Some small business survival tips

27 Oct

While this column is normally aimed at consumers, many of you are also small business owners – like me. As the owner of a downtown storefront and an ecommerce web site, I receive all kinds of sales pitches from vendors – some of them legitimate, others not so much. So this week, I offer some tips for you small business operators, including a scam alert, a rip-off service fee and a great office rental alternative. I expect regular folk will be interested in this as well.

Scam alerts

Last week, I received a call from ABC Marketing Solutions, advising that advertising space was available in a new, glossy magazine to be distributed at four golf courses in the St. John’s area. The magazine would target “high income, upscale households that appreciate and are willing to pay for quality products and services.” And the rates were quite reasonable, at $300 for a quarter-page to $700 for full.

However, my gut told me something was wrong. A quick Internet search showed several complaints about the company, but this is not conclusive. I sent an email to the four golf clubs named in the letter – Admiral’s Green, Bally Haly, Clovelly and GlenDenning – to ask if they had agreed to distribute the magazine. Three of them replied. None had ever heard of ABC Marketing, let alone agreed to circulate the magazine. “I just did a quick Google on it and your gut is right,” said one of the golf course reps. “It appears to be a scam marketing company.”

If you get a call from this company, I advise you to hang up with extreme prejudice.

Also, a short note about another sketchy crowd. A while back, I signed up for online advertising with Yellow Pages, which feeds geographic information to Google searches (and is a legitimate, useful service). Several weeks later, I received a call from “Global Tech,” offering to elevate search results for my business to the top ranking in Google. It was not a random call – they were using my web site for background information and the wording sounded similar to conversations I had had with the Yellow Pages people. However, when they said that I “pre-qualified” for the service and would now be transferred to a sales rep to discuss “available packages” I realized they were scammers, and hung up abruptly. A search revealed that Global Tech is infamous across the web as a company that indulges in a variety of scams. If you receive a call from them, hang up immediately.

Freaky fee

Since launching my web site in 2007, I’ve been using the services of Moneris for online credit card processing. Last year, while developing a completely new site, I cast about for alternatives to Moneris (which is operated by Royal Bank of Canada). I discovered that Elavon, a service of Costco, charged substantially less than Moneris. I decided to make the switch.

This is when I discovered the bank fee to end all bank fees. At first, Moneris fought to keep my business – and fair enough – by offering more competitive rates. But when I formally advised them that I was moving on, I was told that a cancellation fee of $300 would be levied.

That’s right: three hundred dollars. To cancel an account that had been active for seven years. When I protested, the attendant advised me that Elavon’s cancellation fee was even higher, and I’d better ask about that before switching. A quick check, however, revealed that she was wrong – Elavon has no cancellation fee. None at all. But when advised of her error, the Moneris rep was unrepentant: the $300 would be charged.

By making it so expensive to cancel, Moneris is hoping that I will keep my business where it is. That, however, is a blatantly unfair tactic that frankly should be outlawed. It’s ridiculous and unacceptable. The best way to avoid this skulduggery, of course, is to give Moneris a pass because there are far more options out there now than there were in 2007.

Finding Common Ground

I used to joke that there are three challenges to working at home: the couch, the fridge and the TV. And while there are big advantages to a home-based business, most owners will eventually outgrow the basement and require a dedicated space of their own. Now there is an alternative that makes that transition both affordable and enjoyable. It’s Common Ground, a non-profit organization that offers comprehensive office services and more for small businesses and start-ups, for a nominal membership fee.

“Common Ground provides a fresh, community-based alternative to the way we ‘go to work’ in St. John’s,” said Executive Director, Jennifer Smith, in an email interview. “As a non-profit, social enterprise, Common Ground attracts a wide variety of people working independently on their projects and businesses in a shared, open-concept work environment. Common Ground is a hub for entrepreneurs, non-profits, freelancers, artists, remote workers and anyone looking for the freedom to work the way they want in a professional, fully-equipped space. For $250 per month members gain 24/7 access to desks, reliable wifi, meeting rooms, kitchen facilities, locker storage, unlimited coffee, a mailbox and the most exciting coworkers in the city!”

Smith added that Common Ground has done well in renting its private office space. “Our focus now is getting the word out there to people who are working from home, in coffee shops, traveling to St. John’s for business. We also have a $75 rate that’s great for those looking to work from a co-working space once a week.”

To find out more, visit



Homemade cleaners that really work

13 Oct

By Geoff Meeker

October 13, 2014 – Regular readers of this column must think I’m a rampant consumer, on a perpetual buying binge for the latest appliance or technology bling.

And there may be some truth to that.

Not always, though. I’m also about finding the bargain and spending sensibly. So today’s column is about buying less, saving money and minimizing our impact on the environment. Because too often, we purchase household products that we could easily make ourselves; things that work as effectively as commercial preparations but with fewer, cheaper ingredients and virtually no toxic chemicals.

I have been reading stories on the Internet lately about these homemade concoctions. The younger folk call them “life hacks” while those of a more seasoned age might know them as Hints From Heloise.

This week I tried some of those hacks for myself – using only ingredients that are commonly found in the cupboard or pantry – beginning with an incredibly effective bug killer.

Wasp Whacker

When a wasp finds its way inside the home or office, my first course of action is to open a door and try to coax it back out. When that doesn’t work, extermination is usually Plan B. But any commercial bug killer that I’ve ever used doesn’t knock down the wasp right away – it just infuriates the insect, which then flies around in a blind rage before dying a slow death 10 minutes later. Years ago, I discovered a bug killer recipe that actually works better, costs less and doesn’t leave a cloud of noxious chemicals drifting about the house. In a spray bottle, combine two parts white vinegar with one part liquid dish detergent, then shake to mix. Wait for wasp to land on your window (to avoid getting the stuff on your food or upholstery) and hit it with one good spray. It will drop instantly and die within 20 seconds. This blend works equally well on other insects, including earwigs and house flies.

Drain cleaner

Have you ever noticed an objectionable odour rising from the sink, or water draining too slowly? Don’t reach for those brand names, with their powerful and highly toxic chemicals (which a plumber friend told me can actually corrode your plumbing). Instead, pour a cupful of baking soda down the drain, followed immediately with a cup of white vinegar. Plug the drain to force the bubbling action downward. Let the solution bubble away down there for at least 30 minutes. If the smell is particularly bad or the drain severely blocked, let it sit overnight. Then open the drain and let hot water flow for one full minute. Do this procedure once every two weeks to keep it clean and clear. This really worked for me – odours were eliminated and water drained more quickly.

No, this is not a solar eclipse (above). It’s an apple placed on the glass shelf of my fridge, to block the point source of light and better reveal the accumulated sludge. In the photo below, the shelf is completely clean thanks to a homemade solution of baking soda and water.

No, this is not a solar eclipse (above). It’s an apple placed on the glass shelf of my fridge, to block the point source of light and better reveal the accumulated sludge. In the photo below, the shelf is completely clean thanks to a homemade solution of baking soda and water.

ConsumerTech #179-pic 2

Kitchen cleaner

To clean counter tops, appliances and inside the refrigerator, combine four tbsp. of baking soda with four cups of warm water. (Actually, I used five tbsp. because the box had been open for a while.) This solution did a surprisingly good job cleaning inside the fridge, where the glass shelves were coated in a veneer of unidentified food spatters (check photos to see what I mean). They came clean in just a few wipes; much more quickly and effectively than water alone could achieve. I then used the solution on the sidewall beside the dishwasher door, where water doesn’t reach and food droppings are dried on like glue. Again, the guck was gone in just a few wipes. This stuff really does the job. However, I recommend buffing all cleaned areas with a damp paper towel to remove any baking soda residue.

Window cleaner

In a spray bottle, add four parts water and one part white vinegar, with 3 drops of liquid dish soap per cup of liquid. Shake, then use. I tried this on the kitchen window above the sink – a location that attracts spots the way my dog attracts sticky burrs – and it worked like a charm. Highly recommended.

Water flowed with greater force through this showerhead, thanks to a soak in pure vinegar. I had to improvise a means to keep the bag tight against the showerhead, because of its 9" diameter.

Water flowed with greater force through this showerhead, thanks to a soak in pure vinegar. I had to improvise a means to keep the bag tight against the showerhead, because of its 9″ diameter.

Shower head cleaner

Is your showerhead starting to plug up with hard water deposits? If so, place a cup or more of vinegar in a plastic bag and secure it around the head with an elastic band. Let it soak for an hour or so, making sure that the little holes are fully submerged. The vinegar will dissolve the deposits and get the shower flowing at full force. I own a Thunderhead showerhead which is as wide as a small plate so I improvised a method to secure the bag in place using a sheet of cardboard and four elastic bands. It did seem to work nicely for me, with a noticeably stronger flow of water on my next shower.

In a future column, I will research other household cleaners that call for slightly more exotic ingredients, the kind that require a trip to the hardware or natural products store. In the meantime, do you have any homemade concoctions that work exceptionally well? If so, please drop me a note (geoffmeeker(at) and I will compile some in a future column.

Price of 4K TV continues to drop; great buys to be had on plasma

29 Sep
The imminent death of plasma means prices are dropping into the basement. This 60" Samsung Smart TV (with 3D) can now be owned for $999.

The imminent death of plasma means prices are dropping into the basement. This 60″ Samsung Smart TV (with 3D) can now be owned for $999.

By Geoff Meeker

September 29, 2014 – What did I say? In my previous column about 4K high resolution TV, I suggested checking out the new technology at a relaxed pace because the price is going nowhere but down.

But even I didn’t expect it to drop this quickly. Last week, I touched base with David Budden at West End Electronics, who informed me that the price of the 65” 4K Panasonic will drop, from $4000 last week to less than $3000 on October 3 (the price will be $3300 with taxes in).

In case you missed it, I was completely blown away by the 65” 4K. It’s sharper than words can describe but, as noted in the review, is really most effective on larger screens. That is, the naked eye probably won’t discern the difference between regular 1080p and 4K on a screen of 50” or less – so there is no need to scrap your current set!

However, the October 3 price drop will make 4K that much more attractive for anyone who is currently in the market for a big widescreen TV. Be sure to see it for yourself before making a purchasing decision (and read my previous review to fully understand some of the challenges presented by 4K).

In case there was any question about whether 4K is here to stay, consider this: it has already caused the demise of plasma TV.

Yes, you can still buy them – and for some incredible prices, as you will soon see – but the days of plasma TV are suddenly numbered.

“What’s happening is, manufacturers cannot make a 4k plasma panel,” Budden explained. “The technology doesn’t allow it. The 4K technology makes the others obsolete… if you can’t make a 4k panel.”

Budden was quick to add that there is otherwise nothing wrong with plasma TV.

“We were certainly very large proponents of it ourselves. Almost everybody who works in the store owns a plasma TV, but the reality is if you can’t adjust to the new technology you’re going to disappear and that’s what is happening. Panasonic ended production of plasma last fall and Samsung will end their production in November of this year. That leaves one other brand, LG, that we don’t represent and I don’t know what their plans are. But if the two major players leave the market you can pretty much figure out what’s going to happen.”

This may be bad news for plasma manufacturers but if you’re in the market for a new TV it’s cause for celebration, because prices on plasma are going into nosedive.

According to Budden, you can now purchase a 60” Samsung plasma smart TV – with 3D, no less – for just $999.

“That’s a ridiculous bargain. We sold everything we had last week after the price drop and have more coming now and apparently it’s going to stay at that price until they run out of inventory. If somebody needed to replace a TV now and they’re not prepared to make the jump to 4K, it’s an extremely attractive bargain, even compared to a 60 inch LED, which is closer to 2 grand for a good one… I would have no qualms recommending or owning a plasma myself. I do own one, and have for a number of years.”

These prices are not unique to West End Electronics. Check out the web sites of Future Shop, Best Buy and other electronics retailers and you will find similar price cuts across the board. There could be future price drops but bear in mind that inventory is limited.

Incidentally, the picture quality of plasma is considered by many to be superior to that of LED, with more accurate colour, better contrast, darker blacks and wider viewing angles.

Is it risky to purchase a sunset technology? Will there be parts and service available if a unit breaks down? Yes, according to the July edition of Consumer Reports magazine.

“The question… asked most frequently is whether someone buying a plasma TV this year should be nervous that they won’t be able to get the set repaired if something breaks,” wrote James Willcox. “Thankfully, TVs from major brands have been very reliable according to our annual surveys. And Samsung and LG are major brands that will continue to back up their sets with parts and service.”

So much to consider! I will soon be in the market for a new TV and must say, I’ve got my eye on that plasma. It would serve me well while I wait for broadcasters to catch up – and prices to fall further – on 4K.



New 4K TV format puts HD to shame

15 Sep

By Geoff Meeker

September 15, 2014 – A new TV format is competing for viewers’ eyeballs and is already positioned to become the new industry standard.

That’s right – now that the industry has updated its technology to high definition (HD), along comes the new 4K format (also known as Ultra HD).

The HD format gets its clarity from a screen resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels. The new format has a resolution of 3840 by 2160 – which is why they round it up to 4K.

I ignored the 4K TVs when they debuted last year because the $6500 price for a 65-inch screen was silly. This year, the TV is already into a second-generation screen and the price has dropped dramatically, to $4000 for a 65-inch screen. You will certainly pay less than that for an LCD of the same size but, still, the price point is more attractive for early adopters. And you can expect additional price drops in future.

Okay, I can see you there, sputtering and fuming about yet another TV format, now that you’ve got your home theatre set-up just where you want it. The good news is, if your display is 50 inches or smaller you need do nothing – your current TV is just fine.

The better news is, if you want crystal-clear detail on an even larger screen, you’re going to love 4K.

I dropped by West End Electronics last week to see this technology for myself. Sales Manager, David Budden demonstrated the Panasonic 4K with a massive 65-inch display. I was, in a word, dazzled. Budden played some demo video that was recorded in 4K format and the sharpness of detail was almost unbelievable – superlative, even.

It’s pretty much impossible to show you this in newsprint, but I think I’ve found a way to give you an idea of the screen’s sharpness. First, we froze the action from a soccer game and I photographed the full screen while standing at a distance. Then I moved in as close as my lens would allow and captured a small section of the screen.

Check out the pictures. Do you see what I mean? Even this close, the pixels are almost indistinguishable.

It’s difficult to convey the sharpness of 4K TV without the benefit of 4K itself. However, when you freeze the full screen (above) and then zoom in on one small section of the picture (below, to the immediate left of the goal post), the clarity and detail are apparent.

It’s difficult to convey the sharpness of 4K TV without the benefit of 4K itself. However, when you freeze the full screen (above) and then zoom in on one small section of the picture (below, to the immediate left of the goal post), the clarity and detail are apparent.

ConsumerTech # 177-Photo 2 lo res

Yes, it’s impressive – but this doesn’t mean that your LED and plasma screens are suddenly obsolete.

“My thinking is that 4K is going to be better in the larger screen sizes,” Budden said. “I don’t see much point in owning a 40- or 50-inch 4K TV because the pixels are so close together, you aren’t going to see any improvement. On the bigger sets, it becomes way more important and much more noticeable.”

True fact. From normal viewing distance, the naked eye probably won’t discern the difference between HD and 4K – your old set is just fine – but on a larger screen, the clarity is astounding.

Should you run out and get a 4K set? Not yet, unless you’ve got money to burn and really want that large screen now.

For one thing, the price is going to continue to drop as the technology becomes established.

For another, there is the matter of content. Right now, there are no networks broadcasting in 4K, though Netflix does have some 4K programming.

“Netflix can detect if your TV is 4K and will automatically show you its 4K menu,” Budden said. “Some TVs have Netflix built in and this Panasonic 4K has a Netflix button on the remote! There are some 4K channels on YouTube… There will be a 4k Blu-ray player next year that will play native 4K, for the best picture quality you can get.”

The 4K Panasonic is a smart TV with all the bells and whistles, including wifi, but it also up-converts standard HD signals to 4K by adding extra pixels to match the surrounding imagery, and the results can be quite impressive. There is no need to hold back on purchasing a 4K due to lack of content. Bandwidth, however, is another matter.

“To stream 4K properly they say you’ll need (download speeds of) 25 MB per second,” Budden said. “A lot of people do not have that. And if there is a cap on your usage, you will pay big for bandwidth.”

Bottom line: check out the new 4K technology at your own pace. It’s here to stay and the price is going nowhere but down.


Will this wallet really slim your profile?

18 Aug

August 18, 2014 – Facebook uses some pretty far-reaching – some might say invasive – means to target its advertising to your interests, but there is no way they could have known that I need a new wallet.

I was surprised then, when an ad for Bellroy slim wallets popped up during June in my news feed. The ad promised to take my wallet from bulky to thin, while holding the same amount of cash and credit cards.

“Bellroy exists to slim your wallet,” says their promotional blurb. “Rather than bulging pockets and bulky design, our leather wallets are more efficient, have better access, better protection, and even a little old school craft.”

I pulled out my old wallet, which is really just a credit card sleeve that became a wallet by default when I stuffed the middle with money, postal receipts and bank machine print-outs, creating a kind of leather sandwich. It was old, threadbare and thicker than a Saturday newspaper in December.

On a whim, I sent Bellroy an email, asking if they’d be willing to send me a demo wallet. I suggested the Hide & Seek model, which was mid-priced ($94) but promised to solve my bulkiness issues. I proposed a comparison with my old wallet, to compare the thickness of each when filled with the same contents. They agreed, and the wallet arrived in August.

It was elegantly packaged in a cardboard sleeve, wrapped in a sheaf of tissue. It has the rich smell of leather and appears to be well made, but what do I know about that? I took it to the experts at Modern Shoe Hospital, who handle a lot of leather every day, and the verdict was positive: it’s made of quality leather that is doubled over at the seams – which appear to be well-stitched – and nylon liners inside for extra strength. In fact, there is an extra layer of nylon inside that is hidden under a leather flap, creating a hidden space to stash away bigger bills.

There are three single-card slots on the right side for cards we use every day, plus two slots on the left for lesser-used cards. There is a second pocket hidden under a leather flap to stash away bigger bills. And that’s it – the wallet is clean and simple in its design.

Thus began the test. First I measured the thickness of my old wallet – on my homemade measuring stand – while it was stuffed full. It was 1.5” thick.

Stuffed full of cards, bills and receipts, my old wallet measured 1.5" thick.

Stuffed full of cards, bills and receipts, my old wallet measured 1.5″ thick.

Emptying that old wallet was an archaeological dig through my credit card history, yielding 12 plastic cards, two folded pieces of note paper, a post office receipt and two $20 bills.

Then I inserted everything into the new Bellroy. I liked how easily the cards slid into the single-card pockets, and then how snugly it held them in place. The remaining cards fit nicely into the bulk-card pockets on the other side, with room to spare. When I measured, it was 1.25” thick – thinner than my old wallet but nonetheless not as slim as I expected.

The same contents slipped more tidily into the Bellroy, resulting in a wallet that was slimmer by 1/4".

The same contents slipped more tidily into the Bellroy, resulting in a wallet that was slimmer by 1/4″.

I decided to remove the paper bills and postal receipt, which seemed to be plumping up the old wallet more than the new. This time, with cards only, the old wallet measured 1.25” full while the Bellroy was just a shade over 1” thick.

I tried the same test, this time removing the bills and postal receipts, which seemed to be plumping up the old wallet. It now measured 1.25" thick.

I tried the same test, this time removing the bills and postal receipts, which seemed to be plumping up the old wallet. It now measured 1.25″ thick.

Containing the exact same contents, the new Bellroy wallet was still a quarter-inch slimmer. (Geoff Meeker photos)

Containing the exact same contents, the new Bellroy wallet was still a quarter-inch slimmer. (Geoff Meeker photos)

Okay, so the Bellroy is thinner. But not miraculously so. I was somewhat disappointed at first, until I realized that my old wallet was worn wafer-thin and completely limp, while the new one had the density and tension of new leather. Over time, pocket erosion will soften it, allowing the wallet to close more snugly and bend more easily.

Also, I think Bellroy slightly oversells the slimming effect of its wallet. Make no mistake, it is designed to be as thin as possible and they succeed in this endeavor. However, credit cards have a certain thickness. If you stack them 12 high, that’s a pretty thick pile. No matter how well-designed the wallet, physics demand that it will thicken in direct correlation to the number of cards inserted. No amount of secret pockets can make the cards actually disappear.

That said, the wallet is slimmer by a noticeable quarter-inch and I like how it feels in my pocket. The cards are organized in a way that saves several seconds of fumbling about every time I need them, and the quality materials and workmanship are there. And there is the clear advantage of having a pocket to slip those bills and receipts into, rather than clumping them loosely in a card sleeve.

The Bellroy Hide & Seek is definitely a keeper.

To browse the Bellroy line and view some helpful, 50-second videos about each product, go to

Is a high-end barbecue worth the investment?

4 Aug
At $1400, the Napoleon Prestige 500 propane grill should be an investment for the long term.

At $1400, the Napoleon Prestige 500 propane grill should be an investment for the long term.

By Geoff Meeker

August 4, 2014 – I’ve written about barbecues several times in recent years, the last time in November 2013 when I expressed disappointment with the Nexgrill portable. It functioned okay but required constant watching due to flareups caused by the scant distance between cooking grid and burner.

I have owned a number of grills priced from $120 to $500 and they all developed problems within a year or so. I got to wondering: does it really matter how much we spend on a barbecue? Will an expensive unit last appreciably longer than a cheap one in our harsh climate?

I decided it was time to find out. Five weeks ago, I took the beef by the horns and purchased a new Napoleon Prestige 500 propane grill ($1400 at Venture Vacuum).

Yes, that’s a lot of change. But I was sold first and foremost by the warranty, which is really quite impressive. The stainless steel body components have a lifetime warranty (the nearest competitor offers 25 years) and the stainless steel tube burners have a 10-year warranty, plus an additional five in which the parts can be purchased for half price. According to Napoleon, their warranties meet or beat those of the competition.

I have seen two barbecue drums actually disintegrate and most have required a new burner every year, so this warranty offers substantial peace of mind.

Also, the barbecue has an infrared side burner, something I have written about previously but never seen in action.

As well, it didn’t hurt that the company offered a free accessories promotion at time of purchase, including a pizza stone and cutter, cast iron charcoal pan and smoker, a wooden cutting board with stainless steel bowls, and a three-piece set of utensils. On top of that, the rotisserie and motor are included as standard equipment.

Finally, the product is made in Barrie, Ontario and it’s nice to support a Canadian manufacturer.

So, what is this infrared side burner all about? In a nutshell, the propane is fired through a ceramic plate with small holes that concentrate the flame, making for a much hotter fire while consuming less fuel. Infrared is used mainly to sear steaks and other cuts of meat before moving them to the main burner, creating that restaurant-style taste on the outside while sealing the juices inside.

The infrared side burner does a stellar job searing steaks, but it does involve a learning curve. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The infrared side burner does a stellar job searing steaks, but it does involve a learning curve. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The side burner can also be used for boiling and frying, an important detail as winter approaches and we ponder the possibility of another Dark NL (whether caused by storms, fires, neglected equipment or errant crows). I do intend to use the barbecue year-round (I purchased a fitted cover for $40) and in the event of a blackout it will do nicely as an outdoor kitchen.

I have used the infrared burner several times to sear steak but there is definitely a learning curve attached to this. Most came out fine but at least one steak was so badly burned on the outside that it was ruined. There are three factors to consider when using infrared – cooking time, the changeable height of the grill, and the level of gas used on the adjustable controller. I know that the feature works and the results can be spectacular – I just need to fine-tune the process.

There is also a rear rotisserie burner that puts out a lot of heat – so much that you need to use it with care. I almost ruined two whole chickens by setting the rear burner on high and leaving it for five minutes. When I lifted the lid, the birds had been severely tanned. I salvaged supper by turning the burner way down and cooking more slowly but, again, there’s that learning curve.

The ignition system for the four main burners is impressive indeed. I’ve never seen anything like it. Most self-lighting burners send out that clicking little spark when you turn the gas on. Not this baby. It has a small pre-burner that shoots a small flame across the main burner, lighting it reliably every time – even in wind. How long it lasts is another question, but it’s something I’ll be watching closely.

Speaking of wind, this is the first barbecue I’ve seen that is impervious to it. It has a back wall so that heat doesn’t get sucked out through the hinge area. It is vented, of course, but baffled so nicely that air can get in and smoke can escape without winds putting out the fire or sucking out the heat. In a breezy place like Newfoundland, this is a small miracle.

My first impressions of the barbecue are quite favourable. However, I have not had an opportunity to use all the features, let alone use them properly. I have still to try the charcoal insert and smoker tray, and haven’t barbecued a whole turkey yet. And I intend to purchase some optional accessories that further enhance the grilling process.

I will provide an update once I’ve come to know the Napoleon better, and will keep a close eye on its performance – and perseverance – through our brutal winters.

More issues with appliances, warranties

21 Jul

By Geoff Meeker

July 21, 2014 – After my recent columns about shoddy appliances, the feedback kept coming in. There’s been so much that I could easily compose another column or two but today I will focus on a startling admission from Sears, about how appliances just don’t last the way they should, plus a new issue with extended warranties.

After reading my column, Phil Kirby wrote about his own experience with Sears Kenmore appliances.

“I bought a fridge, stove, dishwasher and microwave from Sears about five years ago,” Kirby wrote. “The dishwasher had some minor problems, the microwave is okay but the fridge and stove are definitely poor quality. I contacted Sears about the problem – the response is included at the end my email.”

Kirby went into detail about the minor and major issues that plagued his appliances – it has a telling ring of familiarity to it – but most telling is the response he received from ‘Kristine’ at Sears Home Services who wrote:

“I am sorry to hear that you are experiencing repair issues with your appliances.  As a consumer myself I can understand how these issues would become very frustrating for you… However the appliances that are manufactured now only have a life expectancy of about 10 years as these products are not made like they used to be. This is just not with Kenmore, all manufacturers only provide a 10 year life expectancy on major appliances. And this is why Sears does recommend to our customers to purchase extended warranties to cover these unexpected repair costs… I sincerely apologize but at this point Sears will not be covering any repair costs or be providing you with replacement appliances as again neither item is covered under warranty. Thank you and Merry Christmas to you and your Family.”

In case there was any doubt about deteriorating appliance quality, you now have it directly from a manufacturer’s mouth, from a brand that once was regarded as solid and reliable. And if they freely admit to 10 years being the maximum life, what is the actual number? Based on feedback I’ve received, more like five to seven years – or less.

And what about those extended warranties? I say, tread carefully here as well. I have no regrets about the extra coverage I purchased on my Whirlpool washer and dryer combo – without it, my laundry room would be cluttered right now with an expensive piece of trash – but not all extended warranties are the same.

More than ever, you have to read the fine print and ask some pointed questions. Last week, an acquaintance of mine vented on Facebook about the extended warranty he purchased on his Sears appliance.

“Three years ago I bought a dishwasher from Sears,” Shane Kelly said. “I like Kenmore appliances and they have always held up well, so I refused the maintenance agreement at the point of sale. A few weeks later I was contacted and offered the agreement again and was told if I did not have any service calls I would get a refund for the full amount. I figured, well, that’s pretty reasonable… so I said yes… Three years go by, no service calls and I call Sears looking for my refund. I am told it is not a refund, but store credit. Fine, I figure I’ll buy some tools. Except I’m told I have to apply it to a purchase that is at least twice the value of my credit in one transaction. And the credit cannot be used to purchase electronics, Sears home services, Sears travel, anything on or purchases through the Sears catalog. I protest and am told it is all in my contract. Yes, the fine print is there if you read the whole thing looking for said information, but that is not how it was sold to me at all! So I have to spend another $140 to get the worth of my $140 coupon. Oh, one more thing: it expires 90 days from the end of the maintenance agreement, which means seven weeks from today.”

Kelly is correct to be ticked off about that. The description of a “full refund” at point of sale bears absolutely no resemblance to the fine print they throw in your face at redemption time. It may be legal, but it is deceptive and unethical. (Incidentally, a quick Internet search reveals that Shane Kelly is not alone in his frustration over this particular warranty.)

It is time for governments to take a good hard look at how such products are sold and to develop legislation that requires a concise description of the key details up front.

More than anything, we consumers need to keep voicing our anger about the junk to which manufacturers are willing to affix their once-respectable names.