Dealing with the issue of delivery delays

Ordering furniture and carpets is one thing. Receiving them can be quite another. A number of shoppers have found that sellers who promise to deliver within a few days often have a way of stretching those days into months with neither the goods nor a refund in sight.

One Chicago man who cheerfully put down half the $1,000 cost on an order of 10 Queen Anne chairs was told they would be detivered in four to six weeks. He waited patiently -- a long seven months. Finally he decided a refund would do. The retailer refused. Only after the Chicago Department of Consumer Services intervened, threatening legal action, did the retailer decide to issue a refund.

A Manhattan man paid the full price for a bedroom carpet that was to be delivered to his home "in a few days." Weeks passed and the same promise was renewed. Several months later in desperation the buyer filed a small claims suit. After telephoning to make sure the buyer was "really serious" about moving his complaint to the courtroom, the retailer promptly delivered the carpet.

Delivery delay on home furnishings is not a new problem. It is, however, a persistent one, right up there with auto repair and home improvement problems on most complaint lists. And the reasons for the delays continue to elude many of those who deal with such complaints on a daily basis.

"I do think there is some correlation between the price one pays and the likelihood that the furniture will be delivered promptly," suggests Virginia Peterson of the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan New York. "There are certain high-priced stores that don't seem to generate many complaints."

"A lot seems to depend on how good the communication is between retailer and manufacturer," notes Kathryn Wells of the Department of Consumer Protection in North Carolina, a state where much of the furniture is manufactured, but where there are roughly as many complaints about delivery delays and defects as anywhere else. Sometimes a delivery is slowed, she says, because a retailer's credit rating with the manufacturer is so poor that the latter wants all the cash in advance. Another reason behind some time lags, she says, is that the order may arrive just after the manufacturer has cut the last order in a lot. He may not be scheduled to begin another for several weeks or months.

Some consumers, who suspect that retailers often know more about delivery timing than they are willing to admit, argue that there ought to be a specific law to cope with the problem. Both New York City and the state of New Jersey have such special regulations. The Nassau County (New York) Office of Consumer Affairs is expected to adopt a similar rule soon.

In essence, each regulation requires the seller of furniture (carpets as well in New York City) to write an estimated date of delivery on the sales slip or contract. If he cannot deliver within 30 days of the deadline, he must offer the consumer the options of a refund, credit toward another selection, or a new delivery date on the same order.

Several other states have considered similar legislation in recent years, but strong business opposition has scuttled most of the proposals.

But experts who deal regularly with furniture complaints insist that even without special laws, consumers have more protection at hand than they sometimes realize. Many of their delivery complaints, for instance, fall under the ban most states have on unfair and deceptive trade practices.

Consumers could also often do more to prevent problems in the first place, complaint handlers say. For instance, a large investment in furniture should include comparison shopping on prices, delivery dates, and guarantees, but that this step is sometimes skipped. These experts also tell consumers it is worth the time to check with the local Better Business Bureau to see if there are any unresolved complaints on record against the firm being considered.

Even if there is no law to require it, consumers should insist on a delivery date or range of dates in writing on a contract.

"They'll promise you anything to keep from putting it in, but if they want to make a sale badly enough, they'll do it," says Karen Petitte, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of consumer-Services.

"Even if the timing is six months from the date of the order, at least the customer will know," says Ina Alcabes, a spokeswoman for the Nassau County Office of Consumer Affairs in New York. "All that most of us really want is open disclosure."

Also, consumers should pay as little as possible at first for added leverage later. The Manhattan man who ordered the carpet says he thinks paying the full amount in advance was his greatest mistake.

If the retailer does not deliver on his promise, go back to him and try to present the case in a reasonable way. As one consumer advocate notes: "Some businesses don't care about their reputation, but most of them do."

Sometimes just the involvement of a third party in the dispute can have a positive effect. While many consumers do not regard the Better Business Bureau, funded by businesses, as the most aggressive consumer advocate, that agency has successfully resolved a number of delivery complaints just by transmitting the facts from one side to the other.

Many shoppers also find help by telling their delivery problems to city consumer affairs departments or state attorney general offices.

"We try wherever possible to twist arms and mediate a solution," says Chicago's Karen Petitte. "Usually when we explain that the consumer feels he's been taken advantage of, and that we might have to take some action, the seller is suddenly able to come up with either the goods or a refund. Most don't want to bother with the hassle of appearing in court."

Some consumers choose the small claims route to getting help.Paul Goldman, general counsel to the New York State Consumer Protection Board, advises against giving up even if there is no date in writing on the sales slip or contract and the deposit has been dubbed nonrefundable. A contract, he says, need not spell out every detail to be enforceable. Both sellers and judges or abitrators know that the value of the purchase is related to when it is to be delivered, he says.

There is one last possibility if the consumer suspects that the manufacturer is at fault on the delivery lag. Send an account of events and complete documentation to the Furniture Industry Consumer Advisory Panel, Box 951, High Point, North Carolina 27261.

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