'Gripe sites': Consumers complain in chorus, online

Think of it as a soapbox to the world.

Just as the Internet is remolding commerce by streamlining supply chains and crunching profit margins, it's also reinventing consumer advocacy for the digital age.

"The Internet has forever changed the impact one consumer can have," says Peter De Legge, editor of Marketing Today. "It used to be that a dissatisfied customer would tell all of their circle of friends and co-workers about a bad product or service experience. Now they have the potential to tell millions about their experience."

Miffed customers, disgruntled ex-employees and public-interest activists are taking to the Web in record numbers to air their woes, collect complaints, and publish (sometimes outlandish) allegations of wrongdoing against companies large and small.

But does "word of Web" complaining help? It's hard to say what impact these sites have, but companies do listen.

Bally Total Fitness, a nationwide operator of health clubs, tried and failed in a legal bid to shut down a gripe site that invited customers who had billing disputes with the company to tell what happened.

Ironically, the company now says it monitors the site to locate customers and try to work through their problems. "Any complaints that come to us affect our behavior," says Dave Southern, a company spokesman. "The site is one medium for finding out how our customers feel."

When a Connecticut man built a protest site against Dunkin Donuts (www.dunkindonuts.org) because the chain didn't carry his favorite type of low-fat coffee creamer, he invited others to post complaints about anything Dunkin-related. Ultimately, the company used it to track down soreheads and soothe them with apologies and coupons. The site became so popular that Dunkin bought it in 1998 for an undisclosed sum.

Now customers can complain directly to the company, but they can no longer post their woes so others can read them.

In another case, environmental activists in 1999 staged demonstrations and built a site (www.HomeDepotsucks. com) to pressure Home Depot to stop selling wood from endangered forests.

"Our activists could go to our site and see pictures of particular products that were made from endangered wood," says Tim Keating of Rainforest Relief, which partnered with the Action Resource Center to do the site and protests. "With that knowledge, they escorted journalists and other folks through the stores pointing those products out."

Later that year Home Depot announced it would end the practice by 2002. (A company spokesman, however, denies that the decision had anything to do with the Web site or the protests.)

For small businesses, gripe sites can be deadly, especially if the company relies on the Internet in a substantial way. Such was the case in 1998 when the owner of Express Success Inc., a Utah-based multi-level marketing company, hired two programmers to develop its business site.

After a payment dispute, the programmers erected expresssuccesssucks.com, a site alleging the company was a scam. The owner subsequently sued, claiming the site slashed his $60,000 per month revenues to almost nothing. A judge, however, eventually dismissed the case after both parties failed to show up in court.

While protest sites are tough to beat in court, companies often threaten to sue and oftentimes that alone is enough.

But legal experts say that unless a site engages in commercial activity or publishes libelous content, free-speech protections usually hold. And companies are hesitant to do battle for fear of bringing attention to the site.

In 1997, for example, Wal Mart attorneys threatened to sue a man if he didn't take down a tacky site (www.wallmartsucks.com) that collects dozens of complaints every month about the global mega-store. He refused. The multi-billion dollar retailer backed down.

As the power of protest sites grows, experts expect to see companies quietly sponsoring sites against competitors. In 1998, Amway alleged in a Michigan lawsuit that Procter & Gamble was a behind-the-scenes sponsor of sites directed against Amway, according to a company attorney.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader says the real power of protest sites is the ability to connect people with similar complaints, a role that might play well in the political arena or in class action law suits.

"These kinds of sites haven't matured enough to have an impact on legislation," says Mr. Nader. "But they have the potential to become a powerful political tool by bringing together people with common complaints who can then lobby against the interests of corporations in Congress or state legislatures."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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