Here are some hints for making mail-order shopping a pleasurable experience.
--Find out the cut-off date for Christmas delivery. Many firms' deadline is Dec. 10.
Faster delivery by air express costs extra, with the charge for items typically ranging from $6 to $20, depending on weight.
Many firms have a toll-free telephone number you can use to request a catalogue. To receive it quicker, ask that it be hand-addressed and sent first class.
--Remember that when you order from a catalogue, your cost will be increased by the handling and shipping fees that almost all mail-order businesses charge.
--The state Department of Consumer Affairs reminds mail-order shoppers never to send cash. A free booklet, "A Consumer's Guide to Sales Tactics," also advises consumers to keep a copy of the order form and any letters sent to the company. You can obtain the guide by sending a self-addressed, stamped, legal-size envelope to Sales Tactics, Department of Consumer Affairs, P.O. Box 310, Sacramento, Calif. 95802.
--Check the merchandise immediately when you receive it. If not satisfied, write the company and return the merchandise by insured mail for refund or exchange.
--Do business with a catalogue company that has a satisfactory guarantee and refund policy.
Dale Sekovich, consumer protection specialist in Los Angeles with the Federal Trade Commission, says a mail-order firm is not obliged to offer a warranty, but those that do must disclose the warranty's language upon a consumer's request.
Federal law requires firms to deliver merchandise within 30 days of receiving an order unless they otherwise specify in advance. If it turns out that delivery cannot be made within 30 days, a company must notify the customer; the customer then may either agree to the late delivery or ask for a refund.
The Fair Credit Billing Act, Sekovich said, holds that if a credit card customer does not receive items ordered through the mail, he has a right to dispute the charge by writing to the credit card company after he receives the billing. If the credit card company determines that goods or services were indeed not provided, it must charge no interest on the amount in dispute and must remove the item from the customer's bill within two billing cycles. Sekovich warns that this federal regulation applies only to mail orders, not to credit card orders made by telephone .
The consumer-protection specialist said "failure to deliver" is the main mail-order complaint received by FTC personnel and "late delivery " is second.
"We get numerous complaints right after Christmas from all over the country from customers saying they didn't receive merchandise in time for the holiday," Sekovich said.
A third major complaint is that items were different from those depicted in catalogues, he said.
"We highly recommend that, first, holiday catalogue shoppers order as early as possible, and, second, that they make sure there's a refund policy."