Catalog shoppers have their rights

Andrew Leckey

November 25, 1992|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

The gift is in the mail.

Nearly 100 million people, more than half the adult population, will shop by catalog this year. Sixty percent of that business will take place in the holiday season as Americans shop for gifts. For truly rushed shoppers, most firms offer express delivery.

Despite tough economic times, the direct mail business has been growing at a 9 percent annual clip for five years as folks seek to escape shopping hassles. While you can order autographed Muhammed Ali boxing gloves from Hammacher Schlemmer, a shoe dryer from Sharper Image and a bird call set from Neiman-Marcus, most customers go the conventional route.

"Our most popular products are the chamois shirt, boots, plaid flannel bathrobes and turtlenecks," explains Kathleen Parker, an executive with the 80-year-old L.L. Bean outdoor specialty products firm in Freeport, Maine, which will ship 5 million packages this holiday season. "We guarantee 100 percent satisfaction or we will replace the item, refund your purchase price or credit your credit card."

At L.L. Bean, the regular postage charge is $3.50. Delivery in three to four days is an additional $5, in two business days an additional $9.

"Food is the perfect gift, since you don't need to worry if the recipient already has it or if it's the right color," says Marilyn Pred, a spokeswoman for 75-year-old Omaha Steaks International in Nebraska, a food mail-order company that ships meat, desserts and hors d'oeuvres.

"We strive for catalog clarity so people will see how the meat will look cooked, and our most popular item is the $29.95 holiday special of four six-ounce filet mignon."

Know your mail-order rights. Unless otherwise stated in the catalog, the Federal Trade Commission mail-order rule requires every company must ship within 30 days. If it can't make that date, it must alert you in writing, giving you the option to cancel the order or wait.

"The mail-order rule currently covers just mail orders, not telephone orders," says Elaine Kolish, assistant director of enforcement in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "For cash, check and money order sales, that time period is triggered when the merchant receives the order with payment, while for charge orders, it is triggered when the charge account is charged."

While the mail-order rule doesn't cover phone orders billed to credit cards, it does apply to phone orders if the purchaser sends payment by mail. Hearings are under way on the possibility of extending the rule to include all phone orders.

"If there's an item you really want to order, go ahead and order it, since a popular item might sell out if you wait too long," says Lisa Hahn, director of the shop-at-home information center of the New York-based Direct Marketing Association, a 3,600-member trade

association that will try to settle disputes involving mail-order firms.

"When ordering, always ask the company when it is shipping and whether merchandise is in stock in the color and size you want."

If you haven't dealt with the company before, check its reputation with your local Better Business Bureau or state or local consumer protection agency.

Keep a copy of the company name, address and phone number, the date of your order, the advertisement or catalog, the order form and a canceled check or charge account record.

If you have problems, try to work them out with the company first, before going to the Direct Marketing Association or filing complaints with the Better Business Bureau or FTC.

"Quality of customer service is escalating, since it's critical in this economy that catalog companies keep their customers," says Katie Muldoon, president of the direct marketing consulting firm Muldoon & Baer Inc. of New York. "Fifty percent of the nation's catalogs are under $1 million in sales a year, meaning they're accessible, entrepreneurial firms operating out of small spaces."

According to a survey by Consumer Reports conducted last year, among the top firms in consumer satisfaction were L.L. Bean, Land's End, Cabela's, Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, Eddie Bauer, Haband and Collin Street Bakery.

Among those worse than average were Spiegel, Sears, J.C. Penney, International Male, Frederick's of Hollywood, Victoria's Secret, Lane Bryant, Franklin Mint, Lillian Vernon, American Express and Damark.

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