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I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Making it easy to do good stuff is obviously goodness; thinking about how to make it hard to do bad is actually more important.

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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 9/21/2018

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Posts - 2522
Comments - 2582
Hits - 2,081,840

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Entries/day - 0.45
Comments/entry - 1.02
Hits/day - 374

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:21 AM Pacific


  05:46 PM

Anyone with a modicum of retail savvy knows that retailers are constantly trying to set price points that balance their margins against what customers seem to want to pay. One traditional way to do this was to put things on sale (i.e., discount them) to drive sales.

As we've all experienced, retailers these days like to offer discounts -- sale prices -- in the form of rebates. There are two kinds: instant rebates (IRs), which are taken off the price when the cashier rings it up, and "customer-initiated rebates" (CIRs), which is the kind where you have to fill in a form and send it in.

From the seller's perspective, CIRs are a great approach. First, the retailer can post a discounted price, which looks like a sale. Second, rebates are often offered through the manufacturer, so the retailer doesn't have to eat the discount at all. Third, the rebates have very specific steps and requirements (the more cynical will maintain that these are crafted to maximize consumer error in rebate-request submission), and many folks either won't bother at all or will not complete all steps correctly. Estimates for rebate redemption vary. Some think around 50%; others say "The industry average is less than ten percent. And it can be as low as one percent."



(Of those who do go through all the steps, some number of people never cash the rebate check, which is apparently known as slippage.)

In effect, CIRs provide a decently fine-grained way to capture the consumer surplus. Or stated another way (using the example of tax-prep software):
In offering a CIR, those consumers who are very price sensitive will take the necessary actions to receive the $5 to $10 rebate on the product. People who are not sensitive to price (price insensitive) will not take the time. They accept the price.

The challenge with an IR in this case is leaving too much or too little money on the table. Price too high, and price sensitive shoppers will elect to manually prepare their taxes and forego purchasing the software. Price too low, money that price insensitive shoppers would have gladly paid is left behind.
Finally, retailers can rule that they won't take any products back in return or exchange if the product has no UPC on it. And hey, guess what, you needed that UPC in order to claim your rebate. So sending in your rebate means you're also waiving your right to normal returns, even if the product is defective.

Now, I am a price-sensitive shopper, to the extent that if there are two similar options and one is cheaper, I'll probably go with that. And although I find CIRs annoying, if that's how I can get my sale price, I'll likely fall for that. I'm good about it -- I get and keep the receipt; I carefully cut out the UPC; I make copies of everything; and I mail everything in on time.

Recently, tho, I was outmaneuvered by Fry's. They give you a rebate receipt, good. But the form you have to fill out and send in is now all online. And as I discovered, the form you need is taken down immediately when the rebate purchase date expires.

In the traditional rebate protocol, the rebate is valid if you buy the discounted product for a specific price and within a set period. Fair enough. But you generally have some time (weeks or even months) to get around to sending in your rebate request. Fry's has gamed this system -- now you have to make sure you get not just the item, but also the rebate form before the rebate period expires. One day after the rebate expires, the forms are gone, and you, my friend, are SOL.

I learned this the hard way after I'd gotten two items over the course of a week that both qualified for rebates. When I sat me down the next week with rebate receipts and UPCs in hand, I discovered that the PDF files for the rebate forms were not available. An inquiry to Fry's "customer service" (I use their term, not mine) got me no reply.

This strikes me personally as a new and particularly weasel-y way to handle CIRs. Sure, Fry's can justify this by noting that the rebate period had expired, but that's not the same as the rebate submission deadline. What it feels like is another way, beyond the normal friction of CIRs, of making it difficult for consumers to get a rebate. (And since these are manufacturers' rebates, does Fry's even care?) And it sure as heck gives me a bad feeling about Fry's, and is that really worth it to the retailer? Some retailers think not:
Even when the failure to redeem is the customer's own fault, it can breed negative feelings toward the company offering the rebate. Growing complaints inspired Best Buy and Office Max to almost completely eliminate their use of mail-in rebates. Customers "said they hated them, [and] we listened," says Best Buy spokeswoman Dawn Bryant. Mail-in rebates were phased out between 2005 and 2007.
I might have reached the end of my patience with CIRs, and Fry's has come very near to exhausting the little good will I ever had toward them. It's sort of unfortunate that they're so very conveniently located for me. But if I'm going to get weaseled by going bricks-and-mortar, maybe I should just go ahead and get real discounts by shopping online.

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