Beware of Buying from Smaller Online Companies

Almost 10 years ago I made a mistake in judgment that I swore to never repeat. I repeated that mistake recently and it cost me hours of unnecessary stress through phone calls and endless amounts of waiting. That mistake was ordering from a non-major retailer without looking into the company’s reputation (major retailers in my mind include the likes of Amazon, Best Buy, Target, etc.). Bear in mind, I am not calling for readers of this article to completely boycott these companies. I strictly mean that people should not buy from them without at least looking into that company and their history with customers. To make it clear, the mistake wasn’t ordering from a non-major retailer. The mistake was not looking into their complaint history. And I needlessly became a naive consumer for this transaction, costing me many hours of stress.

One of the easiest and best ways of looking into a company before buying from them is to look at their Better Business Bureau rating. You will be able to see a company’s complaint history and a rating assessed to the company. I would take a few minutes to look at what people have said in their complaints and look at the result of the complaint. It’s important to look at the final result because sometimes a business receives a complaint but deals with it properly. Be careful not to dismiss a business too quickly just because they have complaints. There’s a difference between a company having complaints and dealing with complaints. Amazon, being one of the biggest online retailers in the world, probably also has the most amount of complaints by sheer number. But they are also very good at resolving those complaints, even when it means that they lose some money. So a company that deals with complaints should be distinguished from one that simply has a lot of complaints but doesn’t deal with them well.

I want to take a moment to touch on how to consider the legitimacy of complaints. The main thing you want to look for when looking at Better Business Bureau (BBB) complaints for a particular company is the way in which the customer claims the business handled their transaction. I choose to believe the main ideas of the stories that customers tell about a business in their complaint with perhaps only a tiny grain of salt. The reason why I choose to believe them is because when a customer complains, I have to believe that they would not go through the trouble of going through the process with the BBB if it was something that they personally felt responsible for or if it was a minor issue. Consumers file complaints when there’s a problem. Now, to be sure, I am sure that there are going to be some particularly livid customers who over-exaggerate a problem. But since the BBB investigates claims made against a business and then determines if the business has done their part to resolve the supposed complaint from the customer, I have to err towards the idea that there are very few “fake” complaints on the BBB’s website.

In the case that happened 10 years ago to me, I was simply buying a DVD from a non-major retailer because the price on Amazon was more expensive than the price that was listed on this smaller website that I found through Google Products (a now defunct service). I did no research into the company. I trusted that my order would go well regardless. Well, when that DVD that I purchased didn’t come in a timely manner, I requested a refund. They didn’t have a phone number, so I e-mailed them. Instead of responding to my e-mail, they shipped the product anyways. Even after shipping the product, they never responded to my original e-mail. I felt ignored.

The BBB determined in the end that the business was more in the right than I was, because the business quoted their policy in their formal response to my complaint, stating that pre-ordered DVDs were not guaranteed to ship on a particular day nor arrive by a certain day. It was listed on the BBB’s website that the consumer (me) was not satisfied with the result, despite that the business had tried to resolve the issue. From my perspective, I didn’t believe that they had tried to solve the issue, because I think it was clear that they never even acknowledged my request for a refund, nor apologized for just shipping the product without contacting me. They told the BBB that they didn’t see my e-mail until after the product was shipped. Even if this is true, there was no excuse for them to not at least respond to my e-mail, even after the fact. From my perspective, I was ignored, and they had shown me that they had no interest in communicating. So, I filed a complaint.

This company had no record with the BBB before, so my complaint opened a record on the company. In the next couple of years, they received two more complaints. These two complaints went completely ignored by the company. So, the BBB declared those cases as the customers being in the right. It turns out that this business closed a couple of years later. I don’t wish for a business to close because of my one bad experience. More than anything, it was likely due to the likes of Amazon and Best Buy that made it so that consumers would feel more comfortable buying from these major websites.

I chose that smaller website 10 years ago, but I didn’t need to. I could have purchased that DVD from a bigger retailer. This is all good and well, but what if you need a product that isn’t sold on major websites? That’s where my recent story comes in. I don’t want to give details to protect my privacy, so I won’t list the company nor the specific product. This product is a sports-related item that was a specific size and style and was difficult to find. For these kinds of sports products, there weren’t major retailers that sold it; just bigger and smaller “mom-and-pop” stores. I am all for supporting small businesses, and this particular website had it for a reasonable price for what this product was. I bought the item, and I was charged the next day. I assumed this meant it was either shipped or just about to be shipped. This was not the case, and while I was not in a rush to receive the item, I was curious where it was. I knew that I needed to contact them to see what was going on.

The fatal mistake was not looking at their BBB record. It turns out the BBB gave this company a D+. I absolutely would have avoided this company had I known this beforehand. The complaints themselves told stories of short-tempered customer service staff on the other end of the phone, customers never receiving products and sometimes complaints contained both issues. The idea of talking with an angry staff member, frankly, intimidated me, so I made sure to be extra polite when I called them. After three times of calling them over a period of 5 weeks with no response on an estimated shipping date, I opened a dispute with the company who issued my credit card. The purchase was removed from my card only a few days later by my credit card issuer. The company that I purchased the item from still had several weeks to provide evidence that they had shipped it, if they wished to receive money for it. They never did. I got my money back, but only after a lot of time spent on the phone and through e-mails. It was all unnecessary stress and wasted time.

In the end, when you purchase online, you are essentially swiping your credit card without having received a thing at that point. That is the nature of buying online, and while it is considered an industry standard to charge a credit card after a product is shipped, one should be on alert if they are charged for an order before it is actually shipped. Surely, if I was able to physically go into their brick and mortar store to purchase an item, swiping my card or giving cash for something that they didn’t have in stock would be a ridiculous thing to do. It would have been the business’ duty to procure the item first. Perhaps they would have given me a call once they had the product, if they wanted to try to make the sale with me.

I am not out to smear a business, which is why I won’t say what business I dealt with. I know that some people who deal with this particular business will wish that I had said it by name so as to warn them not to buy from them. But if you take the extra step of checking a business’s BBB rating and read about what customers have said about them, you’ll find that you’ll be equipped to know what businesses not to buy from. Taking just five minutes to do this before placing an order may save you the kind of hassle I had to deal with for weeks. Check a company out, be informed and purchase wisely and stress-free!

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