July 20, 2010

Cultural difference: Consumer experiences

In the last article, Cultural differences: Consumer complaints, I wrote about some general cultural differences. Here are some examples of some consumer experiences in Honduras.

Petty pasta problem

Upon returning home from a small grocery store (which is no longer in business), when putting away a package of pasta, I noticed that there were black bugs crawling all over the pasta. This was in my early days in Honduras, and I insisted that El Jefe take it back and exchange it. Not because of the little bit that it cost, but just to teach the store that they should be more careful about the products that they sell. (.....hahaha, yeah, right. I was so naive.)

Not happy about it, El Jefe returned anyway, went to the store manager and said that he wanted to exchange the pasta because it had bugs in it. There was no "Sorry for your inconvenience" or "Let me get a new package for you." The manager looked over the package carefully, and indignantly said, "Well! There's not very many bugs in it!" and he belittled El Jefe for being so picky. He did exchange the pasta, but less determined customers would think twice before trying to return anything again. We rarely return grocery items anymore and just chalk it up to a learning experience when we make a bad purchase. It just isn't worth the time, effort, and aggravation.

Note: at most grocery stores in La Ceiba, customers have 24 hours to return anything and there are no cash refunds under any circumstances.

Success with the stainless steel stove

A month after we moved here in 2001, we bought a Maytag stainless steel stove at the nice Diunsa store in San Pedro. Within a very short time, the stove started rusting. At first it was only inside the bottom drawer so I tried to pretend it wasn't happening. After two months, the rust was quickly spreading to the outside. "This stove is defective and must be returned!" said me. "Impossible. It will never happen," said El Jefe. Despite that, at my insistence, we packed the drawer into the car and off to San Pedro we went. (We obviously couldn't carry the whole stove in the car.)

We were met at the door by an armed guard who told us we couldn't return it and in fact we couldn't even carry the drawer into the store. El Jefe insisted. Inside we were met by a clerk who asked us when we bought it and then told us flatly that we couldn't return it. ("Ask to talk to the manager", I whispered to El Jefe.) He did and eventually a supervisor showed up to tell us again that we couldn't return it. J still kept calmly insisting to talk to the manager. Finally, the store manager showed up and was just as adamant that we could not return the stove after two months. He talked a mile a minute and at that time, I could only catch about half of the Spanish that was being spoken, but I did hear him say that it was because it was so humid in La Ceiba and that the rust was probably from my lax cleaning abilities (!).

In my badly accented Spanish, I said, "Disculpe, qué significa 'acero inoxidable'?" ("Excuse me, what does stainless steel mean?") 'Acero inoxidable' in Spanish has an even better meaning than 'stainless steel'. The words literally mean 'non-rustable steel'. Everyone got quiet, and the manager stopped dead (I could just see his mind racing) and after a minute, said, "Oh, all right! I can't give you your money back but go find another stove." The new, more expensive stove was delivered about a week later and the old stove was picked up.

The transaction wasn't entirely successful because he said that he couldn't refund the tax. That was unfair that we had to pay tax on two stoves, but at least we got satisfaction on the price of the stove itself, something that El Jefe and his family never thought would happen. We traded it in for a Whirlpool stainless steel stove, and after 8 1/2 years, it still has no rust and looks like new.

"It's the policy of the company"

That is an often heard statement to which there usually is no recourse. One time during our house construction we went to a hardware store and bought 100 bags of cement. As was the custom, one person attended to us, another wrote the ticket, another collected the money and stamped our receipt, and yet another went to the warehouse to give yet another person the ticket for delivery. Oops! "What do you know! We don't have any cement."

"Okay, no problem, give us our money back and we'll go to another hardware store." "Uh, fíjese que...." (the red flag words) "we can't. No cash refunds. It's the policy of the company. You'll have to buy something else." So that was that. No money and no cement and we sure didn't need L.8,000 of anything else at the time. Not fair? No, but once you've paid your money, you are at their mercy. We took a store credit which we were eventually able to use, but we only shop at that store as a last resort anymore.

A Honduran friend told me another great example of how that policy can lose customers. His sister bought an extension cord at an electronics store at the mall. As she was walking out the door, under the watchful eye of the armed guard, she realized that she actually needed a longer one. She turned around and walked through the entrance door, went back to the clerk and told him her dilemma . "Sorry, no refunds, no exchanges," was the response. The extension cord was still in its package, still in the bag with her 2-minute old receipt stapled to the outside. She not only did not want a refund, she was planning to spend more for a longer cord. No amount of logic could trump the store policy.

Sometimes you win

I don't mean to make it sound as if every experience is bad. We impressed our construction workers a few times when they laughed at us for thinking we could exchange something. Once we bought a bunch of very expensive white cement that was hardened in the bag — which, of course, the worker accepting delivery didn't notice until after the delivery truck had left. It was exchanged the next day.

Another time we bought a bunch of 4" x 1" lumber and then discovered that we really needed 3" x 1". The carpenters were painstakingly cutting it down to size. I suggested why not ask the lumber yard if we could exchange it instead? Haha! sneered the workers. Fat chance. Lo and behold, the store owner not only delivered the 3" wood and picked up the 4" wood without charge, but he refunded the difference in price, which we hadn't even asked for. That lumberyard was our store of choice after that.

Where you shop can make a big difference, as can developing a relationship with the owner or manager. Eventually during our home construction, we discovered a little hardware store owned by a Cayman Islander. Wow! What a difference, Ferretería Toronjal treated us like valued customers. We could just call to order things and pay for them when they were delivered! No going to the store to get the ticket written up, going to the bank to get the cash, going back to the hardware store to pay for it, and then waiting another day for delivery. They gladly took our checks! They let us return things when we bought the wrong thing or too many! Their prices were a little bit higher than the big stores, but it was well worth the difference. That store has since expanded, a sign that others appreciate being treated well and fairly.

Sometimes you lose

I could probably list 50 examples of consumer experiences that might shock or dismay US Americans. Some of them turned out okay, but usually only with extreme insistence and persistence. Others did not and some cost us big time. Whenever and wherever shopping, we try to remember 'buyer beware' and the more money involved, the more attention we pay to what could go wrong. I've also learned to not always go with the lowest price, especially when it comes to services. That almost invariably ends up costing more in the long run.

With the growth of La Ceiba, I have noticed a change in attitudes over the past 9 years. It might be that there is more competition or that store owners and managers are learning that it pays to treat their customers right. I hope so.
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