Resolutions that are worth keeping
Published: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 8:54 p.m.
There are plenty of irritating trends facing consumers at the start of 2005. "Gotcha" billing. Online perils. Customer service that's an insult to the name.
But let's take a moment today to herald a few of the more heartening changes in the marketplace, brought by companies that hope to profit by addressing common complaints. For obvious reasons, it's a business strategy you may want to reward.
Got other examples? Let me know, and I'll share them in a future column.
Wireless companies have long lured customers with attractive deals for "buckets" of minutes. Use them all, and your peak-hour calls typically cost less than 10 cents per minute. But surpass your allotment, and you can get socked with hundreds of dollars in charges, since extra minutes can cost 40 cents apiece or more.
For a long time the wireless providers - Sprint included - said "gotcha" and raked in the dollars, although Cingular eased some customers' pain a while back by allowing them to bank unused minutes.
Now, Sprint has finally met the problem head-on. With its "Fair & Flexible" plan, you pay $35 for up to 300 minutes - a small premium. But beyond that, you pay relatively little - 5 to 10 cents per minute - for extra 25- or 50-minute allotments. Past 1,200 minutes, the tab is a flat 7 cents.
The problem is that insisting is easier said than done. Typically, you need an original receipt, a form, and a bar code from the box. Everything must be done according to detailed, confusing rules. To get a promised price, you may need to request multiple rebates.
It's obvious why manufacturers like rebates. They bank on the expectation that some of us will never get the advertised price - that we'll miss a hoop, fail on a technicality, and not follow-up if a rebate doesn't arrive.
A few retailers have tried to counteract some typical rebate hassles. If you purchase three eligible items at Best Buy or Circuit City, for example, you'll get three extra "rebate receipts."
This fall, Staples upped the ante: It automated much of the process with a service called "Easy Rebates."
If a product qualifies, a consumer can handle everything by going to www.stapleseasyrebates.com, keying in a 17-digit identification number, and a rebate code number. You can even track a rebate's progress online.
No computer? No problem. Simply use a kiosk inside the store.
I'd prefer straightforward pricing. Short of that, Staples' Easy Rebates may be the next best thing.
I've rarely had any luck arguing, or begging for mercy. Nor have I had any success with my ultimate plea: that it's ridiculous to charge me $25 for keeping the movie an extra week, when the tape or disc retails for less.
Late fees drove me to Netflix, the online service that charges a flat monthly fee for a set number of rentals. With Netflix and its imitators, the only catch is that you don't get the next rental until you return the last one.
Now, Blockbuster - which has introduced its own Netflix-like service - says it wants to end late fees for ordinary rentals, too.
Starting today, the video chain says you'll be given a seven-day grace period on rentals. After that, you'll own the movie or video game, and be charged the retail price or the price of a used version, if one is available - less the original rental fee.
Come to think of it, that's exactly the deal I pleaded for at my old video store - to deaf ears.
Contact Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jeff Gelles at email@example.com or 215-854-4558.
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