Sunday, June 11, 2006

We still love to hate those mail-in rebates
Jun. 10, 2006. 01:00 AM

Mail-in rebates. Gift cards with time limits. Ink cartridges for printers.

These are a few of my readers' least favourite things.

Let's start with mail-in rebates, which attract constant comments.

You buy a product advertised at a discounted price. You collect all the paperwork, send off your application and then wait for weeks. Sometimes, the promised rebate never arrives and you forget to follow up. And sometimes, you find out you didn't qualify for the rebate, or they said you didn't qualify, in the first place.

I've missed claiming two rebates — on a printer and a cellphone — in the past year. My family members had thrown out the packaging with the universal product codes, or UPCs, required for redemption.

In May 2005, Best Buy Canada announced it would phase out mail-in rebates within the next two years. (I wrote a few columns at the time.) But rebates are still prevalent, especially on consumer electronics items. And most have tight time limits.

Kate Sakamoto bought a computer for her son last September. The printer wasn't available, so she picked it up two weeks later.

To her horror, she found the manufacturer's rebate on the printer had to be claimed within seven days.

"There was no disclaimer on any of the ads," she said, adding that the store never mentioned a time limit.

Rebates, said Richard Eng, "draw in the buyers, but the sellers still benefit from the full purchase price. They can have their cake and eat it, too."

His advice: Complain to retailers that use the mail-ins. And when doing comparisons, ignore the price after the mail-in rebate.

"Understand, it's a potential saving, not a sure thing. Understand that the saving is contingent upon your following through with a troublesome process."

Here's advice from another reader, who has had little success claiming his rebates: "If I can, I'll avoid a purchase that includes one."

Plastic gift cards with magnetic strips are replacing old-fashioned paper gift certificates. But use the cards quickly, because they may have an expiry date.

Margaret Pitkeathly tried to make a purchase at a Canadian Tire store, using a $25 gift certificate she had mislaid and then found in her home.

"I was disgusted when the clerk cheerfully informed me that the card had expired," she says.

The two-year expiry date is stated on the packaging and on the back of the card, she was told in response to her email to Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd.

"Please note it is a common practice in the retail industry to have expiry dates on gift cards," a customer relations representative said.

"Some retailers have a shorter period (12 months) and some even charge a monthly fee of $2 in the event the card account remains open without any activity."

Don't you love this argument? We're just doing what everyone else does — and some are worse than we are.

A number of American states, however, have passed laws to eliminate expiry dates on gift cards and prohibit fees.

"I've now asked seven people, all of whom shop regularly at Canadian Tire, and not a single one was familiar with the policy," Pitkeathly said, adding she found nothing at the company's website.

"Luckily, my gift card was for $25 and not $250."

Printers are cheap, but ink cartridges are expensive. Some people feel they're held hostage by cartridge costs.

Lis Hood bought an all-in-one laser printer from Dell Inc. She didn't realize she had to buy her ink cartridges online and only from Dell.

"I can't go to a store and I can't use a refillable service," she complained.

Dell has no retail presence and sells products by phone and on the Internet. So, its cartridges aren't sold in stores.

When your ink runs low, you get a warning on your computer. You click a link to purchase an ink cartridge, which is delivered to your home the next day.

"The goal is to be direct and keep people out of the stores, searching for cartridges and compatible 19-digit SKUs," or stock-keeping unit numbers, said Wendy Gottsegen, a spokeswoman at Dell's head office in Texas.

A Dell marketing specialist called Hood to explain the ink fulfilment model and offer her a free cartridge.

Hood was still unhappy. She found it was no cheaper to buy cartridges online and vowed not to buy any more products from Dell.

Dell has to work harder to explain its business model, we told Gottsegen. And she agreed.

"We're getting to set to launch a whole slew of new printers, and I just made a note that we need to do better ink-fulfilment PR," she said.