It's Time To Keelhaul U-Haul!

It's Time To Keelhaul U-Haul!

It's Time To Keelhaul U-Haul!

Slate comes to the rescue of oppressed consumers.
July 22 1999 3:30 AM

It's Time To Keelhaul U-Haul!

The caped consumer crusader finds enlightenment but fails to right marketplace wrongs.

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Like all superheroes worthy of the title, the Shopping Avenger has an Achilles' heel. In the case of the Shopping Avenger, his Achilles' heel is not animal, vegetable, or mineral but something less tangible.

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An explanation: Last week, the magazine you are currently reading forced the Shopping Avenger at gunpoint to read a series of treacle-filled self-help books, and then to dissect them online together with a partner. The Shopping Avenger, who can withstand radiation, extreme heat and cold, hail, bear attacks, and Eyes Wide Shut, almost succumbed to terminal jejuneness after reading these books. Except for one thing: One of the books, The Art of Happiness, which collects and simplifies the Dalai Lama's philosophy, got the Shopping Avenger to thinking. This, in a way, is the Shopping Avenger's Achilles' heel: thinking. Perhaps it is wrong, the Shopping Avenger thought, to complain about the petty insults and inconveniences of life in the materialistic '90s. The Shopping Avenger felt that perhaps he should counsel those who write seeking help to meditate, to accept bad service the way one accepts the change of seasons, and to extend a compassionate hand of forgiveness to those who provide poor customer care.

But then the Shopping Avenger sat down, and the feeling passed.

The Shopping Avenger does not make light of the Dalai Lama or of the notion that there is more to life than the impatient acquisition of material goods. If the Shopping Avenger were not, for a superhero, extremely nonjudgmental--as opposed to his alter ego, who is considered insufferably judgmental by his alter ego's wife--the Shopping Avenger would tell the occasional correspondent to let go of his petty grievance and get a life.

But the Shopping Avenger also believes that the Dalai Lama has never tried to rent a truck from U-Haul. If he had tried to rent from U-Haul, he never would have escaped from Tibet. (For the complete back story, see this "Shopping Avenger" column and this one.)

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The complaints about U-Haul's nonreservation reservation policy continue to pour in through the electronic mail. One correspondent, B.R., wrote in with this cautionary tale: "Last weekend, I went to San Francisco to help my brother and his family move into their first house. My brother had reserved a moving truck with U-Haul for the big day. I warned my brother about U-Haul's 'not really a reservation per se' policy that I learned from the Shopping Avenger. He didn't believe such a thing would happen to him, so he didn't act on my warning."

B.R. continues--as if you don't know what happened already--"I went to U-Haul with my brother to get our 'reserved' truck. The store had many customers standing around looking frustrated. When we got to the front of the line, the clerk informed us that our 'reserved' truck had not yet been returned. We asked if we could rent one of the many trucks sitting idle in the parking lot. The clerk laughed and said the keys to those trucks were lost."

B.R. and his chastened brother--the Shopping Avenger is resisting the urge to gloat--went to Ryder. "Ryder had a truck available for us. The gentleman who helped us at Ryder said Ryder prides itself on being everything U-Haul is not."

The Shopping Avenger has still not received a call from U-Haul spokeswoman Johna Burke explaining why U-Haul refuses to provide trucks to people who reserve trucks, but the Shopping Avenger is pleased to note that several correspondents have written in over the past month saying that, based on what they have read in this column, they will be taking their business to Ryder or Budget or elsewhere.

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The Shopping Avenger will undoubtedly return to the sorry state of affairs at U-Haul in the next episode, but now on to this month's airline debacle.

Before we begin, though, the Shopping Avenger nearly forgot to announce the winner of last month's contest, in which readers were asked to answer the question, "What's the difference between pests and airlines?"

The winner is one Tom Morgan, who wrote, "You can hire someone to kill pests." Tom is the winner of a year's supply of Turtle Wax, and he will receive his prize just as soon as the Shopping Avenger figures out how much Turtle Wax actually constitutes a year's supply. The new contest question: How much Turtle Wax comprises a year's supply of Turtle Wax?

This month's airline in the spotlight is Southwest. Loyal readers will recall that last month the Shopping Avenger praised Southwest Airlines for its "sterling" customer service. This brought forth a small number of articulate dissensions. The most articulate, and the most troubling, came from M., who wrote, "Last year, flying from Baltimore to Chicago with my entire family (two really little kids included), we set down at Midway in a rainstorm. And waited for our bags. And waited for bags. And waited for bags."

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An hour later, M. says, the bags showed up, "soaked through. We took them to baggage services at SW and were faced with the most complicated, unclear, and confusing mechanism for filing a claim we experienced flyers have ever seen."

When they arrived at their destination, M. and her family made a terrible discovery, "We discovered that our clothes were soaked through--the top clothes were so wet that the dye had bled through down to the lower levels, destroying lots of other clothes. Obviously, our bags had just been sitting out on the runway in the rain. To this day, I've never heard a thing from SW, despite calls and letters."

This, of course, is where Shopping Avenger steps in. Shopping Avenger knows that Southwest is different from the average airline, in that it doesn't go out of its way to infuriate its paying customers (see: Northwest), so I expected a quick and generous resolution to M.'s problem.

What I got at first, though, was a load of corporate hoo-ha.

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"The airline's policy, which is consistent with all contracts of carriage at all airlines, requires that passengers file a report in person for lost or damaged luggage within four hours of arrival at their destination," a Southwest spokeswoman, Linda Rutherford, e-mailed me. "[M.] indicates she called for a few days, but did not file a report in person until April 12--three days later. Southwest, as a courtesy, took her report anyway and asked for follow up information and written inventory of the damage." Rutherford said that M. should have submitted detailed receipts and photographs of the damage in order to make a claim.

Harrumph, the Shopping Avenger says. It is a bad hair day at Southwest when its officials defend themselves by comparing their airline to other airlines. I forwarded this message to M., who replied:

"Wow. Well, of course I didn't file it at the airport on the 9th because I didn't know the clothes were ruined at the airport. I didn't know until I opened the baggage at my hotel and saw the ruined stuff. (And it's worth noting that we had already waited for about an hour for our luggage with two little kids and impatient in-laws nipping at our heels.)"

She goes on, "I did call that evening ... and was told that that sufficed. This is the first time I've been told that I had to file a complaint in person within four hours. ... When I filed on the 12th, I was never told that I needed any receipts or photos or other type of documentation. The baggage folks seemed pretty uninterested in all of this. ... They know that the type of 'evidence' they want is impossible to obtain. They also know that on April 9 they screwed up the luggage retrieval and left bags out in the rain a long time."

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Southwest's response actually served to anger M. more than the original problem. "Before, they had a mildly annoyed but loyal customer (who would have been placated by an apology and thrilled with some modest token of their regret). Now they have a pissed-off customer."

Things do look bad for Southwest, don't they? The Shopping Avenger sent M.'s response to Rutherford, who e-mailed back saying she thought the Shopping Avenger was asking for "policy information." The Shopping Avenger e-mailed back again, stressing to Rutherford that the Great Court of Consumer Justice would, if this case were brought to trial, undoubtedly find for the plaintiff (the Shopping Avenger serves as prosecutor, judge, and jury in the Great Court of Consumer Justice--defendants are represented by the president of U-Haul), and that Southwest was precipitously close to feeling the sword of retribution at its neck.

But then she came through, provisionally, "Yep, you can be sure if [M.] will call me we will get everything squared away. I'm sorry it's taken this long for her to get someone who can help, but we will take care of it from here."

Stay tuned, shoppers, to hear whether Southwest makes good it promise to compensate M. and apologize to her for her troubles.

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The story of M. reminds the Shopping Avenger of a central truth of consumer service: It's not the crime, it's the cover-up.

Take the case of K., who found himself waiting in vain for Circuit City to repair his television. Televisions break, even 1-year-old televisions, as is the case with K's. But Circuit City, where he bought the television, gave him a terrible runaround. The Shopping Avenger dispatched his sidekick, Tad the Deputy Avenger, to get to the bottom of K.'s story. This is what he found: K. grew concerned, Tad the Deputy Avenger reports, after his television had been in the Circuit City shop for a week. When he called, he was told to "check back next week." When he asked if someone from the store could call him with more information, he was refused. Weeks went by. When K. told one Circuit City employee that he really would like to get his television back, the employee, K. says, asked him, "Don't you have another television in your house?"

More than a month later--after hours and hours and hours of telephone calls and days missed at work--K. received his television back.

Mistakes happen, but not, Tad the Deputy Avenger found out, at Circuit City. The case, K. was told by a Circuit City official, was "handled perfectly." Another official, Morgan Stewart in public relations, assured Deputy Avenger Tad that "We got to be a big and successful company by treating customers better than the other guy." The Shopping Avenger and his loyal sidekick would like to hear from other Circuit City customers: Does Circuit City, in fact, treat its customers better than the other guy?

Stay tuned for answers. And next month, a Shopping Avenger clergy special: TWA screws with a Hasidic rabbi's travel plans, leaving the rabbi's wife crying at the airport. Find out if the Shopping Avenger can save TWA from certain heavenly punishment, in the next episode.

Got a consumer score you want settled? Send e-mail to shoppingavenger@slate.com.