Busman's Holiday
A Rant about Shopping for Freebies
by Steve Wood
December 1, 2003

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Ever get tempted by those "free after rebate(s)" offers from the various office supply companies? I do, and I'm really wondering why I even bother. You see, I let a couple of newspaper inserts from Staples and OfficeMax induce me into entering the Black Friday shopping fray last week. I might have been stronger, but two of my daughters really wanted to go shopping in Terre Haute last Friday.

We got up early and arrived at Circuit City by 8 A.M. on Friday. Since I'd pretty well let my diet go for the Thanksgiving holiday, I was already in a semiconscious state from overeating on Thursday. Most stores had opened at 6 that day, but I really thought 8 would be fine. Sammy, our 21 year old nursing student, found what she wanted and camped out in one of the four slow-moving checkout lines, each of which had around 30 people waiting to pay for their treasures.

Seeing a chance to hit the office supply stores for their techie freebies, I headed for the door. I got flagged down in the parking lot to help a lady jump-start her van, but was quickly off to the local Staples store. While their flier clearly stated "while supplies last," I still had hopes of snagging a 100 pack of CDR media, a CDRW, some jewel cases, and a CD labeler kit. I also planned to buy a multifunction printer for school.

Staples ad sectionWhen I arrived at Staples, there was none of the madhouse scene I'd left behind at Circuit City. There were more salespeople in the store than customers. The reason soon became apparent. I'm not a rookie in these "free after rebate" sales and know the stores often understock these items, but somehow the ad and maybe the season lured me into believing that these stores really wanted to get folks in the door without totally pissing them off. Boy, was I wrong!

I grabbed a shopping cart to hold the printer and other stuff and began making the rounds to collect the items I wanted. Of those items, none was available. And, even though there were many folks working the floor, it was obvious they were staying away from the areas where the freebies were supposed to be. Staples did actually have several copies of Norton SystemWorks 2004 that could be had for free after rebates (if you have a previous version to upgrade from), but so did everyone else in town. They also had the multifunction printer-scanner-copier I wanted. But then, so did everyone else in town.

I took my cart back to the front of the store and told the store person there, "You're out of everything I wanted."

Now, if you're in retail, you know those are words that should spur any retail employee to begin a search or some effort to save a disgruntled customer from leaving the store empty handed. Staples had spent a ton on advertising things that they obviously understocked, coming very close to false advertising. The store employee (door guard?) gave me a sickly smile and never uttered a word. I almost wish I'd gone to the trouble of being at their doorstep at their 6 A.M. opening to see if they really did have any of the items offered in the ad.

Obviously, the difference in crowds between Circuit City and Staples wasn't just TVs and Stereos. Circuit City actually stocked sufficient quantities of the items they advertised, so one at least had a chance of getting them. Staples has been pulling this stuff for so long that most folks in our community know better than to even try. Silly me!

Downhearted, but not totally defeated, I hopped in the truck and headed across the street to the OfficeMax store that is tucked away in a far less visible location. I think it survives as it was the first office supply chainstore to hit town. It also has a marginally better track record in stocking specials.

OfficeMax adThe OfficeMax ad was even more audacious than the Staples ad, featuring a full page of 22 items on the back of the newspaper insert that were supposed to be free after rebates, plus two more on the front page. I planned to look for at least 13 of the 24 items advertised as free after rebates.

Upon entering the store, I heard a store employee none too politely tell another customer, "Oh, we had forty of those CDRWs this morning, but sold out already!" There was no offer to substitute another item or even an attempt at a weak apology. It was just tough luck for the prospective buyer. Since I too hoped to pick up a free burner for the next PC I rebuild for someone, I was down to looking for just twelve items. Of course, the blank CDs were also all gone. I decided to make one circuit around the store before heading for the door. I was surprised to find a table in the middle of the store containing a number of the freebie items. I scooped up a PC toolkit, a PCI modem and network card, the last freebie keyboard, a CD drive cleaning kit, jewel cases, and even popped for the Norton SystemWorks 2004 that...everyone else in town had.

I spotted a familiar friendly face at the checkout and headed for the door with my seven freebie items, but without the multifunction printer. They could have had that sale, but the salesperson's attitude about the CD burner with the other customer and the empty shelves had put me off. I ended up spending $139 in the store, every bit of it covered by multiple rebates. I don't feel a bit sheepish about only shopping for the freebies. I often visit the two stores mentioned and end up paying far more than I would for the same items online. It's nice to have the stuff available to look at locally and that used to be worth something to me. I'm not so sure, now.

When I arrived home and began playing the rebate game, I found that both OfficeMax and Symantec (Norton) demanded originals of cash register receipts and proofs of purchase to receive the rebate. The one positive item from the shopping trip was the quick email response of OfficeMax's Kim Polcar assuring me that they'd "accept a copy of your UPC label as well as your receipt." But, I had to email them to get that written assurance, as their rebate book had it all wrong.

And, of course, when I opened the SystemWorks box, there was a card informing me that this software had to authenticate before use. Since I'd planned to install it on the touchscreen computer at school to clean it up and then remove it, and then reinstall the product on my laptop for permanent use, I was less than happy. Having been less than pleased with SystemWorks 2 for Mac (which was a disaster under OS X), I also decided that I could live without SystemWorks 3 for Mac and stick with folks who don't make you jump through hoops with authentication games. Maybe I can clean up the touchscreen computer by booting from the CD.

Was I satisfied with my shopping experience in either store? Obviously not. I came away disappointed with both Staples and OfficeMax. Both continue to advertise items that I think they know they'll sell out, given the quantities they stock of them. This wasn't my first trip to the stores where I'd come away disappointed and disgusted. Both regularly advertise "free after rebate" CD burners and blanks and the like, only to offer all but their earlybird customers empty shelf space and "an attitude." It doesn't seem to matter if you go in four hours after opening or four days into a seven day sale. If it's advertised as "free after rebates" and "while supplies last," you're pretty well guaranteed they won't have what was in the ad. And...they're just cheeky enough to give you an attitude to boot if you have the temerity to suggest they might carry enough stock to satisfy demand. I suspect their practices are just barely legal, but in my book, they certainly aren't ethical.

What Staples and OfficeMax need to understand is that if they're going to advertise these items to bring folks in, they'd better stock enough of them to satisfy the demand. Shoppers like me are not going to tolerate their consistent understocking practices. I've recently spent a ton at both stores on various items for my classroom. The end result of their questionable advertising is that I'm to the point of just not using these vendors anymore. Everything they offer is available online and usually at a considerably better price. Why go through the 30 mile drive to Terre Haute just to come away disgusted again.

Then again, maybe it was just too much turkey and such on Thanksgiving and me being silly enough to go shopping on Black Friday. But I really don't think I'll enter either store for quite some time. It was just sorta a "last straw" kinda thing!

Odd Thoughts While Shaving Between Paragraphs:

Until today, I've carried two office supply houses in my list of affiliate advertisers. In fairness to my readers, I've dropped OfficeMax, due to their understocking of advertised items. If Staples had an affiliate program and I were a member, I'd have dropped them, too. While chronic understocking really doesn't involve web orders that much, I'd just feel dirty having their ads on my site anymore, considering the experiences I've had with their Terre Haute stores. Maybe it's different in your town.

Two links sites that I visit almost daily are Phil Pearson's MacSurfer's Headline News and Heng-Cheong Leong's MyAppleMenu. Leong recently included a link to Including Ashley from The Washington Post. He often includes good links such as this one from his Reader page that range well beyond the usual Macintosh related links (and occasionally carries a link to a column of mine:-).

Including Ashley by Ylan Q. Mui tells the story of Ashley Meissner's inclusion in a regular third grade class at Fulton Elementary School despite her severe handicap of hypoplasia. Mui gives a good look at what "inclusion done right" can be and also of the Meissner's home.

Anne & Molly IvinsAnne and Molly IvinsMy wife, Annie, and I did something a little different a few weeks ago. We went to a book signing. Annie had seen that one of her favorite columnists, Molly Ivins, was going to be in Terre Haute to receive the 2003 Eugene V. Debs award and would be signing books before the dinner and ceremony. I took a quick shot at the signing, and Molly, seeing the flash, insisted I get a better one of Annie and her smiling. After signing a ton of autographs, that takes a pretty good sport.

If you're unfamiliar with Molly Ivins' writings, her column archive is available free through the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. She often writes in a conversational style of fellow Texan George W. Bush with some insight and humor. She doesn't agree with his politics, but also isn't into the "hate Bush" thing that some writers are. She writes, "Did you know that it is quite possible not to hate someone and at the same time notice that their policies are disastrous for people in this country?"

Shrub
Shrub : The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush

Annie first introduced me to Ivins' writings when she brought home Shrub : The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. She'd found it for $5 on the mark-down table of a local book store. She later brought home the unabridged audio cassette that features Molly's voice telling the humorous, but sometimes appalling stories of then Governor George W. Bush.

Bushwhacked is her most recent book that has consistently been in the top ten of the New York Times bestsellers list.

Bushwhacked
Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America

Update: Molly Ivins passed away on January 31, 2007, after a long battle with cancer. Her column archive is available on AlterNet.

The last edition of Busman's Holiday, Write Yourself a Discount, suggested using affiliate advertisers to cut your cost on items. I was surprised to see in a recent associates email from Amazon, "Associates may not:...Purchase products for your own use or on behalf of others through links tagged with your Associate ID." If they ever choose to enforce that statement, I guess I'll have to drop Amazon as well!

On the sorta positive side, I've been buying Epson branded ink cartridges via Amazon for a while, as with their Super Saver Shipping, they come out cheaper than anyone else. My most recent order was for two multipack color sets, but when it arrived, only one was in the box. Expecting a major hassle, I emailed Amazon immediately. To my surprise, I received a response in less than an hour that a fulfillment order had been put through. Later that evening, I received the email confirming shipment...at no charge. While Amazon messed up the original order, they quickly put things right. Maybe Staples and OfficeMax should take a lesson from them.

MacaroniGene Steinberg mentioned the shareware, Macaroni, last week in his column, So Why Didn't Apple Think of This? Macaroni runs several UNIX cleanup and repair functions that normally would run in the wee hours of the morning. Since I shut down my Mac each evening, these items just don't normally get done. Macaroni runs these items when it detects the computer is idle...during the daytime and my "on" hours. It has an easy interface and seems to "play nice" with the OS.

A posting by Joe Ryan on Applelinks put me onto Dan Benjamin's Hiveware Enkoder. Enkoder puts your email address into a JavaScript to hide it from robots seeking online email addresses to sell to spammers. I'd had to remove my email address from all of the pages on this site because of an avalanche of spam and put them onto my Contact page in coded form. Dan's online JavaScript maker allows me to try returning a real address at the bottom of these pages. If it doesn't work for you, please visit the Contact page, decipher the address, and let me know. (5/10/2005) Note: Links to Hiveware above have been removed. Enkoder is available, still for free, from Hivelogic. Besides the online tool, there is also a Mac OS X downloadable version.

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©2003 Steven L. Wood