Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Misión imposible

One of Stew's most annoying habits--to retailers and manufacturers of all sorts, that is--is his meticulous filling and filing of all guarantee cards, along with the documentation required for any claims. Quite often a nearly microscopic message at the bottom a "lifetime guarantee" card may warn that to claim any refunds or replacements you need to submit the sales receipt, the piece of the package with the bar code--plus a certified copy of your grandmother's marriage license.

Stew keeps them all. So when a critical component of his OXO cheese slicer, which came with a guarantee of "lifetime satisfaction," broke a few months back, he returned it to the manufacturer, along with the receipt and a note saying in effect that he was quite alive but not satisfied. A customer service factotum at OXO Central agreed to replace the slicer but sent a snippy e-mail telling Stew he technically was not entitled to it because of some reason or other.

Screw 'em: He got a new cheese slicer.

His consumer rights campaign--"our" campaign really since I get to do all the arguing in Spanish--has scored a few successes but has mostly stalled in Mexico. It seems that the most favored expression by customer service clerks here is imposible, often uttered before I even get to make my case, or accompanied by some non-sensical rationale for dismissing it.

Shortly after arriving in Mexico we bought some energy-saving bulbs from Home Depot, at around eight dollars apiece, that came with something like a ten-year guarantee, clearly mentioned on the package.

One bulb blew up a few minutes after I flipped the switch, so I went back to Home Depot, dead bulb and receipt in hand. "Imposible," said the clerk, three seconds into my explanation. I asked why, and she  paused--you could see her trying to pull a reason from some interstice in her brain--and then said that the guarantee on those bulbs was valid for only for 12 hours after purchase.

"¡Imposible!," I countered, pointing to the wording on the package. Besides, twelve hours was hardly long enough for the bulb to blow up and me to bring it back to the store. I requested to talk to her supervisor and when that didn't work, I asked for the department and then the store manager. I finally got a replacement bulb, much to the astonishment of an assembled group of clerks and other retail dignitaries by now gathered at the customer service counter.

Most other times, our impersonation of Ralph Nader doesn't work so well. To start, many U.S.-made products come with the aggravating caveat "guarantee valid only in the U.S. or Canada." It's ¡Vaya con Dios! if you live in Mexico.

Why Mexican consumers put up with such second-class treatment, from domestic or foreign retailers alike, one can only speculate.

While there may exist a stereotype of the angry Mexican--of a glowering, mustachioed Pancho Villa, bandoleers crisscrossing his chest--in my experience Mexicans consumers more often choose resignation over confrontation.

Waiting at a McDonald's in nearby Celaya, Stew was told that his order would be delayed because of some problem with the hamburger, though his French fries were already on his tray. When the hamburger arrived about six or seven minutes later, Stew said that his fries were cold and he wanted fresh ones. The hamburger technician initially looked at Stew as if he had a grown a rhinoceros horn, but ultimately brought new fries--and tried to unload the stale ones on the Mexican customer next in line.

At first the Mexican customer said nothing but then Stew, embarrassed by the slight, told him in his unique English/Spanish dialect, "you don't have to take that, you should get fresh ones too." The fellow diner reacted with surprise, as if someone had revealed a secret to a happier life. "No I don't," he said with a proud smile, in English a hell of a lot better than Stew's Spanish. The fries, limp by now, went back and the Mexican diner got fresh ones too.

Mexico boasts of a federal Consumer Protection Agency, though like so many rights-enforcing bureaucracies in this country it is useless to aggrieved consumers, particularly this far away from the capital. I have found nothing resembling independent consumer-crusading groups or magazines here of the caliber of Consumer Reports in the U.S.

In fact, tort or liability law for consumer claims, if it exists at all, is something of an occult art. If a doctor amputates the wrong toe, you're as likely to get financial compensation for her incompetence or negligence as you are to get a new toe. ¡Lo sentimos. Vaya con Dios! To libertarians and medical practitioners in the U.S. who gripe about runaway litigation and malpractice awards, Mexico may sound like a piece of heaven. But wait until one of them has the wrong toe cut off.

There is a civil court system alright, where theoretically suits and filed and resolved. But for an individual, even one with bottomless patience and pockets, embarking in such litigation would be like doing the breast stroke in a pool of molasses. A class-action suit against a business giant like the telephone company, the government-owned electric utility or a major manufacturer, for fraud or other unfair consumer practices? That's more than imposible; it's downright inconcebible.

Indeed if you get too testy or go public with your complaints against a service or product provider, the plaintiff may counter-sue for defamation under Mexico's curious libel laws, under which the validity or truthfulness of your complaint is immaterial. Think of such laws as adding injury to injury.

Things may be changing, perhaps as a result of, oddly enough, the example shown to consumers by American retailers like Costco which will accept returns, exchanges and issue refunds with a minimum of fuss. After our lightbulb incident, Home Depot has accepted a couple of our returns, though hardly with a smile.

Even the major local grocery stores now recognize returns and refunds as a part of doing business, but not without having to explain why and then waiting for an OK from the manager who is usually rearranging the radishes at the opposite end of the store. But in ten or fifteen minutes you'll get your money back.

These stores are still a long way from the ultimate "the customer is always right" policy we once encountered at a Treasure Island supermarket in Chicago. An older, well-heeled customer there plunked a half-eaten can of peaches at the customer service counter and said, "I don't like them!"

A less-accommodating clerk would have asked a perfectly reasonable question: It took you half a can to figure that out? Instead the clerk just issued her a cash refund along with a weary smile and a thank-you.

5 comments:

  1. The rhinoceros horn line was pretty clever. Nice post.

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  2. Great topic, we have pestered the clerks and finally get some action most of the time. But we also will test light bulbs and electronic items before we leave the store, and never ever accept anything that has been from an open box.
    Slowly locals are standing up for their rights of not getting screwed over. Perhaps in our lifetime we will see more honest hand to hand dealings with a kilo being a kilo unlike liters at various Pemex stations.

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  3. Each time we visit a McDonald's in Mexico I cringe because of how poor the service is. Our last visit in Mazatlan took about 20 minutes to get our order which normally in the states would be about 3 minutes.
    This is not only at the Mazatlan outlet but other we have visited. What they do is never have anything in the cue. They order up when the party comes to the register and then basically only can put out one meal at a time. I am amazed that they efficiency is so lacking, perhaps they need to send the managers to McDonald University or something to show them the efficiency. But then again, this is Mexico and time is never an important commodity. Good for you for standing up to the cold fries. The sad thing is that they don't think they did anything wrong! Multi tasking is not even a faint concept.

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  4. Many, many years ago, I was told that recalled goods would be shipped to Mexico for sale Maybe that is the basis of "no warranty" in Mexico.

    My brother would always test his fries at Carl's Jr., and immediately tell the clerk "re fry them." He liked them hot and crisp/crunchy.

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  5. My first job was in customer service at the old Broadway dept. store chain in So. California. I was told "never" to accept back worn clothing that smelled of cigarette smoke. Inevitably, the Beverly Hills customers would make howls of protest about how much money they spend at the store. The manager would trot over, approve the refund, and mutter, pointing to me, "He's still in training." They were hoping the customers were too timid to demand a refund. Beverly Hills customers are never shy about that.

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