Brave New World of Computer Billing

Times Staff Writer

If you can take a calm and rational view of the computerized marketplace, then I applaud your saintly temperament. But do not expect me to be calm and rational; I'm ready for a return to the good old days of doing business with people instead of machines.

Computers offer speed and other advantages--no question about it. But when computers rage out of control, what do you have? OK, enough preaching. I'll skip the preliminaries and move directly to the most recent misadventure.

Several months ago, in a prescient moment, I decided to buy a window air conditioner for a special place--a crowded study, in a distant corner of my house. The room, an add-on affair, lacked good ventilation and I dreaded another sweltering summer among its books, file cabinets and (yes) computer.

It All Seemed So Simple

The decision to buy was simple and, presumably, simple to execute; what could be complicated about acquiring an air conditioner? What, indeed!

After studying the catalogue of a major merchandising chain, I measured the square footage of the room (to determine the number of British thermal units or BTUs needed to cool the area) and chose an appropriate window model.

The specific prices now elude me--probably I've rejected the specifics because every appliance carried the standard come-on: a price tag whose final three digits were 9.99, an appearance that I find about as seductive as a hippopotamus in pink tights--but the rounded-out numbers were, as I recall, $380 for the appliance, $30 for delivery and $70 for installation.

With a brief phone call to a clerk in the chain's catalogue service, I ordered the appliance. Charge it to my account, please. It was a familiar routine; in years past we have ordered a refrigerator, freezer and other appliances from the same company--not a fly-by-night outfit but a multibillion-dollar organization, a pillar of the American economy.

Next day, however, the clerk called back. The catalogue department's computers had flashed an "out of inventory" report on the air conditioner; the warehouse supply was gone, even though spring weather had hardly arrived.

I knew that the merchandising chain's retail stores carried a separate inventory of appliances. With a phone call I learned that, sure enough, the closest retail outlet had the same model, though at a different price: $450 for the appliance, no charge for delivery, $70 for installation. Further, the store could promise delivery in three weeks.

The idea of paying $40 more for the same item did not hold much appeal, but on the other hand the catalogue service had no idea when its inventory of air conditioners would be replenished. I ordered delivery and installation from the retail store.

Several days later the catalogue service rang up to report that it had received a new supply of air conditioners and it could make early delivery. Great! I phoned the store to cancel the higher-priced order, and sat back to await delivery and installation from the catalogue service.

Billing Gets a Head Start

What arrived, instead, was a billing statement from the merchandising chain, showing sale, delivery and installation charges of more than $500.

This was obviously premature, since nothing had been delivered. But I could envision the possibility of a report from the chain to the credit bureaus, slandering my credit standing, and that would take precious time to unravel. Besides, there was nothing to worry about: The big merchandising chain and I were old friends, we had done business together for years, so I sent a check in payment, and calmly awaited delivery.

One month later the air conditioner had not yet arrived, but now there was a second bill--this one containing no hint of payment received, and instead showing add-on interest charges due at the rate of 18% annually.

How dare they (1) accept my check, (2) not deliver the merchandise and (3) charge interest on the undelivered merchandise?

A Reasoned, Reasonable Response

I sent a letter to the chain's credit department, invoking the truth-in-lending law and requesting an explanation of the interest charges. I also told the credit department to mind its manners, improve its service, deliver the air conditioner and straighten out its bill. I urged the credit department, further, to review its records, where it would find that I did not buy on the installment plan but paid each bill in full.

Several weeks later the air conditioner was delivered and installed. This was followed by a form letter from the credit department, acknowledging my inquiry and stating that the matter was being investigated.

I sighed with relief--at last there was the promise of an end to the confusion. (So eager was I to end the time-consuming affair that I did not even mention an incidental point: Before the catalogue-ordered appliance was delivered, a new catalogue offered the same item at a special sale price of $50 less, yet contrary to the chain's policy, I had been charged the regular catalogue price.)

Then a new bill arrived. This listed the purchase of not one but two air conditioners and two installations, plus another round of interest charges at 18% annually, for a total upward of $1,000, and still there was no acknowledgment of payment received.

I phoned the credit department in an effort to clear up the mystery. There an apologetic clerk said: "Mister, we have so much confusion around here, one hand doesn't know what the other hand's doing. We're getting so many complaints, we can't even answer all the mail."

After that I sent another letter to the credit manager, with a copy to the chain's headquarters, addressed personally to the president of the outfit. No reply yet, but meantime the air conditioner has been turned up full blast. My room is cool but my temperature is rising.

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