DennisBeaverOctober 21, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

When Cynthia Dias and her fiance, Troy Nunnelee, went out shopping for a new stove in late June, they had no idea that within a matter of weeks the promises made to America by one of its oldest and most respected companies would be tested. But that’s precisely what happened.

When we open our newspaper and spot an ad in which the words “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back,” or “free delivery,” appear, most of us probably think, “OK, so what else is new? What’s so special about that?”

However, there was a time when getting a refund was nearly impossible, and customers always paid delivery charges. And then, something happened to change all of that, beginning with a help wanted ad 22 -year-old Alvah spotted in the Chicago Daily News:

“Wanted, watchmaker with references who can furnish tools. State age, experience and salary required.”

The ad was placed by Richard, a “born salesman,” who realized the profit potential in repairs and sales of clocks and watches.

Alvah impressed Richard, and the two formed a partnership. Within a few years, most of their business wasn’t from walk-in customers, but from catalogue sales of timepieces. Soon, general merchandise was added to the catalogue. It was a marketing decision which had an impact on American business felt even today.

What had started out as a small, two man operation in 1893 became the world’s largest retailer. Catalogue sales made it possible for rural Americans to buy products which were only available in large cities, and buy them at reasonable prices. More than freedom of choice, when customers knew they could obtain a refund and didn’t have to pay for delivery, they would keep that catalogue in a safe place, usually right next to their Bible.

It was Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck who established that little company in the late 1800s. Sears and Roebuck earned the trust and respect of an entire nation.

But with any large organization, there can be rough moments. Sears is no exception.

“Getting older isn’t what it’s all cracked up to be,” Cynthia Dias wrote in her first e-mail to me. The Lemoore resident explained that she will soon require knee replacement surgery, and that bending or stooping is extremely painful. That issue would prove significant.

“My old stove needed replacement, and so with my fiance, Troy, I went to the Sears store in Hanford to find a new one. Several things were important, perhaps the most critical was location of the broiler. It could not be on the bottom of the oven, since it is extremely painful for me to bend down,” she wrote.

“Jim – the appliance department salesman – showed us stoves with a number of fancy options, such as programmable cooking,” she added. “I explained that I just needed a simple, self-cleaning oven with the broiler in the center, not in the bottom.

“He took us to the stove which met our needs, and did not try to oversell us. That was impressive. As we had looked at a number of stoves, Jim verified the model number of the one we wanted, and both I and Troy asked again if he was sure we were getting a self-cleaning oven with the broiler in the top section. He assured us that we were. Delivery was scheduled in a few days.

“As I had to be out of town on business, my 31-year-old son was at home when the stove was installed on July 9,” she explained.

“Sears also took our old stove away, which we appreciated,” Cynthia added.

However, returning home on July 12, in examining her new oven, she first discovered that it lacked the self-cleaning feature, and then realized, “The broiler was located on the bottom, precisely where it wasn’t supposed to be.”

She immediately phoned the store, leaving a message for Jim.

Thus began the kind of hassle that was, in my opinion, both completely predictable and avoidable. At times, “policy” can get in the way of common sense. That’s what happened until Cynthia contacted You and the Law.

“Instead of just exchanging stoves — at no additional cost — Sears policy was that either I could purchase a floor sample with the features I wanted, or place an order for the oven that I was supposed to get in the first place. But I would have to pay $200 more and it just didn’t seem fair,” she maintained. “I would also have to pay for a second propane connection charge with a new oven,” she pointed out.

In examining details of the sale, somehow the wrong item number got onto Cynthia’s order. But, as Sears Spokesperson Dana Shoulders told me, “in all fairness to the salesman, he thought they selected the stove which was in fact delivered. Also, if she was home when it was delivered, we would not be in this situation today. That’s why we recommend our customers be home when appliances are delivered,” she added.

That point was well taken. Cynthia should have been home, or at least instructed her son to verify the broiler’s position, as it was so important.

Getting both my reader and Dana Shoulders on a conference call, and singing the first stanza of “home, home on the range,” I said, “Let’s just forget about fault. Each of you pays half the cost increase for a new stove, no charge for delivery and credit for Cynthia’s additional propane hook-up charges. Sears keeps a customer, Cynthia gets the oven she needs, and if you don’t agree, I’ll keep on singing.”

Her new stove is working fine and a batch of Oatmeal cookies is due in my office any day.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.