Two retailers run out of stock after confirming orders

First, Staples Canada did it. Then, did it. Many customers were disappointed and frustrated to see how their holiday gift orders were mishandled.

Both retailers advertised a special price and accepted credit card payments. Then, they waited several days before notifying customers that the stock was low and they wouldn’t get what they wanted.

I wrote about the Staples saga last week. That attracted a few responses from readers.

In tomorrow’s paper, I talk about Newegg’s nastiness, waiting until Dec. 27 (after Boxing Day) to notify customers that inventory had run out.

I’ve heard from a dozen unhappy Newegg buyers, hoping to get a 3D television set that never arrived. One man sold his old TV in anticipation. Now his wife and kids are yelling at him.

Both retailers offered a discount coupon to those hurt by their errors. But is this enough? Shouldn’t they be sure they have enough inventory before taking people’s money?

I think the Competition Bureau should look into these cases. If enough people complain about misleading advertising, the bureau will launch an investigation.

New personal finance books jostling for your attention

My book, Fight Back, is finally published. You can buy the ebook at Amazon or Kobo. Of if you prefer to get the softcover version, you can order it from Amazon or Indigo or pick it up in bookstores in early January.

Mine is one of the few Canadian books focusing on consumer issues, such as telecommunications, travel and retailing. It has a fabulous foreword from David Chilton, author of The Wealthy Barber Returns and newest member of CBC Dragons’ Den.

Two well-known TV personal finance personalities are weighing in with new volumes, Gail Vaz-Oxlade with Money Rules (at almost 500 pages) and Kevin O’Leary with The Cold Hard Truth about Men, Women and Money.

Two books I’ve read and liked are Gordon Pape’s revised guide to the tax-free savings account (TFSA) and The Real Retirement by Fred Vettese and Bill Morneau, chief actuary and executive chairman (respectively) of retirement consulting firm Morneau Shepell.

Unlike the gloomy retirement books written by some authors, The Real Retirement tries to make you feel better about not having saved a nest egg equal to 70 per cent of your working income.

“You likely will not need as much money in your retirement years as many experts have suggested,” they say. “Yes, you will require more health care and other attention, especially as your age advances, but their costs will not threaten your financial security.

“Given some basic planing (a paid-off mortgage, zero major debts, no dependents at home), you should be able to live fairly comfortably with retirement income representing 50 per cent of your pre-retirement earnings.”

Back to my book, Fight Back, I will give away several free copies to readers who post comments (below) about how they recognized and resisted corporate trickery.

So, please send your personal stories and best tips. I’ll contact you if you win a prize.

Tales of trying to unlock a phone

It pays to ask up front if a mobile device can be unlocked, as my column says today. Many people find they can’t get their phones unlocked when they try to do so later.

I’m posting stories below about readers’ difficulties in asking their carriers about unlocking. Some are quite funny in relating the hassles they encountered along the way.

Is it an abuse to have phones locked to a carrier’s network? Some people say Canadians have the most expensive wireless networks in the world and pay the highest fees for international data roaming.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre wants to shrink our inflated data roaming rates. Here’s one way to do it:

Canadian wireless providers should be required to implement a monthly bill limit for data roaming to safeguard consumers against bill shock. The monthly limit would be chosen by the subscriber or default to $50, in addition to the subscriber’s monthly fees.

In addition, wireless providers should temporarily suspend data service when the subscriber incurs roaming fees exceeding this limit.

While the CRTC isn’t ready to regulate yet, it held an online consultation to prepare for the mandatory implementation of a wireless code of conduct. Here’s a link to the top 100 “liked” comments.

The three-year contract attracted the most complaints in the CRTC discussions. And as many readers point out, unlocking a phone doesn’t help much when you’re still locked into a long-term commitment with your carrier.

Law professor and Star columnist Michael Geist makes this point clearly in a 2010 entry:

The issue of locked cellphones has long been a source of consumer fear and frustration, since some wondered whether unlocking phones that were rendered unusable when switching wireless providers was legal. In certain respects, this was an odd question to even have to ask.

No one would ever question whether consumers have the right to tinker with their car or to use the same television if they switch providers from cable to satellite, yet the wireless industry somehow convinced the public that unlocking their phones – consumers’ own property – was wrong.

Finally, blogger Darryl Moore argues that preventing carriers from locking phones is the first step. We also have to talk about the way that smart phone manfacturers stop you from “jailbreaking” in order to run different software.

Not only do we need laws prohibiting the locking of cell phones to specific cellular networks. We need laws prohibiting the locking of cell phones to specific manufacturers, allowing them to decide what software will run on your phone or not.

Indeed without this prohibition, the first one is sort of useless, as there is nothing stopping the manufacturers from acting like a proxy for the network providers and imposing the same or similar restrictions on your phone that the network providers no longer can.

How to use social media to get better service

Kavitha Nadarajah got a $7,000 energy-efficient KitchenAid refrigerator built into her kitchen in April 2007. It lasted just five years before it needed to be replaced.

Alas, the control board for her model wasn’t available any more. A factory in Japan had closed, leaving the appliance maker without parts.

KitchenAid customer service said it couldn’t do anything because the refrigerator was not under warranty. Later, it offered to deliver a similar model for $5,000 and then $4,000. The same model costs around $7,000 at Sears Canada.

“We are a family of four with two small kids and have been without a refrigerator for more than three weeks now. As you can imagine it is a frustrating experience,” she said.

“Besides, when we bought the energy efficient but expensive refrigerator, we expected it to last at least 10 years. It makes no sense, neither financially nor environmentally, to be forced to buy another refrigerator so soon.”

I sent the information to my Whirlpool contact in Michigan. But I can’t say for sure whose efforts made the difference, since Kavitha tried her own tactics.

She wrote about her appliance woes on her blog. She also posted her story at the Kitchenaid Facebook page.

Then, she got an offer to replace her broken fridge for $3,000. She’d been without one for more than a month.

In another blog update, she talked about spending $20,000 on KitchenAid appliances in five years and getting nothing but heartache.

That led to a better offer, which she accepted, to pay $500 for a model that wasn’t built in. (Its market value was around $3,000.)

“We asked for a similar deal from the beginning. They refused until I started to use social media to get their attention,” she told me.

There’s a final blog update here, talking about the lessons she learned. Don’t give up. Trust the power of social media.

“Even people without one million followers can use social media to spread their concerns,” she says, linking to a successful Twitter campaign about a failed Maytag dishwasher by moomy blogger Heather Armstrong in 2009. (She runs the very popular Dooce website.)

Since it took more than two months to resolve the issue, Kavitha has vowed never to buy any appliance brands owned by Whirlpool again. She won the social media battle, but lost her fight to get a new refrigerator just like the one that died prematurely.

Based on the complaints I get, I’d say most new appliances don’t last as long as they did before. They have more computer circuitry. They are subject to frequent changes. And the parts seem to be perennially out of stock.

I’ve written about this at my blog, here and here. And I’ve been hanging on to my old washing machine and dryer (now 20 years old and going strong), fearing their replacements may not be as durable.

I also had my own social media success in getting GE to pay for a glass oven door that shattered after only three years.

So, while I’m a fan of using Twitter to resolve consumer complaints, I’m concerned about the fragility of household appliances. Most people find it easier to throw them out than to fight for a low-cost repair or replacement from the manufacturer.