2002 Pulitzer nominee Life Lessons

The Heck with the Little Guy, Let’s Spend Time with Mr. Big

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 5 August 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

Wal-Mart has ruined me for others.

By its clout, it can buy in huge quantities and entice us by passing the savings on to us. As you and I know on our humdrum scale, the giant economy size often is cheaper.

Regular mom-and-pop or father-and-son stores, in fact entire downtowns across the country, say Wal-Mart is killing them.

They’re bankrupting themselves.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. chooses to do what human-sized shops once did: Back the products. There’s no back-talk, no suspicion on merchandise returns. Bringing that receipt makes matters smoother and faster (yes, the stores restrict returns on electronics, automotive and a very few other departments), but they flex to satisfy the customer. The customer is always right.

Wal-Mart makes lots more sales than refunds. It will make money. Kmart and Target make money with similar smiling return rules.

Dillard Department Stores makes money, too. Its refund policy is limited to 30 days, but they mean it. Last fall, the luggage sales clerk was understanding when I returned a suitcase bought two weeks earlier because pretend-packing showed it to be too big.

Lands’ End and similar large mail-order houses allow you to change your mind with efficiency. L.L. Bean exchanged my umbrella six months after I bought it when a wind gust broke it.

The neighborhood office supply of yore infamously overcharged. Its customers were guys using their companies’ money. Why be cost-conscious?

When repetitive computer stress struck my neck a dozen years ago, I set out for ergonomic chairs for work and home. A downtown office supply, in Little Rock, had them starting at $150; its clerk groused how the manufacturer, a trusted old brand, just signed with Sam’s Wholesale Club. Thanks, buddy; see ya’. At Sam’s I bought two for about $85 each. An arm wouldn’t screw on right, and I exchanged it easily.

Last year, I found the perfect satchel for my iBook at Its Internet policy allowed me to return purchases to any Kmart. That prevents having to fork out postage to mail something back. Yet this bag is ideal.

Weeks earlier, I went to a locally owned sporting goods store. The Macintosh iBook is a funny shape. The shopkeeper said I could buy two bags, take them home to try and bring back the one that was too small.

The next morning I returned. Where was the owner? Oh, he ran to the bank, I was told. He’ll be right back. We don’t take refunds. Oh, he said that? I’ve worked here six months, and they’ve never taught me how to run a credit-card credit; you’ll have to wait. I waited 45 minutes and was late to work.

With a week of use, I realized the case would not hold more than the laptop, except pens and a couple of cords and cables. The name-brand bag was inexpensive yet sturdy and hung comfortably on my shoulder. Maybe I could find another use for it rather than take the time and embarrassment of haggling over a return.

The well-padded tote now securely carries my alto, soprano and tenor recorders in their cases, along with book and sheet music an inch thick. Acoustic, not electric!

Why revive these grudges? Because the trend continues.

Four months ago I bought four tires at Sam’s. Week before last, one developed a 3-inch blister in the sidewall; a blowout was imminent. The Sam’s garage replaced it on pro-rated warranty, at 34 percent of the original price. Installed in less than an hour.

Last week, my car hit 60,000 miles. For such occasions I treat cars to service at a dealer. Besides all the usual components of this “major” tune-up, my owner’s manual calls for replacing the timing belt, which is costly.

Dealer A quoted me $300 and Dealer B $375. Both have good reputations, well, for dealer service departments, so the low bid won.

Two hours after it was dropped off, the guy at Dealer A phones to say that for my model the $300 standard tune-up should be $410. Plus an additional $400 for the belt replacement. I tell him to wait.

Would Dealer B have dealt me that? I called. There the belt would be $325 extra, which he, too, should have said when I first called with my model and year.

I had told both garages the year and model. Wouldn’t their computers or binder of estimates have spit back the particulars?

Well, $700 is better than $810. I reported my research to Dealer A’s service rep. He quickly agreed to match Dealer B.

Yet, if I wanted to haggle with dealers, I would have bought a whole damn car.

Wouldn’t you like to favor the “little” guy? So would I. But business is not charity. If they can’t be square, they deserve real competition.

Thank goodness there’s still 142 shopping days until Christmas.


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