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We all love a great deal, but it's important to remember that when venturing into the world of third-party retailers — the kinds that sell through Amazon, Buy.com, or eBay — the bargain hunting gets a bit riskier. While you might find a lower price, you might also face a myriad of headaches from fuzzy buyer protection to shoddy customer service.
I learned this the hard way when I let my bargain brain override my consumer common sense cortex. On a quest to find a 3D Blu-ray player, I bought one on eBay from the California-based Lucky 7 Outlet for cheap. It would end up costing me much more in aggravation and frustration after the poorly packed item arrived damaged — and the retailer refused to replace it because they'd since run out of stock. It took me weeks to get my money back, and all my entreaties to Lucky 7 to send out another player, or something similar, fell on deaf ears.
Aside from writing up my first negative feedback report on eBay after more than a decade, I tried to learn from my own foibles. What follows is a list of seven questions to consider before you buy from a third-party merchant, many of which the dealnews editors implement while researching offers. Keep this list handy, and you might be spared unnecessary grief.
The first step to take when assessing the legitimacy of a vendor is searching to see whether or not it has been accredited by the Better Business Bureau. BBB accreditation is based on factors ranging from transparency in business practices to how professionally a company responds to marketplace disputes. But, it doesn't necessarily end there, as some vendors aren't accredited but receive good ratings, like Lucky 7. While a high rating is a plus for a vendor, it's not the be all, end all that legitimizes it. There are several stores that dealnews does not list because of faulty business practices, even though they have a decent rating on BBB.
If there's no BBB profile to fall back on, our editors will look to user reviews to ensure that the vendor is consistently providing excellent service. Typically, we will not list a third-party retailer that doesn't have at least a 90% approval rating with a significant number of reviews within a recent time frame. If thousands of customers have had stellar experiences in the past few months, you're more likely to have a likewise transaction. You can also try searching for the vendor on Reseller Ratings for further feedback.
If it sounds too low and too good to pass up, ask yourself once again who you're dealing with, especially in the case of third-party vendors. The Consumerist ran an item in the summer of 2011 about how Sears mistakenly advertised iPads in its Marketplace via a third-party vendor for $69. "Errors like this occur all too frequently with online vendors," wrote the Consumerist's Phil Villarreal. "But, just like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, online retailers are often not legally obligated to honor a price if it is listed in error." Sure enough, the price wasn't honored, even though Sears itself did issue refunds.
To get a better idea of who you're dealing with, be wary of vague platitudes, and look for concrete statements that tell you exactly what to expect. Will a company go the extra mile to price match, or get you a replacement product when yours arrives damaged? Will they own up to their errors? Customer satisfaction as spelled out on the Lucky 7 Facebook page was vague indeed: "We feel the best price does not mean a lack of service either, we pride ourselves in making sure that every customer is a happy customer." In practice, however, I received this email when I asked for better customer service: "The products we carry on eBay are used items with less then half of the original prices. We are operating at a minimum cost to benefit the people who truly [sic] in need of our services." Huh?
Lucky 7 lists its policy, in part, as follows: "If the same product is unavailable you will receive a replacement with equal specifications or a full refund will be issued." Lucky 7 did indeed refund my money, but given those two options, I didn't expect that they would get to pick which option I'd settle for. If in a similar situation, you would prefer a replacement rather than a refund, it helps to know that the retailer will do whatever it takes to get you one. Research not only the policy, but past user reviews as well to see how the company typically fulfills these promises, especially if there are multiple options without clear priority.
In dealing with third-party vendors, many consumers are surprised to find that returning an item isn't a given, even if the item is undamaged. It's important before you buy from a vendor or store to check on the return policies, especially if you're on the fence about whether the purchase is right for you. Some return policies, for example, might exclude rebate items if you've already filed for the rebate, while others might void a return if the UPC code has been removed from the package. Fairly commonly too, stores will charge a restocking fee of as much as 15%. These are restrictions you should be aware of before making a purchase from any retailer, third party or not.
Especially with anything that's refurbished or open-box, you want to make sure that you're getting a warranty to go with it — one that you don't have to pay for. However, it may sometimes be difficult to discern whether a warranty exists at all on an item, and if it does, who specifically backs it. Lucky 7, for example, includes this head-scratching gem: "Most items include the remaining original manufacturer's warranty up to, but not limited to, 12 months." It goes on to say that, "The remaining manufacturer warranty may vary, please check with manufacture [sic] directly for further details." This confusing, difficult policy is a major red flag.
Companies that go the extra mile to keep transactions smooth offer options such as live chat, or tell you how to reach customer service representatives by phone. Even small third-party vendors should make it easy to contact them either by phone or email. And if you run into repeated bad grammar and hazy product information on the website, consider this a strike: It's the merchant equivalent of stepping out into the marketplace with a mustard-stained tie.
The sad fact is that all of us, at some point, will have a bad consumer experience. But what we all should seek is not vendor perfection, but correction. Once you point out an error, how does the company respond? Does it take the lip service of sympathy and apologies into realm of really making amends?
When a company fails to make up for a miscue, the one way you can vote is with your wallet, and take your business elsewhere for good. But if you ask the proper questions beforehand, and exercise some caution and common sense, you'll likely avoid a fair bit of consumer shock — even as you see just how far the good companies go to get and keep your loyalty.