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Watchdog: Widow shares struggle with returning faulty product

By Gabe Semenza
Nov. 22, 2011 at 5:22 a.m.
Updated Nov. 23, 2011 at 5:23 a.m.


HAVE A QUESTION FOR WATCHDOG?

To submit questions, email watchdog@vicad.com or call Advocate Public Service Editor Gabe Semenza at 361-580-6519. No topic is off-limits.

After enduring back surgery, 87-year-old Celita Hastings did as the doctor ordered: She purchased a recumbent exercise bike.

The stationary bike, which allows riders to recline while pedaling, might have helped the retired widow with her mobility and fitness.

But the $227.24 piece of equipment from Sears did not work. An apparent faulty electronic control panel, used in part to adjust resistance levels, rendered the bike useless.

"I've been trying for a month to get Sears to come fix the bike or to come pick it up, but no one there will help me out," Hastings said last week. "I call them, but all they do is pass me from one department to another."

Hastings said she hopes this story helps others, who buy faulty products, to avoid the pitfalls she faced.

Hastings purchased the exercise bike in October and had it delivered to her Victoria home. She noticed the malfunction immediately.

Disappointed, she reviewed her receipt and then the warranty. Luckily, she thought, the terms of her purchase allowed her 90 days - or until early January - to return or exchange the bike at no additional cost.

But when she called Sears in Victoria to schedule a visit with a repairman, her frustrations only grew, she said.

"After they passed me around from department to department, someone finally said, 'Let me take your number, and I'll have someone call you back,'" Hastings said. "They never have."

Chances are, you can relate to Hastings' frustration. Contacting local employees of national chain stores can become time consuming and pointless.

The reason? Many national and international companies route so-called local telephone calls to distant call centers. In the case of Sears, phone calls to the number listed for the Victoria location ring in Florida.

It is therefore possible - and even likely - Hastings never talked to a Victoria-based employee, even though she thought she had.

The idea behind such telephone call rerouting is to efficiently answer customer complaints and questions without bogging down local staffs. Oftentimes, those faraway phone representatives can meet your needs.

If you must visit with a local employee by phone, say "store" once the computerized teller begins to talk. These automated tellers often ask you to say "1" or "2" or to recite a certain department name - such as "appliances" - to route you appropriately.

Saying "store" should automatically route you to the local building.

Victoria-based Sears employees declined to comment for this story, citing a policy they say forbids them from talking to the media. Telephone calls and emails to Sears' corporate offices were not returned.

Dan Burke, a San Antonio consumer protection lawyer, encourages frustrated customers to detail their request or concern in a letter. Then, he said, send that letter to the company via certified mail.

"Normally if you have a problem with the big companies, they fix it promptly," Burke said. "If you don't get satisfaction with the letter, contact the media and the Better Business Bureau. Then, call a lawyer."

On behalf of Hastings, the Advocate contacted the Victoria-based Sears to detail her complaint. Once contacted, employees there acted promptly. Within just a few hours, Sears reimbursed Hastings and delivery people returned to her home to pick up the faulty exercise bike.

"This is the first time I've ever had anything bad happen at Sears. We've bought washers and dryers from them for years," Hastings said. "It was a big relief when they came back to get the bike because it had taken so long. I hope other people just examine everything they buy before it gets in their house."

Gabe Semenza is the Public Service Editor for the Advocate. Comment on this story at VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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