My thanks to the estimable Alan Light for bringing both of these to our attention:


You will have so much fun with this. Type a name in at the top (sorry, Thor). But also, just move your mouse around the screen.


Have you ever gotten one of those postcards telling you that you didn’t qualify for a rebate of some kind when you were almost sure you did? This post on Ed Foster’s GripeLog may explain the $500 in Tivo rebates I never got over the years. In part:

. . . [A] reader sent me an actuarial table of sorts that he had received from one of the rebate houses showing the expected percentages of rebates that would be claimed by customers. A $30 rebate on a product retailing for $100, for example, would have a claim rate of 30 percent. A free-after-rebate deal of $50 (a $50 rebate on a $50 product) would be claimed 50 percent of the time, but a $5 rebate on a $5 product only 15 percent of the time. In between those extremes, the average claim rate on the rebate fulfillment house’s table was about 25 percent.

“Now, here’s the interesting part,” the reader wrote. “The rebate fulfillment house will GUARANTEE IN WRITING to the manufacturer that the percentage of rebates claimed as presented in this table will not be exceeded. They will eat the cost if it is.”

Small wonder then that the rebate house sometimes just can’t see that receipt you’re certain you included in the envelope. If they wind up paying the rebates out of their own pocket, it makes sense to just pay off those who scream the loudest. And small wonder the vendors are tempted to offer these magical discounts on their products. If one rebate fulfillment house won’t guarantee to keep your costs low enough, just use a slightly sleazier one that will.

How can we take the bait out of rebates? One way or another, we’ve got to break out of the statistical mold the marketers have pegged us in. If you’re going to play the rebate game, play it for all you’ve got. When you’re not treated fairly, make sure the rebate house, the manufacturer, the store, the FTC, and the GripeLog all get an earful. Better yet, only patronize vendors, stores, and websites that give you a straight price with a real discount. Tiresome though it may be, the best solution is to not take the bait.

One reader of that posting, Arnold Kling, offered a sobering tale of his own. Also in part:

Last month, I bought a laptop at a CompUSA in Rockville, Maryland. I did not know nor care about any mail-in rebates. However, as I was standing at the cash register waiting for the stockboy to bring the box, I was accosted by two salesmen as well as the register clerk, who told me that I was entitled to a lot of free merchandise, because of a special sale that week. The catch was that I would have to pay for the merchandise and then wait for the rebate.

I was wary about this arrangement, but they assured me that the rebate would be easy to get. One of them explained, “Since you’re not buying it off the Internet, you don’t need to send in all that paperwork. You can just send in the form that we print out from the register here.” Eventually, I took the merchandise, which amounted to several hundred dollars in list price, although the value to me was very little (so far, I have only opened one of the boxes, and that was for software for which I already own a license that would have permitted me to make a copy from another computer).

When I got home, I saw that the rebate forms were much more demanding than the sales staff had indicated. In fact, it seemed impossible to comply with the letter of the forms. Each product had two rebate forms, and each form requested the UPC code from the box containing the merchandise. The forms went to separate addresses. I did the best I could, sending the UPC codes to the addresses listed as “manufacturer’s rebate” and not sending them to the addresses listed for the CompUSA rebates, figuring that CompUSA would not dispute my purchase of products at its own store.

So far, I have received denial letters for every single rebate. Even where I enclosed the UPC codes that I painstakingly cut from the boxes, the denial letters allege that documents I enclosed were not in fact enclosed. Other denial letters state requirements for documents that I do not believe were listed on the original rebate form. In fact, when I have phoned the CompUSA rebate center (which apparently handles all of the rebates, even the so-called “manufacturer’s” rebates), they have sometimes given me different reasons for denial than what I received in writing. Clearly, as far as the processing center is concerned, mail-in rebates are mail-un-rebates.

I took the issue up with the customer service staff at the CompUSA, but we reached an impasse. My position is that I qualified for the rebate, and they know it. I mean, if I were to order my credit card company to stop payment, I am sure that CompUSA could come up with what it considers to be convincing documentation that I purchased the products in question. Nonetheless, their position is that I am not in compliance with the terms of the rebate form.

At one point, the store manager “confided” that he does not like the rebate forms, and he blamed the manufacturers for using them. This seemed to me to be quite at variance with the behavior of his staff, who had gone to considerable effort to convince me to take the forms that their supervisor supposedly hated. By this point, I was not taking any statement from a CompUSA employee at face value.

Viewed as a whole, what CompUSA appears to have is a well-oiled machine for foisting unwanted merchandise on consumers and then denying the rebates to which those consumers thought that they were entitled. Based on some brief Internet searches, my sense is that other computer retailers engage in similar practices. However, my impression is that CompUSA’s sales force is the most tightly organized and carefully trained. This makes them more effective than their competitors at exploiting the mail-in rebate, as well as other shady business practices.

My father needs help buying a new computer, and I plan to take him elsewhere. It is not just that I bear a grudge against CompUSA. I am, quite frankly, frightened of how slick they are. The way I look at it, if I go to Best Buy or Office Depot I may run into the occasional amateur sleazebag, and one has to be prepared to deal with that. But CompUSA has real pros. I don’t want to mess with them.

Adding insult to injury is the loss of time. It’s fine to have rebate programs the seller knows many people will not bother with.* But once a buyer does bother, he ought to the heck get his rebate.

The fact that he so often does not could be the stuff of a series of class action lawsuits or government regulators. But isn’t the best route just to shun these time-wasting deals in the first place?

*That way, the seller takes a page out of the airlines’ book, after a fashion: two people may pay different prices for the same seat, which lets the airline sell more seats without having to give everyone the lowest price. In the case of mail-in rebates, those with time to bother with the forms will get a little lower price. Those who value time above money won’t.


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