Six months after Alejandra Lopez bought a new computer monitor, its picture began to fade, then blur.
When she took it back last month to the Fry's Electronics store in Manhattan Beach, clerks plugged in the monitor to check things out. But even after the monitor began to smoke, the store wouldn't allow Lopez to exchange it because the purchase was made last October, well past Fry's 30-day deadline for returns.
"You don't buy a brand-new monitor expecting it to break in six months," Lopez argued.
But sometimes they do. And it's not just monitors. From fancy stereos and hand-held organizers to WAP phones and digital television recorders, the consumer electronics industry year after year cranks out a bewildering array of new devices. Many interconnect and have multiple functions--which means there's a higher risk of something going haywire.
As a result, the return process has become an unpleasant fact of life for many who dare to wade into the digital frontier. More than 8 million U.S. households had to return at least one electronic gadget in 1999 and 2000, according to a study commissioned by the Consumer Electronics Assn., an industry group in Arlington, Va.
For consumers, that has meant disappointment, frustration, scads of wasted time and, in some cases, money lost because of a common retail practice of charging customers a 15% to 20% "restocking fee." Manufacturers and retailers, meanwhile, lose millions of dollars a year on returned items, some of which have no defects but cannot be sold as new once the package has been opened.
The problem is especially acute with software. Consumers generally can't tell if a program has bugs until they try to install it. Most stores, however, won't issue refunds because software can be pirated easily then returned. At best, consumers can exchange it for a copy of the same title.
But that won't help if the program itself has glitches duplicated in every single disc. Such was the case with the popular computer game "Myst III: Exile," which recently shipped with problems ranging from an inability to recognize some hard drives to incompatibility with Intel-based video cards. The game's publisher, Ubi Soft Entertainment, has since issued fixes.
"Many users have tried and failed to return the game," said one user, Robert Cromartie. "My hope is that [consumer backlash] will lead to action at the state and federal level to reassert a consumer's right to get a refund for merchandise that doesn't perform to advertised specifications."
"In the new consumer electronics market, we all have to be our own advocate," said Gail Hillebrand, senior attorney with Consumers Union in San Francisco, a consumer advocacy group.
These days, software and hardware often go hand-in-hand, further complicating the task of trouble-shooting. Toss in the nearly infinite number of PC configurations in the market, and the result is a Gordian knot of computer code.
"If you call the hardware folks, they blame the software. If you call software, they point the finger at the hardware," said Susan Henrichsen, a California deputy attorney general. "The home user has no clue. But somebody has to be responsible."
When it comes to software, it's unclear who is responsible, leaving consumers at the mercy of retailers and manufacturers. Software generally comes with a warranty and licensing agreement--known as shrink wrap agreements--that consumers don't get to read until they try to install the program. By that time, the package is opened and it's too late to get their money back.
Advocates at Consumers Union say they know of no legislation in Sacramento or on Capitol Hill that would address this issue. As a result, software shoppers generally must live by the rule of caveat emptor--buyer beware.
Returning hardware is easier, though not necessarily hassle-free. Surly clerks, blame-shifting and long lines are only the beginning. One of the most onerous features of this process is the restocking fee charged on opened boxes.
Retailers charge the fee because they often must discount opened or used merchandise. It's also used to discourage abuse.
"We found many products were purchased with the full intent to return them," said Bill Cimino, spokesman for Circuit City Stores Inc., based in Richmond, Va.
Nearly 70% of consumers in the CEA survey thought a restocking fee was "unacceptable." But only 6% of those who returned items were charged the fee, suggesting that the penalty is not uniformly imposed.
There are several ways around a restocking fee. If an item is defective, stores legally may not assess the fee. In California, retailers may not charge a restocking fee unless they post the policy either at the store entrance, at the cash register, on the price tag or on the receipt. And if customers persist, store managers often waive the fee.