Monday, June 14, 2004

A Win Win Win Situation
Having gone awhile without suffering abject humiliation, Mary and I recently decided to buy some new consumer electronics. Nowadays, all consumer electronics come with a wireless Internet connection, more ports than the eastern seaboard, and accessories suitable for deep-frying a turkey, so I'm not sure exactly what it is we bought. But its name is Hewlett Packard. To make sure we got the best deal (and perhaps, unconsciously, to keep us out of the consumer electronics super store until the last possible moment) I compulsively researched this purchase for months.

You would think the Internet would make it easy to do this research. There are tons of buying guides and product-comparison tools and reviews out there. But comparing prices and features on consumer electronics is not easy because manufacturers constantly change model numbers on their products. Try it: Use one of those 'net guides to find the right model at the right price and then try to buy it. The salesperson will say, "Oh, you want the HP-J3940293839291? I'm sorry, that model has been discontinued. We do have the HP-J3940293839291.5. And look! It's only $150 more and comes with a baster!" Suddenly it dawns on you that you are dealing with the 2004 equivalent of Mr. Haney, that peddler on Green Acres.

You would also think you could get a better deal buying consumer electronics directly from the manufacturer, but once again, no. Despite my research, we were unable to find a better deal than the one advertised by the local Circuit City. So we stowed our souls in a special velvet-lined cedar box, hid it on a shelf in the basement, and headed out to Circuit City.

Circuit City is one of capitalism's many little disappointments. When you go to Circuit City, you'll probably find what you want but you'll have to navigate a maze of unpleasantries. Typically, the pimpled salesperson will try to sell you a more expensive item than the one advertised, along with a wildly expensive warranty that adds 40% to the price of the item you're buying, just to guarantee it will work. In order to keep you confused, your salesperson will spew an unending stream of techno-jargon, consisting entirely of words made up on the spot. "Yes," she'll reassure herself knowingly, "this model comes with a series-S prastulatron but you can upgrade to the XDG hypertronic mijplew for only $360."

Disorienting you further is the Circuit City environment. It is the most hostile, techno, sterile, pop-culture creepy place this side of the mall. Plus, it's huge. You could park a couple of jumbo jets inside and still have room left over for Regis Philbin's ego. The place has acres of TVs, all showing the latest Disney cartoon in high definition. (This is a trick TV manufacturers use to sell fancy TVs. Unless you watch a lot of cartoons, don't fall for this trick; turn to any other channel and you'll see that it's only Shrek and Nemo that look cool in high definition. Do you really want to see Tom Brokaw in high definition? OK, maybe if they can figure out a way to show Kelly O'Donnell in HDTV but keep Brokaw analog, then I might be interested.)

All products at Circuit City are arranged on shelves by price in descending order. They keep the fanciest products with the latest features on one end. These you cannot afford unless you sell all of your belongings and your children, plus take out a 30-year mortgage. On the other end you'll find the inexpensive, advertised items that lured you into the store. These will not be in stock. In the middle are the items that are affordable but do not include the latest features you've just seen and now desperately must have. Also, these items might not work unless you purchase the extended warranty, which bumps them up to the sell-your-children price range. Further complicating your purchase is the fact that yesterday's high-end product is today's middlin' product. Electronics manufacturers add features and discount products so quickly that today's $4000 XJ10 is tomorrow's $500 XJ5. I can't prove it, but I am convinced those shelves are actually conveyor belts moving imperceptibly slowly, conveying the fancy models to the cheap end of the spectrum to make way for tomorrow's new XJ15 with wireless microwave HDTV and automatic faucet.

So we sniff around a bit and are quickly accosted by a charming, young, overeducated-for-Circuit-City, handsome, young salesman named Ronnie. Ronnie and I are immediately adversarial. Somehow I admire him while also wanting to choke him. He makes charming sales-dude banter and lets us know he has a college degree, in a manner that is supposed to be self-deprecating but also prickles with hostility. He uses humor to express his resentment over spending four years in college "for this." His shtick is to test his customers' gullibility, which at Circuit City is easy pickins. We are all quite purposefully in the dark when it comes to product features, so we are walking, breathing gullibility. Ronnie says something amazing, we reply "Wow! Really?" and Ronnie laughs, shrugs, and shakes his head no, as if to say, "gotcha!" This somehow works for Ronnie, probably because it makes customers want to hurry up and buy something in order to quickly get out of his presence.

Since we have done our homework, we know exactly which model we want. I have even conveniently brought in the Circuit City ad showing the HP model and discount price and we listen patiently while Ronnie explains that that model is out of stock and won't be available for three weeks. He then steers us to another HP with a model number that is exactly the same as the model we want except it's off by one digit. It looks exactly like the picture in the ad. It costs $150 more.

Mary and I step aside to hold a private confab and give Ronnie a moment to work up some more bits for his trick-the-gullible-customer comedy routine. Exhausted from the research and resigned to the fact that all stores and all manufacturers are going to be out of stock on the advertised item, we agree to just throw in the towel and pay the higher price. Ronnie seems thrilled, which surprises me. "Wow! Really?" I think, and Ronnie smiles, shrugs, and shakes his head no, as if to say, "gotcha!"

Feeling lucky despite all the evidence, we decline the extended warranty, which really upsets Ronnie. Clearly, the sales commission on the extended warranty is where Ronnie's latte is frothed. He becomes almost surly as he rings up the purchase and tries repeatedly to get us to reconsider. What Ronnie does not realize is that we have no way to bludgeon the board of directors of the Hewlett-Packard or Circuit City corporations, so the only weapon we have at our disposal to fight off the indignities we've suffered is to refuse the warranty. We almost feel sorry for Ronnie as his lower lip juts out in disgruntlement.

But HP, Circuit City and Ronnie fight back with yet another trick: Ronnie informs us that the price quoted is AFTER the manufacturer's rebate. We read the fine print and learn that we must pay $100 extra now, and mail in to HP a rebate form to get our $100 back. Why doesn't HP just sell the model for $100 less? It must be because a certain percentage of consumers will fail to request it and HP can bank the difference. Either that or HP and Circuit City just hate their customers and enjoy watching them jump through hoops. Ronnie hands me the rebate form and the receipt and I am tempted to give him some shit about this new wrinkle but I am overwhelmed by this thought: If Circuit City and Hewlett-Packard can make me feel this humiliated in one visit, think what they must do to Ronnie every single day. So instead, I look Ronnie in the eye, thank him, and think, "Dude, you are SO blogged!"

When we get home, we immediately rip into our new HP, and to my relief it seems not to know that we didn't buy the warranty; it works fine. We toss the cardboard box in the garbage and surf the Internet while the deep fryer warms up.

The next day, I get out the rebate form. Despite the fact that we already gave Ronnie enough personal information that he can probably vote for us and access our ATM account, we now have to provide HP with all of that same information. In addition, I learn to my great dismay that I must include the barcodes from the product packaging. These, I have thrown away. So I go out to the garage and dig out the box with the barcodes. I feel a little better about the fact that they smell vaguely like garbage after it dawns on me that somebody at HP is going to get to smell them too. The rebate form advises me to go to HP's Web site for quicker processing of the rebate, so I go online. But when I get there I learn that I still must mail in the series of bar codes, which appear to store enough information on them to decode al-Qaeda chatter and calculate pi but cannot alone convey "send Jim Welp $100." Moreover, now that the deal has been sealed, HP is MUCH less friendly than they were when they were courting us with their festive advertisements. Suddenly there is no please, no thank you. In their places are a lot of "musts" and "not responsibles." By this time I am so worn down that I am just thankful I'm not being forced to participate in a nude human pyramid.

At long last, I've gathered all the info I need to get our $100 back and I get out an envelope to mail it in. HP has one last nugget of shame for me: The mailing address is a post-office box under the name Win, Win, Win. I actually have to write that on the envelope -- Win, Win, Win. Somehow this all does not feel like a win-win-win situation. I toy with the idea of looking into why they call the rebate scam Win, Win, Win, but instead I choose to presume it means that we get to enjoy a model of HP similar to and more expensive than the one we wanted; we will eventually get our own $100 back via US Mail; and, when a couple of mega corporations and a smartass salesperson really piss you off, if you can't flog em, at least you can blog em.

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