For holiday shoppers, retailers' approach to fees, returns and other practices can bring praise or anger. And when customers rant or rave, Consumer Reports takes note — and compiles them into its annual "Naughty and Nice" list of companies.
"They're policies and practices that people either felt were consumer-friendly or not," Consumer Reports senior editor Tod Marks tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. He adds that the list isn't related to the ratings his magazine is known for.
The list includes 20 widely known companies — such as grocery stores Publix and Safeway (nice), and airlines Delta and Spirit (naughty).
The "naughty" offenses range from BMW and other carmakers' omission of spare tires in new models, and the clothing chain Forever 21's two separate policies for online and in-store returns.
Of particular note in this holiday season, retailer Abe's of Maine was criticized for the many exceptions to its 30-day money-back guarantee. Marks says that under the policy, the seller of electronics and appliances doesn't include microwaves, watches, TVs, laptops and other items.
"Really, people are just so frustrated," he says. "And they're primarily frustrated because of the inability, or an unwillingness on the part of a lot of companies, to just simply listen to them."
On the "Nice" list, the return policies at Kohl's and Nordstrom came in for praise, as did the all-inclusive pricing of the Drury Hotel chain.
The Red Wing Shoe Co. was commended for allowing no-questions-asked returns of its boots. And PNC Bank won fans for offering a simple, unglamorous product: a free basic checking account, with no minimum balance.
Marks adds that a spot on the "Naughty and Nice" list doesn't necessarily mean a company is making a bad product.
"Oftentimes, we see companies that do very well in our survey, maybe they'll pop up on the naughty list," Marks says. "And conversely, we'll see companies that don't do so well sometimes have a nice policy ... We've got the good, the bad, and the ugly."
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When you're doing your holiday shopping, the small things count. A moment of kindness might make you eternally grateful to a retailer and an unexpected fee can enrage you.
Consumer Reports has been compiling rants and raves and has an annual "Naughty and Nice" list of company policies. We've called Consumer Reports senior editor Tod Marks to find out more.
Welcome to the program, sir.
TOD MARKS: Ah, my pleasure to be here with you.
INSKEEP: Yeah, it's interesting to see that fees get a lot of people angry. Even if they're relatively small fees, people just don't like to feel they've been had.
MARKS: What's the old expression, it's little things that kill a person?
MARKS: Yeah. You're absolutely right. Companies were dinged for hidden fees, tricky fees and fine print. The unexpected is always what brings a little aggravation to the forefront.
INSKEEP: What are some examples?
MARKS: Well, we shopped for a toaster on CompUSA's website. Believe it or not they do sell toasters.
MARKS: And we went to check out. We saw a free download for computer antivirus software on the invoice. The freebie it says lasts for six months. But afterwards, what they don't tell you is you get a bill for $49.99....
MARKS: ...according to a customer service rep we called, unless you kind of proactively act to cancel the subscription before that trial period ends. Now here's another. Spirit Air: We empower you to save money on air travel by offering ultralow fares with a range of optional services - including bags - for a fee. Spirit says that on its website. And that allows you the freedom to choose only the extras you value. Well, that's great. However, if you value almost anything other than the airfare itself, you're really likely to dig into your wallet. The company just upped the freight, believe it or not, to a maximum of $100 to stow a carry-on in an overhead bin. Now that's more than you would pay for a checked bag.
INSKEEP: OK. So you also have on your list here Ticketmaster.
INSKEEP: I guess if you buy a ticket for concert through Ticketmaster, there's the price of the ticket, there's whatever taxes, and then $2.50 to print the ticket.
MARKS: Their stated policy is we charge customers $2.50 per order to print out their own tickets. Now, that's especially hard to justify since Ticketmaster will actually ship tickets to your home via snail mail for free. But Ticketmaster says they'll ship them at a leisurely 10 to 14 days of purchase, which may be insufficient lead time for some events.
In fairness to them, they claim it's the venue that has control and that it's their priority to get the printed home fee removed.
INSKEEP: OK. So who's somebody who's doing well?
MARKS: Well, there a lot of really nice guys out there - Kohl's. Some high-end retailers are known for their particularly generous return policies, like Nordstrom. But that large yes doesn't always translate to more middle-of-the-road merchants, and we say Kohl's is an exception because they have a no-questions-asked, hassle-free return policy for all purchases, and without any time limit. That's something a lot of other merchants in their class don't offer, so we like that.
INSKEEP: Would you argue to retailers that it is worth it to them to bear the extra expense, to be a little friendlier, to have a nicer return policy, to add a few more options on to the product for nothing?
MARKS: Well, absolutely. I mean, I understand that businesses have to make a profit, less will not stay in business. But there are those that try to give the appearance of being friendlier than they are. You know, we can talk about as an example that made the Naughty list this year was Abe's of Maine. It's an eTailer. It sells appliances, electronics. It's a big online company. And they have a statement that says: We would gladly help you exchange or return a product if you're dissatisfied, and they back it up with a 30-day money-back guarantee. But there's a little asterisk after that statement. That little asterisk hides a laundry list of exceptions to the policy: fitness equipment, large appliances, microwaves, wine coolers, humidifiers, sunglasses, watches, so far...
MARKS: ...it goes on and on.
INSKEEP: That's when people think the retailer is dishonest.
MARKS: Yeah. It makes them feel like, you know, I'd rather do business maybe with somebody whose kind of bluntly states, here's the way we do business.
INSKEEP: Tod Marks is senior editor at Consumer Reports. Thanks very much.
MARKS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.