End of an era

July 11, 2018

USA Today reports that Southwest Airlines will soon stop serving its iconic peanuts, in deference to those with allergies. I only hope this heightened awareness of the needs of its customers with allergies will extend to those sensitive to the fur of so-called “support” animals, as well as those whose migraines can be triggered by screaming babies. I’m not holding my breath.


Auto repair

June 12, 2018

While there have been many advances in automotive technology over the years, and car prices have remained reasonable (especially when one considers the added convenience and safety features, now standard, that used to be optional or not available at all), I think both manufacturers and consumers have paid little attention to costs of ownership, particularly repairs and maintenance.

I recently noticed a small scratch and dent on one of my car’s doors.  The damage was not extensive, but was unsightly enough for me to want to have it repaired.

My collision deductible is $100, and I knew the repair cost would exceed that.  What shocked me was when I received an estimate for over $800.  The repair ended up costing over $1500, plus over $300 for a rental car that my insurance covered for the time it and the body shop dickered over the cost of the repair and the time it took to complete the repair.

I was only out $100, and I had the use of a car while mine was in the shop, so what’s the problem?  Like health care, another area where many have insurance, the problem falls disproportionately upon those who do not.  In addition, the cost of insurance for everyone must reflect the inflated prices of repairs and parts.

Also, as in health care, when one does not pay directly out of pocket, on is not likely to actively seek lower prices.

Decades ago, I recall that the insurance industry, through a lobbying and advertising campaign, sought common-sense changes in auto design that would help contain repair costs, such as standardizing bumper heights, requiring bumpers to meet crash resistance standards, and the like.  These efforts were fruitless, and now we all pay.

Worst coupon ever

October 8, 2016

Recently, I received via e-mail the coupon below from EMS, an outdoors store.  Needing to buy an expensive Thule roof rack component for my new car, I went to EMS rather than a competitor, hoping to use the coupon, though suspecting it might not be accepted.

I was or was not disappointed, depending on one’s point of view.  When I presented the e-mail on my phone, the sales clerk relied on the small-type words, “exclusions apply,” and scrolled down past a lot of other content to the bottom of the e-mail, which contained, in even smaller type that I had not noticed, a long list of items to which the coupon would not apply, including, of course, Thule products.  My usual argument, that “any one item” is directly contrary to “exclusions apply,” and that the statement in larger type should apply, fell on deaf ears.

Though I probably should not have, I bought the item anyway, as I was there, it was in stock and I probably could not have gotten it for less anywhere else.

I concede that the facts that the coupon did not apply to everything in the store, and that the item I wanted to buy  was one of the “exclusions,” were displayed in the e-mail, and that I was aware of the first, which should have led me to look for the second.  Does this mean that I have no reason to be disgruntled?

I contend it does not.  The format of the 20% offer – with a seemingly unqualified offer in large type, followed by increasingly restrictive words in increasingly small type – seem to me calculated to attract customers into the store as well as to limit the number of tendered coupons that actually have to be honored, thus limiting the cost of the promotion.  Of course, the cost of losing customers who feel they weren’t treated fairly is not factored in by the marketing bean counters.

I wrote to the company, pointing out the direct conflict between “any one item,” and “exclusions apply,” suggesting that honesty would require the use of some qualifier such as “any one specified item” or the like.  I will let you know if I receive a response.

EMS is not the only retailer using this type of coupon, though its list of exclusions is the least conspicuous I have seen.  I believe government regulation should prohibit the use of seemingly unqualified offers unless the fact that there are exceptions, and the list of specific exceptions, appear in the same size type as the original statement.  Such regulation would, of course, be decried as intrusive and unnecessary by the weasels whose antics precipitated the need for it.



More consumer frustration

June 20, 2016

I recently bought a plastic bottle of after shave, and experienced frustration in being unable to control the amount of product that came out of the bottle.  Here’s the message I wrote to the company:

I like your product, but the hole in the plastic insert at the opening of the bottle is way too big. Much more of the product than intended comes out every time I use it, causing me to waste a great deal of the product. You should buy the inserts your competitors use, which have much smaller openings that allow the user much more control over how much of the product comes out.

Within a very short time, I received a personalized response to my message:

Thank you for contacting us regarding * * *. We welcome all comments about our products.

We conducted several packaging tests with an automated dispenser to determine the internal shape of the orifice reducer as well as the orifice diameter that would provide the same “dose” as the glass sprinkler finish. It was based on these test results that the current plug was designed. For proper application of the After Shave, please try not to squeeze the bottle while applying the product. We are also filling the bottles with more product (to maintain our shelf size/impression) and the longer use-up rate.

Were I a professor in an MBA program (heaven forbid), I would give this company relatively high marks for the promptness of its reply, and for attempting to address the specific concern I expressed in my communication.  However, although the message attempted to justify the use of the bottle insert that I found problematic, I would take away points because it did so not by stating that the insert used met most of its customers’ needs, or that it would re-evaluate the situation based on my and others’ suggestions, but because it replicated the previously-used glass packaging, whether that packaging met its customers’ needs or not.

I replied that tests of the insert on human customers might be more helpful than automated dispensing tests, and that I did not squeeze the bottle when dispensing the product, but I did not receive a further response.

Bottom line — I will not buy this product again.  Every time I use it, half of what is dispensed goes down the drain, wasted.  I don’t really care about whether the present container has the same dispensing characteristics as a previously-used container, and I don’t care about shelf size/impression and longer use-up rate (whatever they are).  As a professor, I would deduct further points for use of undefined industry jargon in a response to a lay person.

Another pet peeve:  the response to my original inquiry was “signed” by an employee who gave only her first name.  I suppose in an age when many customer service people won’t even give you that information unless you beat it out of them, I guess that’s above-average.

Switching cell phone carriers – again

May 13, 2016

I have written extensively about my experiences with Verizon and, later, Consumer Cellular.  Both companies provided good service (Consumer Cellular, I am told, runs off the AT&T network; Verizon has its own network).  When I switched to Consumer Cellular, I bought myself an unlocked GSM phone, noting at the time it would allow me to switch carriers if things didn’t work out.

After my initial disappointment with Consumer Cellular’s less than transparent disclosure of the optional fees it chose to impose, I was basically a satisfied customer.  Consumer Cellular’s model is to have tiered voice and data/text plans that charge different rates for different levels of use.  Customers can change plans at will, even retroactively, within each billing period.  Thus, if you go over your voice minutes or data use, you can step up to a higher plan after the fact, as long as your billing period hasn’t expired.  Consumer Cellular helps with usage alerts and an app that lets you monitor your usage, though accurate totals often take hours or days to show up, which can cause a problem if your cumulative usage approaches you plan limit near the end of your billing period.

The problem for me was not so much on the voice end (I usually stayed within the 250 minute plan, with minutes being charged on every incoming or outgoing call, regardless of day or time).  Data allowances were very low, however, and if you went over 150 mb per month, you would end up paying over $30 per month with taxes and fees.  While staying within plans that cost under $30 per month usually was possible for me, I found I was worrying about usage more than I should, and not using my phone in situations where using it would be more convenient for me.

I therefore started looking at other carriers.  Not a major data user (as a result of having to monitor my use as a Consumer Cellular customer), and seeing that most plans now offer unlimited talk and text, I considered two carriers — MetroPCS, which offers a $30 plan with one gigabyte of data, and Cricket, which offers a $40 plan (which can be reduced to $35 with auto-pay enrollment) with 2.5 g of data.  The prices for both plans include all taxes and fees, and there are no extra charges if you go over your data limit — instead, you get “throttled” down to dial-up speeds for the rest of the billing period.

In part because I was satisfied with AT&T’s service while I was a Consumer Cellular customer (MetroPCS runs on the T-Mobile network), and in part because of the higher data allowance, I opted to try Cricket.  I saw on the web site a $50 offer for new customers (that would offset the cost of a new SIM card and activation) and stopped in at my local retailer to talk.  That retailer told me it could not honor the $50 offer; and it directed me to one of the stores that could.  There, I was told that my Consumer Cellular number was “owned” by AT&T, which owns Cricket, and as to which the offer did not apply. However, he offered me a $20 rebate available to AARP members, of which I am one.  I decided to take the plunge.

The switch over (“porting” in industry lingo) took a few hours, and everything worked after the process was complete.  I would rate the process as relatively painless.

So far, my experience with Cricket has been good.  I’ve had no operational or coverage issues at all.  I still have my phone set to use wi fi by default, and see no problem staying well within the 2.5 g monthly data allowance.

One nice feature Cricket offers is unlimited talk, data and texting in Canada and Mexico on higher priced plans.  The Cricket sales rep told me it was easy to temporarily switch plans, and I may give it a try when I take a planned trip to Canada later this summer.


Little signs – buyer beware

April 24, 2016

An old saying advises “what the big print gives, the small print takes away.”  And it seems to me that the smaller the print, the more that is taken away.  A recent trip to a Las Vegas Strip casino revealed, on every blackjack table on the main floor that I saw, a very small sign that advised “Blackjack pays 6 to 5.” Anyone familiar with the game knows that a blackjack should pay three to two, and that the difference is not insignificant, costing the typical player (in addition to the much smaller expected loss already built into the better game) three dollars a blackjack on a $10 bet, or some $12 to $20 per hour, depending on the speed of play.

The worst small print is that which directly contradicts the large print, such as coupons from retailers that offer __% off everything in the store in large print, but in small print contain a long list of excluded items, usually including the one you want to buy.  Retail clerks seem immune to my argument that when two statements directly contradict each other, the one in more conspicuous type should be honored. I’ve never tried my luck in court with that argument.

Recently, I booked a rental car on the Southwest Airlines web site.  In addition to the usual fictitious rate for the rental, there was an estimated total cost, which included taxes and fees, and was, as is typical in the industry, more than 50% higher than the quoted rate.  When I got to the rental office, I was presented with a multi-page agreement, printed in microscopic type, which somewhat prominently quoted the base rate that had appeared on the Southwest site.  However, as I carefully examined that document (which I suspect most people, fresh off a tiring flight and eager to reach their ultimate destination, don’t), I found the total cost, displayed much less conspicuously.  It was about $100 more than the estimate that had appeared on the Southwest site.  When I pointed this out to the agent, he backed down pretty quickly, but I imagine that his company (and perhaps others) get away with this trick (unless it was an honest mistake, which I doubt) more often than not.

As I have so often pointed out in this blog, buyer beware.  Conservatives who decry big government ignore that fact that many, if not most, government regulations in the consumer protection area are the result of abuses of trust by companies selling goods and services.  If the plutocrats who run those companies were a little more forthcoming, there would be less need for the big government they decry.  Consumers also, unfortunately, deserve part of the blame, both for being unwary, which arguably they should not have to be, but also for being fixated on an often fictitious “price,” to which fees often are added, the fees being nothing more than an additional charge for the item to which the price is attached.  I have been advised that consumers, given a choice between an item forthrightly priced at a given amount, will prefer buying the same item for a lesser quoted price, even when added fees bring the price up to the same amount.

Just tell me when you want me to show up

December 28, 2015

A few weeks ago, I made an appointment with a doctor’s office.  I was told it was for 9:15 on a given morning, and that’s what I entered in my calendar.  Today, the office called to confirm the appointment, and the secretary added:  “We want you to be there twenty minutes before.”  My response:  “then why didn’t you tell me that when I made the appointment?”  The response was that the 20 minutes would be for me to fill out paperwork, which they only ask of first-time patients.  Again, I asked, “why wasn’t I told that when I made the appointment?”  The light bulb finally went on in the receptionist’s head, and she admitted I had a point.

Not long ago, something similar happened to me when I had an appointment with another arm of the same octopus (Community Care Physicians). When I showed up at the appointed time, I was asked if I just had come from having a sonogram.  I replied that that was the first time I had heard about a sonogram, and that if I was supposed to have come early for that purpose, I should have been told.  I received an apology, and the ultrasound technician squeezed me in.

Both these scenarios indicate that what I thought were appointments for me were actually appointments for the doctors who were seeing me.  While they were given the correct information about when I would be available for them, I was not given the correct information about what else was expected of me.  I understand and respect the value of doctors’ time, but Community Care also should understand and respect the value of its patients’ time, and let them know when to show up for what will be required of them, not just when the doctor herself or himself will be seeing them.