Returning online purchase proves frustrating exercise

Consuming Interests

February 13, 2007|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

It took exactly two weeks for Kirstie Durr to break a pledge to get in shape for the new year on her brand new ProForm 525 X treadmill.

It wasn't for lack of willpower. Blame this resolution relapse on the $450 treadmill that her husband purchased for her online as a Christmas present.

The confounded contraption simply went kaput in the middle of a fairly innocuous 45-minute walk.

"It just got stuck on 10, a really, really steep incline," said Durr, 36, a senior vice president of a high-powered marketing firm in Baltimore. "The engine sounded like it was just grinding to go back down to a flat level. I thought it needed to reset itself so I unplugged it. It didn't do any good."

It used to be that if you bought a defective product, you went back to the store to have it fixed or replaced, or to get a refund. In these days of shopping on the Web, there isn't always brick and mortar to turn to in our time of need. In fact, what lured the Durrs into purchasing the treadmill online ended up hindering any effort to sort out the resulting mess when it broke down.

Durr said she bought the ProForm treadmill - which was recommended by a friend - because it was so easy and inexpensive. She loved that husband Dan just popped online and tapped in their credit-card number, and within a week, a giant cardboard box was sitting beside the door of their Fallston home. She loved that there was no hard sales pitch from a floor salesman.

What Kirstie did not love, however, is that when Dan was dispatched the next day to find help for the malfunctioning apparatus, he could not reach a live person on ProForm's customer service repair line.

On Day 2, Dan called customer service six times. Each time, an automated voice told him to hold and then disconnected the call after a long wait. Dan tried sending an e-mail through the ProForm Web site. No response.

Frustrated, Kirstie called again and pushed the number to reach the ProForm sales office. Bingo. A live person answered, then promptly sent her back to the customer service repair line when she said she had a problem.

"I called them back and said, `Please don't transfer me,'" Kirstie said. "I then asked to speak to a supervisor and someone, I think his name was Sid, told me that since it had been 30 days after the date of purchase, I could no longer return the treadmill. I told him it was a Christmas gift and asked if there was a different return policy for the holiday, and he said it didn't matter."

The best that Icon Health & Fitness - the corporate parent of brands like ProForm, NordicTrack, Reebok and Gold's Gym - could do would be to send a technician out to fix the treadmill, Kirstie was told.

"I told him that was great, but that I couldn't get anyone on the repair line to talk to me," Kirstie said. "Sid assured me that he would have someone call me back."

The Durrs did receive two phone messages - one from an automated voice and one from a live person - but both sent the couple back to the dreaded customer disservice line.

So Kirstie asked Sid for the name of Icon's president and corporate address.

"He told me it was a private company and that was proprietary information," Kirstie said. "It was so odd."

Being of above-average sophistication about the business world, Kirstie did her own detective work online and easily found Chairman and Chief Executive Officer David Watterson's name on the corporate Web site. She sent off a complaint letter on Jan. 24 and heard back from no one.

Let's give Kirstie and Dan Durr an A for effort. They did everything they were supposed to do, so when in frustration they reached out for help, I was happy to oblige.

I also could find no other number to call but the toll-free customer service line, so I sent a quick e-mail to ProForm's media office on the last Friday in January. On the following Monday, when I had not gotten a response, I sent Icon's media office a similar e-mail.

A few hours later, customer service assistant manager Margaret Rosales responded with a list of questions about the Durrs' treadmill - when was it purchased, what was the serial number, model number, price, etc.? The answers were forwarded to her within a half-hour.

By noon Tuesday, public relations associate Melanie Jensen sent me an e-mail assuring me that Rosales was on top of the case and then asked me to please send the information (which I had already sent the day before) so that the company could "resolve this situation as smoothly and quickly as possible."

Amused, I obliged her request and heard back from no one, despite a request to interview her or another Icon supervisor. The prospect of getting the Durrs' treadmill fixed, replaced or refunded was looking as promising as an episode of 24 concluding without a body count.

Imagine our surprise then - mine and the Durrs - when Kirstie received an e-mail from her husband on Wednesday with good news.

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