Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Outsourced Consumer

When you buy a new apartment, you try to make the right consumer decisions the first time, so you don't live with a mistake. My last apartment, when I did the Ikea scrum with my daughters, I thought a round dining table would be perfect. I brought it back home and it didn't fit. Luckily I could bring it back and swap it out for a drop leaf rectangular one.

In my new place, some decisions have come easily. Though I've lived with my girlfriend for five years, she had moved into my preexisting place, so this is the first time we've set up a non-sublet home together. We've had very few disagreements about furniture, rugs, closets, etc., and it's gone very smoothly. No regrets.

But the vacuum cleaner decision nearly broke me.

My last apartment, I only had an electric broom, which, living with three long-haired women and a long-haired cat, was in a constant case of fullness. But we really didn't have closet space for anything bigger. For the new place, I wanted to make one of those "lasting decisions" that tend to paralyze me.

For some reason, I couldn't buy into the Miele/Dyson snobbery. Partly because no two friends I polled agreed. One swore by the HEPA filter Electrolux he'd been given as a post-9/11 bounty by FEMA -- though he said the bags were so expensive he pulls the dust out of the hole by hand. Another swore by the plain Sears canister he had, but he touts Sears for everything, and when I had looked into the washer/dryer he pushed, it scored poorly.

Another friend who had access to Consumer Reports sent me their listings, but when I clicked through to several of them the customer comments all were dire. "No good on wood floors" "Noisy" "Bags tear" etc. Why can't there be a vacuum choice that's as clearcut as, I dunno, an iPod?

After much websurfing and wringing of hands, I found a snazzy white Sears HEPA cannister [left] which is not without its drawbacks -- its wood floor attachment is puny, for instance, and the bag fills up pretty quickly. But it cost half as much as the Miele/Dyson equivalents and works great.

When i ordered it, the website was spectacularly unclear about which model bag to order with it. Unlike Amazon, B&H Photo, or other sites, which list accessories without you even looking for them, Sears seems shocked it even has the ability to sell you something outside of a store environment. When I called the toll free number to ask a worker, it was pretty clear I had been routed to a cubicle in India, where they didn't even know what a vacuum cleaner bag WAS.

But after doing my friend's trick once of pulling the dirt out of the bag, I decided, this is too messy and counterproductive, it's time to bite the bullet. So I read the model number off the bag and, after considering cheaper knockoffs, ordered two sets of 8 Kenmore bags from the Sears website.  I ordered two because shipping was the same as one, and I didn't want to have to deal with this again for a while.

When the box came, however, inside was an invoice for two, but only one set of bags. I called Sears to fix this.

The gentleman in India spent 20 minutes grilling me on this. Was the box damaged in any way? No. Was there any indication the other item had been shipped separately? No. Etc etc. At the end I expected him to do what any other retailer would do -- apologize and send out the missing item immediately. We weren't talking about a missing $250 vacuum, after all, just $15 of paper bags.

Instead he told me there would be a 5-7 day "investigation" including grilling UPS about its handling, all of which was infuriating to me. He said he would write up an email detailing my case and send it to me. It never arrived. Instead he sent me not one but two email "customer service satisfaction survey" emails. I filled one out with the lowest scores possible.

When I was a kid in suburban New York, Sears really represented the heartland. Before I was old enough to demand Levi's, my mom bought me Toughskins jeans there; every Hanukah, I awaited the Christmas Wish Book [right] almost as much as the holiday itself. When it arrived I went through it, scissors in hand, cutting out photos of my personal wishes.

So I still held out some antiquated hope that Sears wouldn't, couldn't, completely fail me. I wrote to the customer care email address, hoping to bypass India and find someone who could help. I mentioned that this was probably the last time I would try to use their website.

I immediately got this chipper, semi-coherent reply, which, had I concocted it for The Onion or New Yorker "Shouts and Murmurs," I couldn't much improve upon. I share it with you in its entirety, except for the ad for other Sears products.
Good Morning David,
Thank you for contacting
I'm sorry to hear that you did not receive one of the two items for which you placed order under the order# 209814821. I apologize for the inconvenience. Please accept our apology.
David, normally we check all the items before we ship. However, I'm not sure how this has happened. It's a very rare issue and I'm sorry it happened in your case. We will always stand behind our products and will help you to resolve your concern to your satisfaction.
I have forwarded this issue to our specialized team that is Item missing request team, so I kindly request you to give us some time to work on this issue. I appreciate you to receive the response from us within 5-7 business days. If not let us know.
Our motto is to help our customer's with all their quires and resolve them to your satisfaction. Sears always Values and Respects its Customers. Customer satisfaction is important for Sears.
If you have any questions regarding this issue or with any issue. Please feel free to email us, so that we can help you further. We thank you for your patience and cooperation. We are here for you! Please reply should you have any further questions.
We value your business and look forward to serving you in the future. Have a wonderful day!
Stephnaie K (skanniy)
Sears Customer Care
Next time I'm going with the cheap generics.


Robert said...

Why did a nice Jewish boys mother from Mamaroneck (or was it Scrasdale when you were that age) buy you a Christmas Wish Book? I ask b/c as the only Jew in a Catholic Junior High School and it makes me like your mother a lot!

R. P. said...

David, I hope you gave them the highest rating for insincere sincerity.

Please note that they said if you have a question regarding this issue "or any other issue" you should not hesitate to ask, as they most sincerely wish &tc. I believe it is now up to you to find out if the war in Afghanistan is indeed winnable.

And, uh, I hesitate to ask you this, but did you calculate how much billable time you spent chasing down $7.50?

Grrr. What a time we live in.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

P.S. "R.P." seems to be an alias for "Melissa Pierson."

David Handelman said...

Robert, she didn't BUY the Christmas Wish Book. It came in the mail just like the other phone-book sized catalogues.

Patty said...

To that, I'd add that sometimes the "agent" throws in his or her personal touch. The other day, I talked to someone about our new Panasonic Microwave (model called The Genius) who started every sentence: "Currently, right now..." ("Currently right now our system is down." "Currently right now the supervisors are in a meeting.")

David Handelman said...

Melissa -- is Rafe using your computer? :)

ELo said...

I am not a big fan of carpets, thus avoiding the vacuuming all together. Mop and broom all the way.

Also, Sears still exists? I would imagine not for much longer if they can't get their website together.

David Handelman said...

February 28 update! Things are really moving along!

Good Morning David,
Thank you for contacting regarding the missing items in your order#209814821.
I will be glad to assist you.
David, I sincerely apologize for the delay in delivering the missing items in your order.
I know how frustrating this will be, but I would like to inform you that our specialized team is working on your concern and will contact you within 2-3 business days.
We look forward to your response!
We're here to make everything easier. Take our survey to tell us how we're doing.
Make sure you're registered at for emails, so we can stay in touch!
Jackson J. (jvenug0)