O Columbia!

So here I am, getting ready to take my wife and I on our first ski trip together, hoping we don’t die as first-timers at this age.  Where I live, there isn’t much in the way of local choice for specialty equipment in this category, so like us all I look online.  This might be one of perhaps three times I will shop online all year, due to my frequent misapprehensions about our future with eCommerce.

So I look to Columbia — major brand.  I find an item, on sale of course, else I would not be a “smart” consumer, right?  I order.  I receive.  Whoops, bad sizing guidance on their size chart.  Despite taking measurements and choosing the one they said should fit, it’s hanging on me — too big.  So I call to arrange a return/re-order of a size down.  (Let me say here and throughout: very nice outsourced customer service people, OK?  Thank God I’m not calling India.)

Hassle #1 – no exchange possible, only reorder (pay) and return (refund).  I can float it, but who likes to?  Some folks without as much ability to float would struggle with this, but so be it.  I place the new order for my size, in stock, confirmed ready-to-ship.

Hassle #2 – the next day, I get a system-generated email: item out-of-stock.  Really?  So, I guess Columbia sells gear like airlines sell tickets — there are a few imaginary seats on the plane.  I call back to another very nice rep who apologizes, reminds me I have 60 days to return the first one (which I’m hanging onto just for backup in case Columbia can’t get this right before our trip) so I should wait 2-4 weeks for my size to come back into stock.  Can’t say if or when because they “can’t see” future inventory like so many other CS reps for other brands can.  Whatever.

Hassle #3 – just after 4 weeks, still not back in stock.  I call and another very nice rep explains they still don’t know when, but I’m still about 30 days good on returning the backup, so wait another week.  Hassle #3a — one week later the item has disappeared, not coming back.  Who knew?  Apparently not them.  But they are very nice.  Did I mention that yet?

Hassle #4 — 10 return days to go, Bingo!  Something I would like, my size in-stock, same price.  I call to order & return the first item.  A very nice rep, sickly, sweetly, verbosely nice, is processing everything but says something to the effect of I’m probably not going to get a refund on the return, it will be store credit.  Why?  High post-holiday return volume is backing up their processing, so it won’t be “processed” in-time.  Uh-huh.  I checked to be sure the printed return policy didn’t say “received and processed within 60 days.”  But, you see, their system makes the rules, and the computers rule the humans.  Have we been assimilated by the Borg?  I knew the Internet was alive.

I’m taking the return to the post office now, I have kept a copy of my filled-in return slip, and I’ll be buying tracking & confirmation services at extra cost to be ready for an anticipated Hassle #5 — a gift card that due to Hassles #1 through #4 I never wish to use again with a brand I never wish to buy again.  Good thing my bank President likes me and will happily help me with a credit card chargeback if it comes to that.

Despite the jocular exchange with very nice outsourced customer service people, commoditized online brands need to understand that nice can be a vice.  How would any person, from the head honcho of Columbia who hides behind his brand and makes himself (or herself) hard to find by customers all the way down to the new shipping clerk respond if they came to one of my local, specialty retail stores to be told, “Sorry, I know the warranty says one year and you’re here with the broken bit ten days prior to expiration, but my service department is busy now and we can’t get to you in-time, so by the time we can fit you in, the warranty will expire — have a nice day!!”?????

If you work at any level in eCommerce retail, I’m sorry, but despite the lipstick you still work for a pig.  Hypocrites, by very definition, claim one thing (customer convenience of shopping online) and behave in the opposite fashion.  You would be screaming and tearing me apart on Yelp if I pulled this with you in my walk-in store, yet this is what you deal to consumers, with or without discount prices?  Yes, we specialty retailers do indeed have a supreme advantage over you.  We aren’t hedgehogs calling the porcupine “prickly”.  Regardless, so many consumers still seem willing to “trust” online brands more than local merchants.  I propose that this trust is much like the trust we put in the Vegas dealer to handle our chips.  We are still just gambling and hoping to come out the rare winners.