Splat! Bam! Pow! @#$%&!

Slate comes to the rescue of oppressed consumers.
April 10 1999 3:30 AM

Splat! Bam! Pow! @#$%&!

Slate to the rescue of oppressed consumers everywhere.

23000_23465_sloan_shopavenger

Fear no more, earthlings, the age of frustration and humiliation is over! I am the great Shopping Avenger, who hath descended to Earth from the planet Galleria in a nuclear-fueled Chrysler Town & Country minivan (base price: $27,385, left sliding door standard in most models) to save you from the dark forces of turbo-charged capitalism and shoddy customer service.

OK, enough with the superhero shtick. It's unsustainable over several paragraphs.

Here's the problem: Like most American shoppers, I've been doing my part to fuel the Dow to absurd heights. My own personal consumer confidence is high (up 2.5 percent just this last month!), and my spending is profligate--laptops and children's toys and weed whackers and coffee tables and SUVs. They make it, I buy it. Retail, even.

But what do I get in return, except for 1 billion American Express Membership Rewards points (which I can apply toward, among other door prizes, an "NBA Black Leather Zip Daytimer") and a personal note from Robert Rubin thanking me for my help?

Frustration is what I get. When I went searching The Home Depot for a replacement charger for the Skil Twist Xtra Flexi Charge Interchangeable Power System Cordless Screwdriver, did anyone there know what a Skil Twist Xtra Flexi Charge Interchangeable Power System Cordless Screwdriver even was? No. When Northwest Airlines charged me $1,000 for a ticket I didn't want and didn't order, could I even get anyone on the phone in less than 15 minutes? Also no! When I ordered Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus from Amazon.com and received instead a copy of Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Quran, Miraj, Poets and Theological Writings, did I get justice in the form of a refund or a copy of the book I needed? No! (Although I am now a recognized Sufi master.)

Just as I was writing this last paragraph, I received an e-mail from Amazon boy-wonder Jeff Bezos. I figured he was writing to apologize (Bezos claims to know what I want to read, so why shouldn't he also know when I'm mad at him?), but instead his e-mail--which he apparently sent to other people too--flacks his new, sure to lose money and at the same time boost his stock price another 200 percent venture, Amazon.com Auctions. I think I'll start by auctioning off my copy of Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Quran, Miraj, Poets and Theological Writings.

But the Shopping Avenger digresses. Now, I understand retail. I'm not naive. In order to boost quarterly earnings to meet the cosmically greedy expectations of a handful of Wall Street analysts who've never sold anything in their lives, American corporations must cut, cut, and cut again. Pensions are out, job security is out, and customer service is most definitely out.

This column will not address such issues as pension rights and job security (though it will refer to them from time to time out of guilt--at one point, earlier in my life, I pretended to be a democratic socialist, and I was for a time an actual kibbutznik).

This column instead will seek vengeance for you, the loyal American consumer.The Shopping Avenger was born a couple of years ago, at a dinner party in New York. I was seated next to a man who said he was one of the inventors of corporate voice-mail routing systems. (This, of course, was a lie--Al Gore was the inventor of corporate voice-mail routing systems.) I told him that, in my humble opinion, the advent of voice mail and the disappearance of live operators meant longer waits on the telephone for help.

He said I was wrong. I told him I felt this fairly strongly. He again told me I was wrong: Surveys show that the waiting period for help has been cut by 98 percent, or some such number. I then told him that earlier in the day I had spent seven minutes pushing buttons in order to make a single airline reservation.

He told me it was just my perception that I spent seven minutes pushing buttons. Then I called him an asshole, and that was that. It was then that I decided the American consumer needed help battling the forces of corporate arrogance. I felt I was the one to lead the charge. But like most selfless impulses, I thought about it for a while and the feeling eventually passed.

But the Shopping Avenger was born again. He was born again in Toys "R" Us, where none of the employees seemed to know what a potty seat was, and he was born yet again at the Budget Rent a Car counter at La Guardia Airport, where the reservation he had made and confirmed suddenly ceased to exist, and where he got yelled at for his troubles.

And so, this column. Here's how it works. You e-mail your tale of woe--inferior products, ignorant customer service--to shoppingavenger@slate.com, and the Shopping Avenger will use his reporting skills, which have been described by some as "almost supernatural in scope" (and have been described by others as "adequate" and "sort of pathetic") to extract on your behalf grudging apologies from faceless bureaucrats at Fortune 500 companies.

First come, first served and, be warned, the Shopping Avenger looks askance at the bearing of false witness. Those companies that deserve praise will be praised. Onward!

P.S.: The Shopping Avenger will also entertain questions about Sufi mysticism.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.