Where Oh Where Are My Worms? Be On Your Toes When Ordering From Small Web Businesses
I was hoping to be sharing my adventures in vermiculture with you all around now. Vermiculture is using worms to compost kitchen waste, and it's attractive to apartment dwellers or those of us who live in cold, snowy climates because you can keep your worm box right in your home without too many foul odors (or so says the author of the book I used to prepare my worm bin, Worms Eat My Garbage.)
Alas, I can't tell you whether my worm box is smelly or not, because the worms I ordered online never arrived. So instead I'm talking about the greatness -- and possible pitfalls -- of patronizing small businesses online.
I love the fact that small and home business are multiplying on the Internet, many with the help of EBay and the craft site Etsy.com. As local businesses close on Main Street, squeezed out by WalMart and Amazon.com, it's nice to know that you can still support the small businessperson. And in a world where nearly everything is mass produced, I love that you can get a handmade baby sling designed by a stay-at-home mom that will be different than what any other mom at the playground has.
However, my little worm problem reminded me that when dealing directly with small businesses, we can't always expect all the customer service we get from the big companies. To tell the truth, we regular patrons of large companies are spoiled rotten. When we have a problem, we know that the customer is always right and that if we are persistent enough, a large company will probably make things right. And even if they don't, things won't get too ugly because it's not personal to whatever customer service rep we're talking to. But with the small company I ordered from, things got ugly quickly, and my request for a refund ended with them sending me an email calling me a word that starts with B and rhymes with "itch." Now, if I'd complained to Amazon.com, even if I was in the wrong, I doubt Jeff Bezos woudl have called me that word.
My vermicrisis went as such: I Googled and found a Web site that sold worms. I ordered two pounds of Red Wrigglers from Best Buy Worms, cringed at the $11 shipping price but figured they needed to ship fast to keep those little buggers alive. It was the end of a very long day with the kids when I got around to putting my order in, and I remember little except thinking, "That was a little too quick and easy." What I didn't realize until too late was that the order went so quickly because the company never asked me for my address.
When I didn't receive any order confirmation, I felt a little nervous. Would I actually be getting any worms? But I did get an email from PayPal telling me my payment had gone through, so I hoped for the best.
Eventually I received a brief email from the company, saying my wrigglers had shipped. I waited. I started saving kitchen waste in a little box on my counter. Eventually the kitchen waste got smelly and I tossed it, started another box, and still I waited. I worried that if they ever arrived, the worms would be DOA.
After two weeks, I emailed the company to inquire, and asked if they had my address down correctly. They replied that the worms had been shipped, their tracking info (which they had not shared with me) said they were received, and that I must have moved because they sent them to a different address than the one I had just emailed them. The address on their form was an apartment I'd left two years ago.
After a little investigation, I realized the problem: My PayPal address was out of date. This had never come to my attention when I used PayPal in the past because most retailers -- notably, EBay, where I usually use my PayPal account -- ask for a shipping address.
I asked the company for a refund and they are resisting, saying the whole thing is my fault. Personally I feel that we both made mistakes -- they by making assumptions about where I wanted it sent instead of asking, and me of course by forgetting to update my PayPal address. I complained to PayPal, but since the company had proof that the worms were delivered somewhere, PayPal didn't help me. The company finally did offer to send me two pounds of worms for the price of one, but I replied that they'd been so rude throughout the whole process that I didn't really want to send them more money. That's when they replied, among other choice words, " Admit it, you are just a bitch!"
Wow. I felt as if I had dropped a jar of pickles in a grocery store, and the store manager not only expected me to pay for them, he called me nasty names while doing so.
Something like this wouldn't have happened with a large retailer, because they ask for and double check all the necessary information. But if it somehow had, I expect the big retailer would have replaced or refunded my order right away. After all, a good reputation isn't built on charging people for things they never received, even if the customer was largely at fault. Big retailers can afford to make things right when they go wrong.
The moral of my wormy story? I certainly haven't gone sour on all small businesses on the Web -- one potty-mouthed entrepreneur doesn't speak for the rest of them. Go ahead and patronize small merchants online, but be proactive about making sure all the details are correct. If you don't get a confirmation or tracking info or you are not asked for important information during the order process, contact the company to make sure they have the info they need. Or if you don't want to do the legwork (fingerwork?), only patronize small merchants through larger sites like EBay or Amazon or Etsy.