Monday, September 8, 2008

Before you return that item . . .

I purchase a ridiculous amount of computer and Consumer Electronics products online. Because many of the products I purchase are niche items, I often have no choice but to go online for them, and where I can purchase retail, I can almost always find it cheaper online. Quite often I can find refurbs or Open Box versions of what I'm looking for at a pretty huge savings.

Of course, retail has one grand advantage. If the item is DOA, you can drive it back to the store and get a new one. And let me tell you, with Open Box items the DOA rate is very high.

Why not just return the broken product to the retailer?


Most CE or Computer vendors require you to foot the return shipping bill (those that don't factor it into the price of the product and therefore are places I don't shop). The argument is that a Brick and Mortar retailer won't refund the fuel cost that it took you to drive the product back, so they don't refund the shipping cost for you to get the product to them.
On that same logic, some online retailers won't even refund the shipping you paid to receive the dead item, leaving you only to tax and product price paid.

So this brings us to last Friday when my trusty 24" Acer monitor just died. After fussing with it for a bit, I was able to get it to *mostly* work in Analog mode. So I headed over to newegg and purchased a replacement. I wanted a specific NEC monitor, and I found that they had an Open Box version for $200 less than the Retail version. I figured, I have all of the cables, and I can download the manual, so if it's missing accessories (as is very common with OB items), it won't matter.

Unfortunately, it arrived with all of its parts and pieces, manuals, and everything and most of it was sealed except for the DVI-D and Power cable. Open Box items are almost always customer returns, and I've found that when you get one with "everything" in nearly perfect condition that generally means there was a defect with the product. When I looked in the box, I saw the story of a guy plugging in his fancy new NEC monitor, discovering that the thing didn't work at all, and returning it immediately.
The story was probably right. As I powered the monitor up on DVI, I discovered there was no picture. On Analog I got a picture with one bright stuck green pixel in the center of the screen and a corresponding bright yellow vertical line. Nuts.

Shipping this item back to NewEgg.com was going to cost about $30 and I'd be only given a cash refund. I needed a monitor, not a refund.

I don't want to be unfair to NewEgg. I knew the rules going in. NewEgg goes out of their way, even sending you an ominous warning prior to checkout that stops just short of saying "Open Box Items will Kill You!" So, sure, they could have tested the Open Box item a little bit, but it was clearly let the buyer beware.

If you aren't returning it because you "didn't like it", call the manufacturer first


I don't know why this wasn't obvious to me. I've found that even the worst manufacturers go to greater lengths for products that are within that "Return Window".
They do this for a few reasons. Preventing a return keeps your retailer happy. Items that have high return rates stop being stocked. They don't want their product to get that reputation. But the biggest reason is that when you return something, they aren't given the opportunity to keep you as a customer. Chances are good that you'll buy a competitors product because of your bad experience and you will be less inclined to purchase that brand in the future. So they've lost a sale, they've got an angry retailer and they may have lost a customer for life.

As such, NEC has a simple policy: if you purchased it within the last 30 days, they foot the return bill.
NEC also goes a step further that I wish all manufacturers did. They will ship you the replacement before receiving the damaged unit as long as you have a major credit card that can take a hold transaction (as in, not a Debit type Credit Card). This practice is referred to as Cross Shipping and for some reason it's incredibly rare.
I was pleased to find out that at least as of today, they allow Cross Shipping for the entire warranty period (the language is not written in the warranty itself).
Lastly, they ship your replacement FedEx 2-day by default. I'll admit that I've never seen that before. I have paid for expedited warranty service, some companies even over charge for the expedited shipping.

Having now worked with their warranty department, I can tell you that despite receiving a broken item, I will be more likely to purchase an NEC product in the future. Sure, the product was defective and that wasn't a good situation. But there's no way to produce 100% perfect products. How they handle things when everything goes wrong is very important.

Adding it all up: Return vs. Repair


So lets add up what this would have cost me if I had returned the product to NewEgg:
- $30 at least to ship it to them DHL Ground Insured. They'd get it in 5 business days. I'd receive my refund somewhere near the receipt time, so lets say 7 business days total.
- Assuming I don't have the money on hand to purchase the replacement immediately (I do, but it's not something I *want* to do), I'm looking at another 5-7 business days to receive the replacement and another $30 to get it shipped.
I saved $200 by purchasing an Open Box item, and because I got a dead one, I'm going to assume that all of the Open Box items of that model are probably similarly dead because I have no way of knowing and I'm not going to risk it. I'm probably also not going to buy an NEC because I have no way of knowing if this display has quality problems. Maybe a large batch was dead from the manufacturer? I'm not going to risk it. A competitive product of nearly identical specs doesn't exist, so I'm going to buy a better one for about a hundred more than the full Retail price of the NEC.
Total Cost: $360, and specifically $160 more than I would have paid for the display if I had simply bought the non-Retail version in the first place. And lets not forget the 2-3 weeks twiddling my thumbs waiting for the replacement.

The alternative "Repair route", cost me only in time. I dropped the broken item off, and will receive the replacement in two days. I had to spend about 20 minutes on the phone with tech support (probably less), while they had me run through the basic troubleshooting. I still save the $200 by buying Open Box.
Total cost: 0 (or -$200 if you consider that I got to keep the savings from the Open Box). And 2 days waiting for my replacement.

And then there's the added benefits


Most large vendors don't give you back what you've sent in. Sometimes the place your "Warranty Repaired" item is sent from and the place you sent your item in for warranty repair aren't even in the same state.
They usually do salvage the broken item for parts and repair the component that is damaged, but that item gets sent back to someone else with a new serial number or sold as Refurbished.
As a result, the thing that you receive from them has gone through a reasonable Q/A process probably very recently.
In 20+ years of taking advantage of warranties on products, I have never received a second DOA. I'm not saying it can't happen, but it hasn't happened to me.
And if the unit really does have a high failure rate, you may end up getting an upgrade. It may be the same model, but it might be a newer revision of that model that doesn't have the problems of the original.

I'm also not saying that all manufacturers are going to be as reasonable as NEC was. One of the reasons I picked them was because they still had a 3-year warranty on this display. I also chose a display that is targeted at professional, not home users. This often guarantees better customer service.

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