Rebates sow ill will when redemption is too hard

Offers entice buyers, but disputes often arise

December 21, 2003|By COX NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA - Rebate checks arrive regularly in the mailbox at the Driskell household.

Tony and Ellen Driskell troll regularly for rebates offered by metro Atlanta stores, no matter how small.

"It's like a game show for me," Ellen Driskell said. "The $3 to $5 rebates on dog food seem like a small thing, but it's McDonald's for the kids. I'm an unusual shopper, and I think most people don't bother."

Rebates are coming at consumers in all forms, from Eukanuba dog food to Hewlett-Packard computers. Some are for a few dollars off mundane items. Others promise hundreds of dollars off electronics items - making them especially enticing during the holiday shopping season.

But rebates are a mixed bag for consumers - not all of whom are as diligent as the Driskells. They enable retailers to post prices that are lower than the actual amount a buyer must pay to leave the store with the item. Then shoppers assume responsibility for poring over receipts and sending in the right documentation to qualify for a rebate that takes weeks or months to arrive.

Various surveys conclude that a little less than half of consumers who buy goods with rebate offers actually try to redeem them. About 20 percent wind up in disputes, according to the Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based market research firm.

Experts say rebates can work for careful consumers and are good for retailers that use them to entice shoppers. But rebates can also sow ill will when stores or manufacturers make them too hard to redeem.

Consumers take up complaints with the retail stores, which shift blame to the manufacturers, which shift blame to a rebate house, which often outsources the work. That has spawned more consumer complaints and interventions by consumer help organizations including Planetfeedback.com, the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission.

"Manufacturers hope some consumers will forget about claiming the rebate check, to the benefit of the maker," said Kurt Barnard, president of Retail Forecasting, which tracks shopping trends and consumer spending.

None of it deters the Driskells. They once gave a Christmas present with a hole in the box where they cut off the UPC symbol, which is often required with rebates.

Said Tony Driskell, "For $50, we'll do anything."

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