Santa Bear--"the same famous Santa Bears nationally advertised in leading media across America"--are particularly eye-catching. It certainly sounds good--one of the "most expensive stuffed animal toys" of "a leading New York firm," "authentic," "great big huggable bears that your children can actually put their arms around." It also sounds like the 15 1/2-inch-high Dayton Hudson Department Store Santabear that started the whole bear rage last Christmas and was copied this year by stores countrywide.
But it's not the famous Santabear, nor is it, at 8 1/2 inches, very big. "You get a $5 bear," says Ron Graham, president of the Minnesota Better Business Bureau, which has fielded some complaints about the offer. "The problem is that the advertisement leads one to believe that it's a product of substantially more value."
Mail order involves such gambles: One buys on a promise, a picture and faith. There are lots of "direct mail" companies dedicated to justifying that faith, knowing that a customer who feels duped will never buy again. There are others that don't care.
Limits to Remedies
"I'd have done better to go to a store, even though it was a few bucks more," says a young New Yorker, who in November, 1985, ordered a $20 white silk aviator's scarf advertised in the New York Times. After a year of discussions with the company, the newspaper, the Postal Service, the Better Business Bureau and New York's attorney general, he has neither scarf nor refund. "The route to sending the money is relatively clear," says Graham, "but there's no easy path to complaining."
There are laws against mail-order mistreatment, but limits to official remedies. The U.S. Postal Service can file civil or criminal actions against a company that deceives or defrauds customers, as long as the mails were used--in civil cases for customer payment, in criminal cases for anything at all that "furthers the scheme," says Sandra McFeeley, senior attorney in the Postal Service's consumer protection division in Washington. At the least, the service can institute a "mail stop," keeping both future orders and payments from reaching the company.
The Federal Trade Commission can seek civil penalties and/or restitution for violation of its mail-order rule: If a merchant can't deliver a product within 30 days, or the time specifically stated in the ad, he must get customer permission for the delay. But this rule is concerned only with timely delivery, not quality of goods, and the order must go by mail. At some companies nowadays, up to 80% of orders are phoned in during the holiday season.
Small Claims Court
Depending on the area, an attorney general's office or consumer affairs department may also get involved, even writing a letter or two on the consumer's behalf. But most government entities would ultimately refer the individual consumer to small claims court. They need indications of a general pattern of practice, i.e., many complaints, as a basis for their particular actions. "We have no statutory means of making people pay refunds or restitution," says McFeeley. "Sometimes the postal inspector might get involved, but ordinarily we're not a customer-service department."
Nevertheless, says Nathan Riley, spokesman for New York's attorney general, one should "send complaints to the company to the Postal Service and attorney general as well. That alerts the business that it might get official follow-ups."
Individual help is available from the Direct Marketing Assn. in New York (6 East 43rd St., New York 10017), which maintains a "mail-order action line" to refer consumer complaints to the given company. The group's power is basically only peer pressure, which means that, like a Better Business Bureau, it does better with its 5,300 members, but the DMA claims some success with non-members as well.
To avoid mail-order problems ahead, standard wisdom suggests checking whether complaints have already been filed against the company. A "core function" of Better Business Bureaus, for example, is to provide consumers information on any prior complaints, says Barbara Opotowsky, president of New York City's Better Business Bureau, which handled 4,000 mail-order complaints--a third of its complaint volume--the first half of this year. (Almost half involved five companies, including the people now marketing the mail-order Santa Bear--in this case, under the name ADV Ltd., among others.) Most complaints concerned non-delivery, but a BBB, says Opotowsky, should tell people not just the nature of the complaints but how they were resolved.
Naturally, much depends on the quality of one's local Better Business Bureau, the existence of a consumer affairs office or the situation at the particular government authority one might call. If there's an investigation of the company in progress--the very situation one would like to know--government officials may refuse to discuss it at all.