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Ralphs Feeling Heat From Customers Over Hotel Promotion

The grocery chain found it was unable to meet the demand for a free stay after more than 50,000 applied. Some have filed complaints with the state.

October 18, 2003|Karima A. Haynes | Times Staff Writer

Ralphs supermarket called it "The Great Escape" promotion: Customers who spent $400 at one of the company's stores this summer would receive a two-night stay at a hotel in one of three dozen cities nationwide.

But when more than 50,000 customers applied for the free lodging, the grocery chain was unable to meet the demand.

Company executives sent a letter Oct. 10 to promotion applicants saying that a travel company it had contracted to make the hotel reservations was "unable to fulfill any of your hotel stay choices."

Although the contest rules stipulate that "all travel was subject to program space availability," some Ralphs customers are furious that they didn't get their lodging.

"This promotion was ill-conceived at best and a phony at worst," said longtime Ralphs shopper Bob Gold, 69, a retired aerospace engineer from Pacific Palisades.

Other customers have filed complaints with California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer's office, which spokesman Tom Dresslar said are under review.

Ralphs officials are still trying to determine how many customers actually received the two-night hotel stays and how many did not.

The company has offered some eligible customers coupons for a $100 discount on the cost of a two-night stay at any Marriott or Renaissance hotel.

The coupons are valid through Dec. 31, 2004. A $50 coupon has been offered to some who applied but did not meet all of the promotion's conditions.

In accepting either offer, customers must agree to relinquish the right to pursue legal action against the grocery chain and its affiliates, according to the claim form.

Although Ralphs would not comment directly, company officials issued a statement Friday saying the customers had fallen into two groups: those who met all contest conditions, and those who did not. Eligibility is verified by Travel Services, a travel agency contracted by Ralphs to handle hotel reservations.

"At this point, we do not know how many customers fall into each of the above groups," the statement said. "We have requested this information from Travel Services and are waiting for them to provide it to us."

"Travel Services has told us that thousands of ... customers who completed and submitted their certificates correctly did receive their two-night hotel stays."

Ralphs said that "as an expression of our disappointment in what happened with their submissions and our appreciation of their loyalty, we are extending travel vouchers."

But Gold isn't happy with Ralphs' offer.

He hit the $400 spending threshold this summer, and dutifully took his cash register tape to the store manager.

Taking care to follow contest rules, Gold said he provided his name, contact information and his three choices for dates and destinations, including Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Seattle and seven other cities. The reservations had to be made with Travel Services at least 45 days in advance of the travel date.

"Our first set of dates came and went without a word," Gold said.

"The second dates were approaching, and we hoped maybe we would get our third dates."

On Tuesday, Gold received the form letter from Ralphs apologizing for any "disappointment or inconvenience" and offering him the $100 voucher instead.

"They are offering a totally inadequate consolation prize to get us off their backs," Gold said.

"I am not just going to go along with it."

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