Superhero Showdown

Superhero Showdown

Superhero Showdown

Slate comes to the rescue of oppressed consumers.
Feb. 25 2000 3:30 AM

Superhero Showdown

The Shopping Avenger discovers an upstart competitor, trashes U-Haul, and gets dissed by Eddie Bauer.

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When you're a superhero, no one ever cuts you a break.

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The Shopping Avenger knew it was only a matter of time before some sort of Avenger manqué would try to seize the scepter of consumer advocacy for his own pathetic self. After all, given the fabulous success and worldwide renown (and healthy self-regard) of the Shopping Avenger, why wouldn't some cheap hustler follow him on the path of glory he has single-handedly hacked through the jungle of corporate malfeasance and customer dissatisfaction?

So now comes a publication calling itself Consumer Reports, a sad spectacle of faux-Shopping Avengerness. Consumer Reports is published by a group calling itself the "Consumers Union," which claims to have been founded in 1936. The Shopping Avenger laughs at this claim, because the Shopping Avenger knows that he himself is the originator of American consumer advocacy, back in 1999, or possibly 1998.

The Shopping Avenger is contemplating vengeance. First he considered going around licking copies of Consumer Reports hoping to infect its readers with the flu. This plan was rejected, however, when the Shopping Avenger realized where he worked.

The Shopping Avenger instead has retained the legal services of David Boies to protect his franchise against these usurpers. Boies, who has not been informed of his new—and biggest—role yet, should scare Consumer Reports folks right out of business.

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Which is where they deserve to be. These people have it all backward. The apparent MO of Consumer Reports is to test products and services so shoppers will know what works and what doesn't—before they spend money. This stands in contrast to the Shopping Avenger's MO, which is to seek immediate gratification by buying goods and services that sound great but that he doesn't know one goddamn thing about, and then, when the aforementioned goods break or the aforementioned services falter, to piss and moan to you, the Shopping Avenger's loyal readers.

The Shopping Avenger admits that the sudden appearance of Consumer Reports has left him in a deep funk. He is also in a deep funk because one of the companies he most admires, Eddie Bauer, has totally wigged-out on one of the Shopping Avenger's loyal readers.

The Shopping Avenger will get to Eddie Bauer in a second, but first, a certifiable Shopping Avenger scoop: The Shopping Avenger has discovered the terrible truth about his great nemesis, his bête noire, the thorn in his side, the pebble in his shoe, the dastardly, bastardly devil of do-it-yourself furniture movers everywhere, U-Haul International. (For those of you tiring of Shopping Avenger's obsession with U-Haul, the Shopping Avenger promises that this will be the last installment of the U-Haul chronicles—unless U-Haul pisses him off again.)

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I n a letter to the Shopping Avenger, one Shawn Battagler, an upstanding young American who for four years worked as a customer service representative for U-Haul in Missouri, confirms everything the Shopping Avenger has said (and said, and said) about U-Haul in this long jihad. Most noteworthy: his unequivocal assertion that customer service reps were never allowed to turn down a reservation, even if they didn't have a truck to rent.

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"Employees are admonished that they would lose their jobs if they turned down a reservation for the upcoming weekend, even if the weekend was so overbooked that that the region was several hundred trucks short. People would wait several days for their trucks," Battagler says by way of introduction.

"We all knew and even joked about what horrible treatment customers received, not by customer service reps but by the corporate offices devising these money-making schemes with no regard for customer satisfaction," Battagler writes. "U-Haul's philosophy was, keep as many trucks on the road at all times and cut corners everywhere. Understaffing and overbooking means trucks don't get checked for problems when they are returned."

Battagler goes on: "I actually enjoyed in some sick little way the challenge of explaining to a burly redneck that his truck wasn't there as he stands before me on a 105 degree day with 98 percent humidity."

He closes: "Don't believe a word U-Haul says."

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A true consumer hero, this Shawn Battagler.

Alas, the same cannot be said for one Eddie Bauer. The Shopping Avenger knows this will come as a great surprise to many Eddie Bauer shoppers, who are accustomed to excellent service. The Shopping Avenger, when not wearing tights, his cape, and his codpiece, is frequently adorned in Eddie Bauer-wear. But listen to the story of T., a loyal avenger now living in Japan.

"My mother-in-law sent us an Eddie Bauer gift certificate for Christmas," T. writes. "She purchased this item because (Eddie Bauer) told her it could be used in [its Japanese locations]. When we got the gift card, we discovered that it could only be used in an American Eddie Bauer store. The customer service representative suggested that we send the card back to my mother-in-law and have it exchanged for a gift certificate which could be used for catalogue shopping."

Not a good idea, T. explained. The whole point of buying the gift certificate was to avoid the costly overseas shipping costs connected to catalog purchases.

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I explained that this solution wasn't viable, but customer service's response was, "tough" (my paraphrase).

My argument with Eddie Bauer is,

1) They sold a defective product. We were told the product would work in Japan. It does not;

2) Their solution is to return the gift card for an item of lesser value.

T. e-mailed Eddie Bauer three times, to no avail. He is left holding a useless gift certificate and a grudge against a company that promises customer satisfaction every time.

Now this is where it gets weird. The Shopping Avenger dialed-up Eddie Bauer, expecting a quick resolution to T.'s problem, for two reasons: One, Eddie Bauer is no U-Haul; and two, even if Eddie Bauer was another U-Haul, it would still shiver with fear at the thought of being mentioned by the Shopping Avenger.

But Eddie Bauer dissed the Shopping Avenger. Amazing as it sounds, it's true. The Shopping Avenger telephoned corporate headquarters and asked for assistance. On the line came a woman who identified herself as "Melanie." When the Shopping Avenger asked "Melanie" for her last name, she declined, saying, "Oh, I don't give out my last name."

The Shopping Avenger likes last names. This is the word that comes to the Shopping Avenger's mind when customer service representatives refuse to give out their last names: cult.

Spitting mad, the Shopping Avenger asked "Melanie" just what it is she did for Eddie Bauer. "I'm a presidential satisfaction advocate," she said, which is the job formerly held by Monica Lewinsky.

"No, really," the Shopping Avenger said. "What do you do?"

More blather comes over the phone line. The Shopping Avenger becomes more strongly convinced that Eddie Bauer is a cult when he learns that the company is based in Redmond, Wash., which is a well-known cultic center.

Finally, "Melanie" says she will review an e-mail the Shopping Avenger promises to send her, which he does, because the Shopping Avenger keeps his promises, or at least the ones that don't require exertion.

And: Nothing. The Shopping Avenger sent a follow-up e-mail, and still, nothing

Shocking, shocking, shocking.

The Shopping Avenger is not having a very good time this month, as you might be able to tell. These two body-blows, the sudden appearance of this magazine calling itself Consumer Reports and the terrible treatment at the hands of Eddie Bauer, are too much even for a superhero the caliber of Shopping Avenger.

Is this it? Will Shopping Avenger fold up his cape and remove—gingerly—his codpiece? Or will he take an expensive, Slate-funded spa vacation, preferably in the Caribbean, but Florida and Arizona are also acceptable, and recover his superpowers?

Stay tuned, loyal avengers.

Got a consumer score you want settled? Send e-mail to s hoppingavenger@slate.com.