The Gripe Line: Good Price on Notebook Computer

SAN MATEO (07/17/2000) - You don't have to venture into e-commerce to get bitten by sneakwrap. Just buying something the old-fashioned way puts you at risk of being victimized by an unseen disclaimer buried deep on some Web site.

In early May a reader we'll call Mr. Post (in honor of the posting he never saw) noticed what appeared to be a very good deal on a notebook computer in a magazine ad.

"While going through the May 2000 issue of the Computer Shopper, I found an ad for a Compaq Computer Corp. Presario XL106 from PCMall," Mr. Post wrote. "The ad says the price is $799 after $400 'mfr. rebate.' The specs were agreeable, so I told my purchasing agent to order one."

When the machine arrived, it came with an invoice from eCost (a sister company of PCMall) for a total charge of $1,399 plus tax. The $400 manufacturer's rebate turned out to be an MSN deal that would require a three-year commitment at $21.95 a month.

As Mr. Post had no need for MSN, the "rebate" was essentially a $400 loan he'd have to pay back with interest. (Even if he had wanted MSN, the value of the deal was not $400, of course, especially considering that at the time Microsoft was offering the first six months free on a one-year commitment to MSN.) And even with the rebate, there was still a $200 discrepancy between the advertised price and what had been charged to Mr. Post's credit card.

Mr. Post called PCMall. "I was told I cannot return the item; those items are nonreturnable," he wrote. "I asked them where did it say that? Was told on their Web site. Told them I did not see anything like that in the ad. They told me it was on the back of the invoice. So I asked them, let me get this correct:

I order a part. It comes in with the wrong price, the wrong rebate, and the place it tells me I cannot return it is on the invoice I receive with the part?

I do not know about you, but this does not smell that good to me."

On the back of the eCost invoice was a brief notice saying that equipment from several manufacturers including Compaq could not be returned for any reason.

The notice added that customers should check eCost.com -- which Mr. Post had never heard of before he got the invoice -- for more information, including other manufacturers that can be added to the no-returns list at any time.

With great difficulty I found the corresponding notice on eCost.com, buried deep in a document that was itself hard to find. A slightly more accessible notice on PCMall.com contained a longer list of manufacturers whose products could not be returned. In fact, all but one of the computer manufacturers in the three-page ad were companies with a no-return policy; several of them were listed as such only on the PCMall Web site.

His purchasing agent told Mr. Post he was almost certain that he had not been informed of the true price of the system, the nature of the rebate, or the no-return policy over the phone.

To test that assertion, I made several calls myself about the ad, which was still running in June. One sales rep did make it clear without my asking that the "rebate" involved the three-year commitment to an online service, but others described it just as a "Compaq-MSN rebate" without explaining the strings that were attached to those three letters. No one informed me of the no-return policy on Compaq equipment, even when I asked for warranty information.

I did, however, come up with a possible explanation for the $200 price discrepancy other than a deliberate bait and switch.

When I asked one salesperson about the Compaq XL106 without mentioning the ad, he wound up finding two seemingly identical configurations at two different prices.

In June, the difference between the two configurations was $100, but in May it may have been $200. Possible confirmation came from the fact that the part number for the notebook on the invoice Mr. Post received was different than the part number in the PCMall ad.

Without knowing Mr. Post's identity, PCMall officials have not been able to confirm that's what happened, but they acknowledge it's a possibility. It was just one of those mix-ups that can happen -- an honest mistake -- and PCMall would refund his $200 happily.

Mistakes can happen, all right, particularly when a $400 manufacturer's rebate is actually something quite different. When there is a mix-up, particularly one that does not appear to be the customer's fault, it's only fair that customers should be able to get their money back. Mr. Post doesn't want to pay $1,199 for the notebook and what for him is a worthless MSN rebate; he wants to return it and forget the whole deal. But there's a notice on a Web site he didn't know existed that says he can't.

Welcome, Mr. Post, to the brave new world of sneakwrap.

Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Write to Ed Foster, InfoWorld's reader advocate, at gripe@infoworld.com.

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