Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Chilling experiences

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My new fridge and freezer (cf. [1]) are finally here, almost on time for the summer heat.

A few observations around my adventures leading up to the delivery:

  1. I began my research by visiting a local physical store*, intending to have a look around at what appliances** were available, compare some prices and measurements, and then talk to a salesman. I had barely entered the right section of the store when I was almost waylaid by a woman, who provided some helpful information,*** but ultimately was more of an obstacle than a help. This included insisting on showing me some specific freezers, insisting that no others would be interesting, being obsessed with the Liebherr**** brand, and spending great time on providing exact details/prices/measurements for one freezer and one fridge, where I would have been better off with ballpark numbers for half-a-dozen. Eventually, I found myself forced to chose between telling her to piss off (if more diplomatically formulated) and just leaving myself. Being additionally discouraged by the high price level, I chose the latter.

    *Sträter, should someone local read this.

    **For the purposes of this text, I will use “appliance” as a short for “freezer and/or fridge”. (However, some of the text might apply to a wider meaning too.)

    ***Notably, concerning roughly what measurements were available and some solution ideas (with an eye on the limited space available). However, none of this information had any impact on my eventual decisions…

    ****One of the more expensive brands, even by German standards.

    This repeats an experience that I have made repeatedly in the past: Stores that project an image of customer service and provides “customer consultants”* often provide negative value to the customer in terms of e.g. information, try to lead the customer to buy what the store wants to sell (as opposed to what the customer wants to buy or would benefit from), and bring up their prices above the rest of the market to pay the “consultants” … Certainly, these “consultants” are usually nothing but salesmen. Three particular red flags are the presence of more salesmen than customers in the store, salesmen who routinely approach customers at sight**, and salesmen who deliberately try to take control of the process***—all of which applied to this store. And, yes, this is how this store operates as a matter of course: I had already been there on a few other occasions, and have always been addressed by two or three different employees. (But a “I am just looking” mostly deflected them—this time, I had more serious intentions and made the mistake of not lying.)

    *“Kundenberater”, a more common word in German than the English alternatives (that I am aware of) that do not include “sales” somewhere in the title.

    **As opposed to being available when the customer approaches them; and as opposed to approaching a customer who has been wandering about for half-an-hour. I experienced a particularly negative example in a Frankfurt store long ago: I had to decline a cup of coffee from the same salesman thrice…

    ***As opposed to e.g. merely asking whether the customer would like assistance; and, should assistance be wanted, as opposed to just assisting.

    I would recommend only visiting this type of store when one already has narrowed down the alternatives considerably and needs additional assistance not available from a more mass-market dealer (e.g. MediaMarkt, cf. below) or an eCommerce* dealer—use them for fine-tuning, not for getting your bearings. Further, I recommend never, ever to buy anything without having first gained an idea of the general price levels for both the item at hand and comparable items in other stores—even if the cited price is within one’s means. (For instance, I could easily afford to buy two Liebherr appliances, but why should I? I am better off sticking to Bomann (cf. below) and using the money saved on something that brings me more value.)

    *Note that my advice against eCommerce largely does not apply here, because this type of appliance will usually be bought for delivery even when from a physical store.

  2. An interesting piece of information, and ultimately the sole gain from my visit, was that the local utility company, WSW, was running a rebate scheme for their customers, where those who bought energy efficient appliances were refunded a certain amount for purchases from certain stores (cf. below), with the normal amounts doubled this May.* Seeing a chance to recoup some of the over-large fees that I am paying,** I researched the topic and took the opportunity.

    *The capitalist might wonder about the business sense of this—they pay people to use less energy, which will reduce their own revenue. The explanation lies in this being a city-owned enterprise, with motivations governed more by politics than business concerns.

    **Including considerable consumption-independent fees that hit low consumers disproportionately (might be a topic for a later text). I have a switch to another provider on my TODO list, but have yet to get around to the research.

    However, the approach of WSW strikes me as doubly ethically dubious: Firstly, it can distort competition on the market, both through giving the (few) “partner” stores* an unfair leg up on the competition, and through driving customers to buy more expensive** appliances than they otherwise would have. In a worst case, producers or stores might chose to raise their prices in the hope that such rebates will keep demand unchanged, in which case the rebate amounts to a subsidy to high-end producers/stores*** with little or no gain for the consumer or the environment. Secondly, it amounts to a redistribution of money from the sum of their customers to one sub-group, namely those who buy new appliances that underlie the right constraints. This potentially includes both a re-distribution to the wealthier, because they are more likely to be able to afford the right appliances and to buy appliances more often, and a potential environmental**** damage through a shortening of the life-cycle of appliances. I would much prefer the scrapping of such programs in favor of more reasonable electricity and gas charges.

    *I am not aware of the criteria and modalities, but only local stores are involved, not all local stores are, and to boot the partners are divided into categories of 30 and 50 Euro rebates (resp. 60 and 100 during May). I would speculate that WSW requires some type of co-payment from the stores, which would lessen the distortion, but it is still bad enough—and without a co-payment (or a similar mechanism) the distortion could be quite severe. (As an interesting special case, the local MediaMarkt is a partner, while the local Saturn is not—despite MediaMarkt and Saturn just being differently branded stores from the same chain.)

    **Normally, only “A+++” energy-rated appliances are covered (cf. below). Because a better energy rating normally implies a higher price, lower-price appliances will tend to be at a disadvantage. This especially because different criteria tends to rise together, leading to an even higher price—chances are that an “A+++” appliance will also have various other quality improvements and “extras”, that are not necessarily wanted or needed by the customer. For instance, many of the Liebherr appliances came with an integrated touch-screen, which to me is more likely to be an additional error source than a benefit.

    ***Cf. the problems within some health-care systems or how the U.S. college tuitions and “financial aid” have risen hand-in-hand.

    ****The motivation behind the rebates is, obviously, to benefit the environment through reducing energy consumption. This, however, will only work as long as the appliances are kept for long enough that the environmental balance is positive, with an eye on energy and materials used to build, deliver, recycle, whatnot. It can fail completely when e.g. someone who has not hitherto had a freezer buys one because the rebate made it more affordable… (Something which might have applied to me, had I not already made the decision to buy one.)

    WSW also provided yet another example of uncooperative or communicatively incompetent staff (and websites): Not having found a specific explanation of the rules, I sent an email to receive clarification of what criteria appliances must fulfill. The answer was “[…] muss die Energieeffizienzklasse A+++, mindestens aber A++ besitzen” (“[…] must have the energy-efficiency-class A+++, but at least A++”). Puzzled, I asked for confirmation that either of A+++ and A++ would be acceptable (as the most likely interpretation), but was met with the claim that A++ was only acceptable when no appliance of the same construction (“baugleiches”) was available—a critical reservation that non-negotiably should have been stated in the first email. Even now, however, this information is too vague: Is this restriction based on the market as a whole, the individual dealer, the individual brand, or some other grouping? What are the exact criteria for determining whether two appliances are “baugleich”?* Instead of wasting more time on this idiot, not to mention taking the risk of getting an answer that later turned out to be faulty, I just decided to try stick to A+++.

    *Indeed, in the strictest interpretation, two appliances that are baugleich would tautologically have the same rating, making the restriction pointless.

  3. After various research and comparisons, I found two suitable appliances from Bomann at 250* resp. 220 Euro for a total of 470 Euro (+ 98 Euro delivery – 120 Euro WSW rebate for an effective 448 Euro) at MediaMarkt. Similar Liebherr (and some other brands) cost more or considerably more than this sum per appliance. I have definitely seen comparable-but-much-higher-end appliances in the area of 800 or 900 Euro each… I very much doubt that the difference in price would be offset by any value-added. As for the specifics of my appliances, it is much to soon (less than a day of ownership) to give them a conclusive “thumbs up”, but they are A+++, they did have a very good** rating on the MediaMarkt website, and so far seem to be excellent.

    *Here and elsewhere I round to avoid numbers like 249.99.

    **Even after adjusting for the extremely inflated scale. They might have been 4.8 resp. 4.9 (or similar) out of 5, while most others landed somewhere between possibly 4.5 and 4.7, which makes it plausible that they would have reached 4 or better even on a scale readjusted to have a mean at 3 (where it belongs).

  4. My purchase at MediaMarkt proved problematic, however. After researching online, I also tried to buy online. This failed due to the shopping cart simply not loading.* I then sent an email to the local store, especially because I feared that the rebates might not apply when buying online, and was gratified by a quick confirmation.

    *While I did not investigate this in detail, I did note that the website used Google APIs hosted at Google, which is a big no-no and a sign of great improfessionalism, e.g. with an eye on protecting the users privacy and reducing the risk of malfunction. For my own protection, I block access to these APIs per filter, which means that any access attempt would lead to a failure.

    However, the contents of some emails were less than ideal, including that my contact refused to send the invoice to me per email, claiming data-protection concerns (“Datenschutztechnischen Gründen”). This is obviously absurd, because the rules are there to protect me and my request that an invoice be sent per email implies a corresponding waiver. Moreover, the invoice would not have contained any data not already present in the email correspondence. Moreover, sending invoices per email has been standard for years and I am not aware of any extremely recent ban on this (and would consider such a ban border-line idiotic). The refusal to send the invoice did not come with a statement of the overall sum, which would have been quite beneficial and was the reason why I had requested the invoice in the first place. This largely due to vagueness as to which of the two possible (and differently priced) delivery schemes applied in my case. (And, no, she did not state which scheme either. While I had not explicitly asked for clarification of this, it should have been clear from context that the information was wished for.) Noting that May 31st had arrived and wanting to avoid any complications* around the WSW rebates, I left it at that and just went to the physical store to pay and collect my invoice.

    *Notably, that there might be some rule that not the date of the purchase counted, but the date when the corresponding vouchers were presented, in which case a further delay would have cost me 60 Euro. Ditto if, absent such a rule, an incompetent counter-part wrongly believed this to be the rule—a fear justified by some of the below.

    At the store, I was met by another employee who knew nothing of the matter and who claimed that my previous contact was out for lunch at the time. Apparently, my request for an invoice at this stage was absurd, and an invoice would normally only be provided once the appliances had arrived. Pushing the issue, I convinced her to have a look and an invoice had indeed already been prepared by my contact. As I paid, I presented the WSW vouchers for them to be deducted, but was met with the claim that this must be done by the information desk.* This is sub-optimal on two counts for me and two counts for MediaMarkt, it self: I (a) have to go stand in a second line for no good reason, (b) have to temporarily put out more money than is needed.** MediaMarkt (a) has to hand out actual cash, rather than just book less money from an account or card,*** (b) has to have at least three different “units” handling money instead of two (regular cashiers, the “Warenausgabe”****, and the information desk).

    *This was originally more annoying than with hindsight, because I had read an email from my original contact sloppily, and failed to note that she did indeed speak of the information desk. However, and in my defense, she had also spoken of “verrechnet” and “Verrechnung”, which in my eyes does imply a deduction from the amount due before payment—not the refund after payment that actually took place.

    **While not an actual problem in my case, others might see a credit-card limit exceeded or an account overdrawn despite having enough money to pay the net amount. This especially at the end of the month…

    ***Note the increased risk of fraud, e.g. in that someone might hand in falsified vouchers while using someone else’s card, leaving MediaMarkt with a charge-back of the full amount and the loss of the cash handed out, because WSW would be unlikely to reimburse the vouchers. Further, I suspect that there might be complications with (non-fraudulent) cancellations, e.g. when someone buys something, changes his mind, and returns the items for a refund—coordinating the refund would be much easier if the rebate had been deducted from the bill and not handed out as cash in an independent transaction.

    ****Where I originally was sent and where my contact worked. I am uncertain as to the translation, but it is the point where ordered goods would be manually collected. (Handling money and payments here is far more reasonable than at the information desk, because there will be customers who wish to pay when collecting the goods.)

    The information desk was a borderline disaster: The young lady there first did not want to take my vouchers at all, and only did so after spending several minutes consulting with colleagues. She then refused the one for the freezer, because only fridges were covered… As I pointed out that WSW had mentioned no such restriction and that my original contact had not protested my mention of the full intended deduction of 120 Euro, she stood her ground for a while, but eventually re-consulted with colleagues and finally backed down—after another several minutes… Apart from the annoyance and time-loss for me, personally, I note both the risk that a less insistent or informed customer would have unnecessarily lost his money and that this held up the queue to the (sole) information counter for everyone else. Moreover, if there were (in some other case) a legitimate rejection, then the customer would have made his prior full payment under faulty assumptions, which would have been avoided, had the amount (ordinarily) been deducted to begin with. (This also raises the interesting question of what would happen, should the customer wish to cancel the purchase due to the changing circumstances.)

    But, unfortunately, it does not end here: My original contact had stated the delivery time as two to four work days. With my order processed and paid on May 31st, this would imply delivery no later than June 5th (Saturday counts as a work day in Germany for “legal purposes”) or on the outside June 6th (assuming a non-standard counting without Saturdays). By the end of June 7th, there still had been no delivery, nor even a notification* about the delivery. I sent an email to inquire, which was met by the claim that a phone-call had been attempted on the 5th, that I had not been reachable and that I should please call back or provide a telephone number (as if one failed phone call would imply that the number was invalid…). Apparently, one call had been attempted, with no follow-up and no email of “we failed to reach you, please call us back”—-leaving the ball in the corner of the customer who might not even know that he had the ball…

    *A call in advance was standard, as is sensible with such large deliveries.

    Due to an intervening Sunday (9th) and public holiday (10th), when all stores are closed, my first chance to react was the 11th. I called shortly after 10 AM, when MediaMarkt was allegedly reachable per telephone. I was met with a basically dead line… I tried again the next day, shortly before 8 PM, when MediaMarkt was allegedly still reachable for the day. Now the line worked, but instead of being directed directly to my contact or her department, I landed in a generic automatic telephone menu. After clicking myself to a human counter-part, I was told that he could no longer put me through (despite this still being before 8 PM), but that he would pass on a message, that I would receive a call the next day (13th), likely immediately after 10 AM, and “please give me your number”. In effect, I called in to (a) give MediaMarkt a number that it already had, and (b) tell it that I was still waiting for a call (which it already knew…).

    By around 2 PM the next day, I had still not received a call, and strongly considered calling again myself—but decided against doing so, to see what would happen. (This text, which I had already started to plan in my head, reads better with “MediaMarkt did not call at all” than with “MediaMarkt did not call in a timely manner”.) Indeed, MediaMarkt did not call at all…

    I now wrote an email, pointed out these deficiencies, and gave MediaMarkt a choice between delivery at 5 PM on respectively the 17th and 18th—which should have been arrangeable without any further back and forth.

    The answer: Delivery ranges of less than three hours were not possible and the range 5 PM to 8 PM was not available until the 19th.*

    *There was no mention whether any earlier range was available; however, even so, doubts must be cast on the originally claimed 2–4 work days for delivery. Going from the 13th to the 19th is already 5 work days, despite the goods now being present in the store (while the 2–4 work days included the original delivery to the store). Further noting the original delay between order and call, I suspect that a true and honest estimate would have been more than the double or something like “2–4 days + a delay until we (a) have reached you, (b) have a free slot that you can actually use”… In my case, we almost reached the 3 week mark…

    I note that (a) we again (cf. [2]) have a counter-part unwilling to go the extra mile to correct its own error, (b) such long delivery ranges are very hard to defend considering the (usually) short distances, delivery through in-house employees (not an external delivery service), and the considerable fee for delivery. (Remember that I paid 98 Euro for this travesty.) In my case, the time to drive from the store to my apartment measures in minutes, and (going by the rough time taken at my house on the 19th) chances are that the delivery men could have driven to me, unpacked, carried the appliances to my apartment, and driven back to the store in less than half-an-hour… Considering the circumstances, an attempt to “squeeze me in” should have been made (even were the official slots taken)—but it was not.

    On the 19th, however, things went fairly smoothly, including the delivery arriving only shortly after 5 PM.

Excursion on delivery intervals:
Even MediaMarkt, even with the considerations mentioned above, cannot realistically guarantee delivery on the minute. This I do not question. I could even see situations where as much as three hours could be relevant, e.g. when two customers in a row live roughly one hour away.* However, for most of the customers, three-hour intervals are too much and something like X o’clock +/- 30 minutes would be much more reasonable and still realistically doable, if need be by giving far away customers different** conditions, both to prevent deliveries to them from screwing up the schedule for others and to apply rules that are easier to keep with the longer distance. Note that this does not automatically that imply deliveries more often than once every three hours will be possible (although they likely will)—the point is that the customer will have a narrower interval of delivery, which makes it easier for him to plan and places lesser constraints on his schedule.

*I am not aware of the delivery ranges of this individual store, but there are sufficiently many MediaMarkts in Germany in general and this part of Germany in particular that so long travel times must be a definite minority scenario.

**Exactly how goes beyond the current scope, especially because I might need more information to make a good suggestion. However, something like +/- one hour and only one slot per day, or +/- one hour and only on Wednesdays, might be doable. To boot, a more differentiated set of fees would be positive, where near-by customers do not implicitly subsidize far-away customers.

Excursion on refunds for poor service/Hornbach:
While I will demand a refund for the delivery costs above, I am not optimistic. However, I will take the opportunity to give the prior offender Hornbach (cf. [2] and related texts) credit for a very un-German restitution: I have eventually received independent 20 Euro refunds for the damage to my shelf and my considerable delivery troubles with the other shelves (the order of which I ultimately canceled)—and I actually received them as money, not as vouchers “for your next purchase”. In this manner, the overall price for the one delivered shelf has been cut from (possibly) 70 Euro to 30 Euro. I would much rather have had my original order delivered in full, with no damages, without the wasted efforts, and without the need to find another source—but credit were credit is due. This unexpected development, combined with the significant portions of the blame that attaches to third parties hired by Hornbach (as opposed to Hornbach, it self), is enough for me to again consider Hornbach as a candidate for future business and to rescind any recommendation to avoid it (that I might or might not have made).

Excursion on making appointments per email vs. telephone:
It might seem like a given that the telephone is better for making appointments than email—and even I, an ardent proponent of email, have long considered this to be the case. Scenarios like the above make me skeptical, because the telephone is useless unless both parties are available at the same time, and due to complications like the dangers with relying on someone else to call vs. the extra own effort of hunting someone down per telephone. Other aspects include the need to check for availability, which is often easier when not on the phone (and especially cell phone), and the benefits of being able to think the situation through.* When coordinating more than two parties, the telephone is likely more cumbersome than email even in an ideal situation…

*E.g. in terms of complications with time to travel from work requiring leaving early, the need to make preparations, other things that might need to be foregone, whether something will clash with a spouses schedule, whether a spouse could stand in, and similar.

All in all, I suspect that email will often be the better option…

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 20, 2019 at 3:39 pm

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