Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How to Bilk the Consumer

So, in response to a temporary heating outage, I went to the local Dollar General Store to get a portable space heater for my office. I bought a Comfort Zone Radiant Heater Model CZ500 for $18.

Only problem--it didn't work. It ran for about two minutes and shut off. I checked the manual and it said if it did this to unplug the unit, wait twenty minutes and plug it in a different outlet. I did. Same problem. Figuring the thermostat was broken, I took it back with the receipt, exchanged it for another unit, brought it home. Same problem.

I perused the instruction manual in further detail. It said:

"If you still notice the same defect above mentioned, remove the plug from the socket and call the customer service department."

I called the customer service department and got voice mail for "The Howard Berger Company." I connected with customer service and told them that the manual told me to call customer service. They told me to take it back to the store and exchange it for another unit or ask for a refund.

Okay, here's a couple of points.

--The wording and placement of this in the instruction manual would seem to indicate that this is a common problem. Rather than fix it or do a recall or test the units, Comfort Zone and Howard Berger no doubt did a cost benefit analysis and figured it would be cheaper to send out all the units and tell people if it didn't work to return it to the store. Nice.

--It's probably not a coincidence that they also place the units in Dollar General stores, i.e. venues that are more known for servicing lower income customers...that is, exactly the sorts of customers that may not have as much freedom to call a non-toll free number between 8-5 on a work day only to get the instructions to take it back to the store (assuming they have the receipt). It sure seems like part of the cost benefit analysis was that Comfort Zone and Howard Berger figured (hoped) that some people would just take the write off either for the nuisance value or because it's hard to go to the store three different times and deal with all the delays when you are trying to get something like heat.

I googled The Howard Berger Company and found this message on their web site:

The corporate mission of Howard Berger Company is to provide our customers with quality merchandise at the lowest prices available in the industry. We are a value source that sells basic products appealing to broad segments of the population. All of our products have high sales and turnover potential. The best of the best.

Yeah, right.

According to the web site, the company was founded by Howard Berger. Howard, if you are reading this, you should be ashamed that the company that bears your name is bilking the weakest consumers out of hard earned dollars for products that don't work.

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