Saturday, May 07, 2005

May 7, 2005. 01:00 AM
A late rebate? Here's how to get results

ELLEN ROSEMAN

You have a problem with a name-brand consumer product. Your attempts to contact the manufacturer get nowhere.

Here's our advice: Put pressure on the retailer. Make your relationship work in your favour.

"Escalate it to us and we can help you," says Pete Gibel, vice-president of merchandising with Staples Business Depot, which has 240 big-box stores in Canada.

"We do have some pull with suppliers."

He was talking about mail-in rebates, a topic that has occupied us for several weeks. Readers have complained about waiting for promised discounts that never arrive — or being told to submit ever more paperwork.

Staples has taken steps to improve customers' access to manufacturers' rebate offers. We'll get to that in a moment.

But first, here's the story of Sharon Smith. She contacted us after waiting more than a year for a refund on a product that couldn't be repaired.

Once we sent her complaint to Staples' head office in Mississauga, she got her money right away — and compensation for her inconvenience.

Smith had purchased a computer printer in December 2002 at Staples in Peterborough. She also paid for an extended warranty.

When the printer broke a year later, she was told by Staples to ship it at her own expense to an independent warranty company in Quebec.

On Jan. 12, 2004, she was told the printer was permanently damaged and she would be getting a cheque for $125 shortly.

"We've been calling every six weeks or so to see where our payment is," she told us.

"This has now been 15 months of calls and we still haven't received the cheque we were promised."

Smith was under the impression she was calling the manufacturer. But the 1-800 number she gave us was for the warranty company (which didn't identify itself, except when asked).

Why didn't she call the retailer?

"Staples claimed they were not responsible for the extended warranty," she says, even though Staples' name was printed on her policy.

Gibel responded to Smith's problem in a few hours.

He apologized for the grief she'd gone through with the warranty company and said she'd get a full $149 refund, plus a $100 gift card.

Staples now handles its own extended warranties instead of dealing with an outside supplier.

"We want to control things," he said.

Smith plans to make a donation to the Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, which sends low-income children to camp.

"I can't thank you enough for being able to end this stress," she told us. "We've been excellent customers of Staples for several years and will continue to be because of their prompt attention when learning of this situation."

Retailers, such as Staples or Best Buy Canada, are caught in the middle when manufacturers or warranty companies mistreat customers. They don't want to lose a client, so they may cut a cheque first and deal with the supplier later.

Last week, we reported that Best Buy Canada (which also operates the Future Shop chain) will phase out mail-in rebates within the next two years.

This was done because of a groundswell of customer frustration with cheques that take too long to arrive or go astray.

Interestingly, mail-in rebates are often outsourced to independent companies. This often leads to confusion (as in Smith's case) about whom customers are dealing with. In 2002, Staples forced all its suppliers that offered rebates to go through the same company.

"It's still a third-party broker, but at least they listen to us," Gibel says.

A year ago, Staples started printing rebate forms on customers' receipts. This meant less paperwork to fill out and less chance of error.

In the latest innovation, called Easy Rebate, customers can submit a transaction number to Staples at its website.

"We'll wait till the return period is over and get a cheque out within about four weeks," Gibel says, adding that rebates often took 16 weeks to arrive before.

Customers without access to computers can send a transaction number in the mail to expedite their refunds.

Staples has about 100 rebate offers going at a time, mostly related to computer software and hardware. More than 50 per cent of customers redeem rebates of $50 or more — but fewer than 5 per cent bother with offers worth $5 or less, Gibel says.

If you're waiting endlessly for a cheque, he adds, call the store manager or the customer service line at 1-866-STAPLES.

In the long run, rebates will disappear. "Customers don't like them and retailers don't like them. The customer's going to win on this one."

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