Saturday, April 23, 2005

Apr. 23, 2005. 01:00 AM

Mail-in rebates less than they seem
Stories abound of AWOL refunds

ELLEN ROSEMAN

You're shopping for a new computer or digital camera. You find two models with the same price, but one has an attractive rebate offer and the other does not.

Which one do you pick?

Most consumers go for the rebate, but more than half never claim it, according to widely quoted statistics.

People can't be bothered to do the paperwork, cut the universal product codes off the packages and keep copies of everything in case the cheque never arrives in the mail.

There's the rub. Rebates often go astray despite all the work you do to meet the requirements.

Some people wait so long, and get so frustrated, they think companies deliberately don't keep their promises.

Tom Daniel followed all the instructions and waited six weeks for a $50 rebate on a computer monitor.

"Guess what? No record of the rebate request. Now I'm asked to go to the trouble and expense of writing a letter and faxing it long distance to Minnesota."

Daniel got his rebate after we contacted Best Buy on his behalf.

We also helped Brendan Morrissey get a $30 rebate from Symantec Corp.

"I like the product (Norton AntiVirus), but the service really bugs me," Morrissey says, adding that he had problems two years in a row getting the company to honour its rebate.

Both times, he got a card in the mail saying proof of purchase hadn't been received. But he insists he sent all the documents the company requested.

Elynn Wareham, a public relations consultant for Symantec, apologized for the inconvenience the rebate issue had caused.

Dean Finlay waited more than two months for Rogers Wireless to come through with a $50 rebate on his pay-as-you-go phone purchase.

"I contacted the company processing the rebate for Rogers, and they sent me the following message: `Please note: We are waiting for client approval to release the rebates.'

"This implies that Rogers is holding it up. I really don't like the mail-in rebate idea, and it becomes even less tolerable when the offering company deliberately slows down the process," Finlay said in a public message posted at my website.

When he tried calling Rogers to ask why the rebates hadn't been approved, "they hung up on me."

Many product suppliers don't process their own rebates, but hand over the job to an outside firm. This increases the potential for errors.

Heather Armstrong, a Rogers Wireless spokeswoman, says Finlay was given the wrong client message. She promised to speed up the delivery of his rebate cheque.

John Grant caught our attention with his email about "rebate exhaustion" in trying to extract $50 from Best Buy and $70 from Hewlett-Packard Co. on a computer and printer purchased at Christmas.

"After 10 phone calls and four faxes, I have finally received what was rightfully mine," he wrote.

The Best Buy rebate came March 3, after he made two calls to track the money down. That was the easy part.

Hewlett-Packard had no record of his application. Luckily, he'd saved a copy of his product code. But he had to fax it again and again.

He got a cheque on March 15, but only when he asked Best Buy to help him out. The retailer gave him a letter to send to Hewlett-Packard, but wouldn't communicate with the supplier directly.

Everyone he talked to had stories about rebates going AWOL.

"My advice to people is to plug away, make copies and don't let the companies wear you down," Grant says.

Whether suppliers don't pay up on purpose or just build in too many safeguards against fraud, the effect is the same. The companies alienate customers and turn loyalty into disloyalty.

Retailers are also becoming annoyed with a promotional tactic so prone to failure and frustration.

Best Buy Co., the largest electronics retailer in North America, will bow to customer complaints and phase out rebates over the next two years, the company said this month.

"We'd much rather have instant rebates, which you redeem on the spot," says Rick Lotman, senior vice-president of merchandising at Best Buy Canada in Vancouver.

"This is a pretty bold step for us since a lot of suppliers like rebates. They let you get a price impression out there without taking the risk."

Instant rebates would be more costly, of course. They would go to 100 per cent of customers, not just the 30 per cent or fewer who now apply for and receive the rebates.

But it's a fair thing to do — and it's long overdue.

"I buy products, and I don't always take advantage of the rebates," Lotman says.

"They add a layer of complexity to a purchase, especially of technological products, that's complex already."

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