It's Time To Keelhaul U-Haul!

Slate comes to the rescue of oppressed consumers.
July 22 1999 3:30 AM

It's Time To Keelhaul U-Haul!

The caped consumer crusader finds enlightenment but fails to right marketplace wrongs.

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Like all superheroes worthy of the title, the Shopping Avenger has an Achilles' heel. In the case of the Shopping Avenger, his Achilles' heel is not animal, vegetable, or mineral but something less tangible.

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An explanation: Last week, the magazine you are currently reading forced the Shopping Avenger at gunpoint to read a series of treacle-filled self-help books, and then to dissect them online together with a partner. The Shopping Avenger, who can withstand radiation, extreme heat and cold, hail, bear attacks, and Eyes Wide Shut, almost succumbed to terminal jejuneness after reading these books. Except for one thing: One of the books, The Art of Happiness, which collects and simplifies the Dalai Lama's philosophy, got the Shopping Avenger to thinking. This, in a way, is the Shopping Avenger's Achilles' heel: thinking. Perhaps it is wrong, the Shopping Avenger thought, to complain about the petty insults and inconveniences of life in the materialistic '90s. The Shopping Avenger felt that perhaps he should counsel those who write seeking help to meditate, to accept bad service the way one accepts the change of seasons, and to extend a compassionate hand of forgiveness to those who provide poor customer care.

But then the Shopping Avenger sat down, and the feeling passed.

The Shopping Avenger does not make light of the Dalai Lama or of the notion that there is more to life than the impatient acquisition of material goods. If the Shopping Avenger were not, for a superhero, extremely nonjudgmental--as opposed to his alter ego, who is considered insufferably judgmental by his alter ego's wife--the Shopping Avenger would tell the occasional correspondent to let go of his petty grievance and get a life.

But the Shopping Avenger also believes that the Dalai Lama has never tried to rent a truck from U-Haul. If he had tried to rent from U-Haul, he never would have escaped from Tibet. (For the complete back story, see this "Shopping Avenger" column and this one.)

The complaints about U-Haul's nonreservation reservation policy continue to pour in through the electronic mail. One correspondent, B.R., wrote in with this cautionary tale: "Last weekend, I went to San Francisco to help my brother and his family move into their first house. My brother had reserved a moving truck with U-Haul for the big day. I warned my brother about U-Haul's 'not really a reservation per se' policy that I learned from the Shopping Avenger. He didn't believe such a thing would happen to him, so he didn't act on my warning."

B.R. continues--as if you don't know what happened already--"I went to U-Haul with my brother to get our 'reserved' truck. The store had many customers standing around looking frustrated. When we got to the front of the line, the clerk informed us that our 'reserved' truck had not yet been returned. We asked if we could rent one of the many trucks sitting idle in the parking lot. The clerk laughed and said the keys to those trucks were lost."

B.R. and his chastened brother--the Shopping Avenger is resisting the urge to gloat--went to Ryder. "Ryder had a truck available for us. The gentleman who helped us at Ryder said Ryder prides itself on being everything U-Haul is not."

The Shopping Avenger has still not received a call from U-Haul spokeswoman Johna Burke explaining why U-Haul refuses to provide trucks to people who reserve trucks, but the Shopping Avenger is pleased to note that several correspondents have written in over the past month saying that, based on what they have read in this column, they will be taking their business to Ryder or Budget or elsewhere.

The Shopping Avenger will undoubtedly return to the sorry state of affairs at U-Haul in the next episode, but now on to this month's airline debacle.

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