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Sears Maintenance Agreements - Pro

A response to Con

Sears Maintenance Agreements...

"Zeener" of Hoffman Estates, IL

In response to Sears Maintenance Agreements - Con by WW, I offer the following. I have attempted to answer some of the accusations presented by the author and have confirmed some points he attempted to make but have provided a more complete picture.

WW provides some good information on Sears Maintenance Agreements. Unfortunately, he provides just as much misinformation and confusion in his expose. In my 13-year career with Sears, Ive sold appliances and electronics, worked as a sales manager coaching other associates in their sales techniques, and have done a stint in the companys home office in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. I think Im duly qualified to offer a few points that WW missed, and to clarify some errors in his report.

Done before it starts?

The obvious conclusion thats inherent in WWs report from the start is that a Maintenance Agreement is a bad buy. Thats only half right. A Maintenance Agreement, just like any other product sold at any other retailer, is a bad choice for some, and a good choice for others. The reason that Sears sells over 200 types of refrigerators is that one refrigerator wont fit every customers needs but each refrigerator will fit some customers needs. The choice is the customers.

The Maintenance Agreement works the same way. Its certainly not for everybody. But it is for somebody. And its clearly for more than the small minority that WW suggests must experience a product failure within 3 years of their purchase. Heres why. Extension? WW is correct when he points out that Sears wants to distance itself from extended warranties. But he fails to explain why.

An extended warranty is just that. It extends the basic warranty on a piece of merchandise. Most every item on the market today has a limited warranty and comes with a list of things that are excluded from warranty coverage. Coverage on the labor to repair something is usually excluded. So are consumable parts (like filters, batteries, toner, etc.). And since you only have warranty service when something goes wrong, an extension of that warranty is little more than insurance against failure, something you buy expecting the worst but hoping for the best.

The name Maintenance Agreement defines exactly what Sears wants this agreement to be: maintenance. Every mechanical product requires some form of maintenance. With a Maintenance Agreement, Sears assumes the responsibility for the regular maintenance of a piece of merchandise, taking much of that responsibility from the customer. That means that coils on a refrigerator are cleaned annually, maintaining the refrigerators energy efficiency and prolonging the life of the compressor by keeping it from having to work so hard.

That means that spark plugs in a lawn mower are replaced at Sears expense, not the customers. That means that lint in the dryer vent is removed by Sears, allowing greater airflow through a dryer, drying clothes more quickly, and using less electricity. That means that the customer is actually getting something for their money, rather than buying a pig in a poke that they may never see.

Is a Maintenance Agreement for you?

Maybe its not, if you know how to find the coils on your refrigerator and clean them, enjoy tuning up your lawn mower each spring, and can move your dryer and disconnect its exhaust for inspection. Sound too daunting? Sound too time consuming? Then maybe a Maintenance Agreement actually is a good buy for you. Beyond normal maintenance, a Maintenance Agreement also serves as that basic extended warranty. It puts the responsibility for repairs on Sears shoulders for the life of the agreement, meaning that a customer doesnt have to call GE for repairs on a refrigerator, Murray for repairs on a lawn mower, and Maytag for repairs on a dryer. There are no surprise bills when it is discovered that the reason a dryer wont dry is that a lost sock has blocked the lint filter. There are no extra fees for a trip charge for a service call to discover that a repair may be more expensive than replacing a well-worn product.

For someone whos comfortable looking over the shoulder of a service technician and understanding what hes doing, a Maintenance Agreement may not be a good purchase. For someone whos uncomfortable with mechanical repairs and never can quite be comfortable that a repairman is being completely honest when he presents his bill, a Maintenance Agreement may be a wise purchase.

A Maintenance Agreement also covers repairs that wouldnt normally be covered by a limited warranty. The previous sock example is just one such instance. Most anything that occurs during normal use (though not for commercial purposes) is covered by a Maintenance Agreement with no additional expense to the customer. Having trouble unlocking your oven after running the self clean cycle? Cant get your washer to raise the amount of water it pours into the washtub? Cant keep the microwave from burning popcorn? These types of calls are also covered at no additional charge not even the proverbial trip charge.

Again, the benefits of a Maintenance Agreement are obvious to some customers, worthless to others. But clearly, there is a difference between a basic extended warranty and Sears Maintenance Agreement. Changed Mind? In his essay, WW suggests that customers with Maintenance Agreements cancel them and get a portion of their money back. An excellent point!

WW correctly highlights an important difference between a Maintenance Agreement and a run-of-the-mill extended warranty. When you buy a warranty, youve paid your money, youve taken your chances. Not so with a Maintenance Agreement. Sears Agreement reads You may cancel at any time for any reason. If the manufacturers original limited warranty hasnt expired and you havent used the agreement, Sears will refund 100% of your money. Right up until the day the agreement expires, Sears will still refund a prorated portion of the cost of the agreement. Who else in retailing will do that? (Hint: nobody.)

Satisfied?

WW makes the claim that 70% of Sears customers are actually dissatisfied with their purchases of Maintenance Agreements. He asserts that he has researched internet message boards to arrive at his conclusion. This simply contradicts the known facts. Such methodology is clearly not scientific in its approach and does not present a valid statistical sample. WW rightly points out that the company is aware of exactly how many customers cancel the plan. If those numbers were high, certainly Sears wouldnt offer that option. If few customers cancel the agreement, can 70% of customers really be that dissatisfied?

The fact is that the company continues to offer and sell what the customer continues to buy and keep. A product with a high failure or return rate doesnt stay on the shelves long; no retailer wants to sell things that wont stay sold. Maintenance Agreements are subject to this simple logic, as well. History says that 70% of customers who buy a Maintenance Agreement will buy another one in the future.

Conflict?

WW makes the point that the customer and the salesperson are put at odds by Sears because Sears pays commission on the sale of Maintenance Agreements. But WW failed to complain that the company puts the salesperson and customer at odds when Sears pays commission on the sale of merchandise. Why does he see a problem with only one type of commissioned sales? A salesperson will generally make more commission by selling an item that is more profitable to the company. In no way does this put the salesperson at odds with the customer, however.

Sears trains all of its salespeople to sell the way it wants merchandise sold. Over the years, the process has had many names, but it has always been the same basic process. The salesperson is taught to ask questions of the customer to discover their needs, then show the customer the merchandise that has the features and benefits that that customer wants. The salesfloor of every Sears store is even arranged to facilitate that process, making it easy to narrow down the myriad of choices to just a few. The company researches its customer base with exit surveys of customers who didnt buy, focus groups of customers who shop elsewhere, and more. Salespeople are taught that three out of four customers come in to the store with a brand name in mind; of those customers, more than half will walk away if a salesperson tries to push them to another brand.

The message is clear: understand what the customer wants, and sell it to them. The training emphasizes that the customer is in the drivers seat, not the salesperson. Strong arm tactics and brainwashing arent taught and arent encouraged. Again, the logic applies to Maintenance Agreements as well.

WW is correct, however, when he explains that salespeople are taught that most customers will refuse to buy a Maintenance Agreement more than three times before theyll agree to buy one. The reason is simple: theyre used to valueless extended warranties and dont want any part of them. Just like the sales process for physical merchandise, the sales process for intangible goods requires the salesperson to understand the customers needs. The salesperson is performing a service for the customer when she understands fully what the customer wants and advocates a product that provides fits the bill. A salesperson is doing a disservice to the customer by limiting that customers choices. Again, the same logic applies. A salesperson is doing a disservice to a customer by failing to explain the differences between an extended warranty and a Maintenance Agreement but as always, the choice is the customers, not the salespersons.

Misleading?

WW suggests that Sears is misleading its customers by comparing the company to fly-by-night scam artists. He fails to mention, however, that the full terms of the agreement are given to the customer in writing, and that the same terms apply to all customers who buy the agreements. There is no uncertain risk involved. Few multi-level marketing companies provide a money back guarantee. Even fewer get-rich-quick schemes pledge in writing to allow a participant to cancel at any time for any reason. Sears does. The comparison is inadequate and inappropriate.

If there is any misleading going on, it is WWs juxtaposition of Sears against companies of questionable integrity. Common? Unfortunately, WWs attitude is a common one among many Sears salespeople. That attitude seems to stem from the fact that a Maintenance Agreement is an intangible. You cant see it, taste it, touch it, or smell it. Any intangible is a tougher product to sell than one that the customer can see and feel. It requires a salesperson to know every detail about that intangible, to understand its features and benefits, to be able to answer a customers natural concerns about buying something that they cant see. Its also noteworthy that WW is a former Sears employee something else thats common among salespeople with his attitude about sales.

In my career, Ive seen many come and go quickly. No salesperson who thinks he knows whats best for the customer and disregards the customers wishes can be successful and he shouldnt be. If a salesperson were to decide that he knew side-by-side refrigerators were a bad choice for every customer, or that top-loading washers were useless, hed quickly find himself unable to make many sales and would be answering his sales managers questions about his refusal to sell those particular product lines. This is precisely how WW describes his relationship with his own sales manager, revealing much about the success of his short-lived career at Sears. Again, the parallel to Maintenance Agreement sales hold true. If a salesperson isnt giving the customer an option, hes doing the customer a disservice. Worse, hes limiting his own opportunities to satisfy customers and turn a sale into a lifelong relationship.

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Feds Issue New Tire Safety Standards

But agencfy put off setting standards for tires as they age

Feds Issue New Tire Safety Standards...

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued new, more stringent performance requirements that will apply to nearly all new tires for use on cars and trucks. But the agency put off taking action on new standards for tires as they age and when they encounter road hazards, saying it needed more time to study those areas.

"Without question, these new performance requirements will improve tire safety," said NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey W. Runge, M.D.

"I think it's important that they moved ahead and made some improvements . . . but they are just not addressing some of the really hard issues. In that way it's a disappointment," said Joan Claybrook of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

Given the growing popularity of SUVs and other light trucks, NHTSA is extending the tire performance requirements for passenger car tires to the LT tires (load range C, D, and E) commonly used on pickups, vans and SUVs.

The rule strengthens the current requirements for high-speed and endurance tests while adding a low-pressure performance test. It also defers action on other upgrades including new tests for aging and road hazards, and modifications to the current bead unseating test.

Under the new high-speed standards, tires will have to pass performance tests at 87, 93 and 99 mph; the fastest current test is 85 mph. Endurance standards will be increased by 50 percent for distance and speed.

Since it is the first major change to tire standards in over 30 years, manufacturers will be given four years to comply. All covered tires and vehicles must meet the new standards by June 1, 2007.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association, a tiremakers' trade group, said the industry will work with NHTSA on unresolved issues. Members have concerns about subjecting truck tires to tests for car tires because laboratory conditions are not optimized for the larger truck tires, the association said.

Upgraded tire standards were required under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation Act of 2000 (TREAD).

In other rulemaking actions required by the TREAD Act, NHTSA issued a number of revisions to its safety standard for child restraint systems, including amendments for incorporating improved test dummies and updating procedures used to test child restraints. These revisions strengthen the technical underpinnings of the standard and ensure a firmer foundation for possible technical improvements in the future.

Child restraints will be tested using the most advanced test dummies available today and tested to conditions representing current model vehicles, NHTSA said.

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General Electric, Merrill Lynch, Clarica Insurance Downgraded

General Electric, Merrill Lynch, Clarica Insurance Downgraded...

June 24, 2003
General Electric Capital Assurance Company, Merrill Lynch Life Insurance Company, and Clarica Life Insurance Company were among 54 companies downgraded by Weiss Ratings, Inc., in its recent review of 1,144 life and health insurers.

A total of 21 companies, including Healthy Alliance Life Insurance Company, CIGNA Worldwide Insurance Company, and American Community Mutual Insurance Company, received upgrades by Weiss Ratings, the nation's leading independent provider of ratings and analyses of financial services companies, mutual funds, and stocks.

General Electric Capital Assurance Company (Richmond, Va.) was downgraded to C+ (Fair) from B- (Good) due to a significant reduction in its risk-adjusted capital ratio since December 31, 2001. The company's risk-adjusted capital ratio fell to 0.83 at December 31, 2002 compared to a ratio of 1.02 at December 31, 2001, which means that the company has only 83 percent of the capital Weiss Ratings believes it needs given the risks in its business activities.

This decline was caused by a nine percent decline in the company's capital and surplus, from $2.6 billion at December 31, 2001 to $2.4 billion at year-end 2002, resulting from a $14.2 million decrease in net income, from a $4.8 million profit in 2001 to a $9.4 million loss in 2002. The company suffered a $75.3 million loss on the sale of its invested assets during 2002.

Merrill Lynch Life Insurance Company (Princeton, N.J.) was downgraded to C+ (Fair) from B (Good) due to a substantial decline in earnings. Net income fell $189.1 million, from a $48.1 million profit in 2001 to a $141 million loss in 2002. Premium revenue decreased $568.8 million, or 46.5 percent, from $1.2 billion in 2001 to $654.5 million in 2002. The revenue decline was primarily due to a $536 million drop in individual annuity premium. The decline in earnings considerably weakened the company's capital position, which dropped from $311.5 million at year-end 2001 to $136.8 million at December 31, 2002.

Clarica Life Insurance Company (Fargo, N.D.) was downgraded to C+ (Fair) from B- (Good) due to a significant decline in earnings over the last two years. Net income plummeted $42 million, from a $16.3 million profit in 2000 to a $25.7 million loss in 2002. Capital and surplus decreased by $19.5 million, from $141.8 million at December 31, 2001 to $122.3 million at the end of 2002. Likewise, return-on-equity dropped to a negative eight percent compared to 6.1 percent in 2000. This resulted in a decline in the company's risk-adjusted capital ratio, which fell to 1.17 compared to a ratio of 1.49 at year-end 2000.

21 Companies Receive Weiss Safety Rating Upgrades

Healthy Alliance Life Insurance Company (St. Louis, Mo.) was upgraded to B- (Good) from C+ (Fair) based on steadily improved performance since December 31, 2000. Net income increased by $16.3 million, from $16.9 million in 2000 to $33.2 million in 2002. During this same period, premiums surged by $397.2 million, from $592.5 million to $989.7 million. The two-year growth in revenue was driven by premium increases of $584 million in individual health products, while group health contributed $26 million in profits to the company's bottom line. The increase in profitability has enabled the company to enhance its capital position, with capital and surplus growing $33.9 million to $137.6 million as of December 31, 2002 compared to $103.7 million at year-end 2000. Additionally, total assets rose from $280 million at December 31, 2000 to $516.2 million at year-end 2002.

CIGNA Worldwide Insurance Company (Wilmington, Del.) was upgraded to C- (Fair) from D+ (Weak) due to continuous improvement in its capital position since year-end 2000. Net income rose from $0.4 million in 2000 to $14.4 million in 2002, with individual life and group health contributing profit increases of $7.3 million and $5.8 million, respectively. Capital and surplus increased by $21.3 million to $35.1 million at the end of 2002 compared to $13.8 million at December 31, 2000. Total assets rose from $239.2 million at December 31, 2000 to $313 million at year-end 2002. Consequently, the company's risk-adjusted capital ratio also increased, rising to 1.84 compared to a ratio of 0.76 at year-end 2000.

American Community Mutual Insurance Company (Livonia, Mich.) was upgraded to C- (Fair) from D (Weak) based on significantly improved performance since year-end 2000. Premium income jumped $106.2 million, from $145.6 million during 2000 to $251.8 million during 2002. Net income increased from a loss of $25.2 million during 2000 to a profit of $18.5 million during 2002. The two business lines primarily responsible for the turnaround were group health and individual health, which earned $24.6 million and $18.9 million, respectively. The increase in profitability has enabled the company to enhance its capital position, with capital and surplus growing $42.1 million to $64.1 million as of December 31, 2002 compared to $22 million at year-end 2000. As a result, the company's risk-adjusted capital ratio also increased, rising to 2.11 compared to a ratio of 1.06 at year-end 2000.

Weiss Ratings issues safety ratings on more than 15,000 financial institutions, including HMOs, life and health insurers, Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, property and casualty insurers, banks and brokers. Weiss also rates the risk-adjusted performance of more than 11,000 mutual funds and more than 9,000 stocks. Weiss Ratings is the only major rating agency that receives no compensation from the companies it rates. Revenues are derived strictly from sales of its products to consumers, businesses, and libraries.

Consumers needing more information on the financial safety of a specific company can purchase a rating and summary analysis for as little as $7.95 through the Weiss Ratings website at www.WeissRatings.com, or starting at $15 by calling 800-289-9222.

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Magazine Solicitors Fined $1 Million

Telemarketers were charged with misrepresenting the costs and conditions of packages of magazine subscriptions

The corporations have agreed to a $1.1 million civil penalty, which is suspended upon payments totaling $350,000, based on the financial status of the corp...

Telemarketers charged with misrepresenting the costs and conditions of packages of magazine subscriptions and refusing to honor cancellation and refund requests have agreed to settle charges that they violated federal law.

The settlement with Cross Media Marketing Corporation and its subsidiary Media Outsourcing, Inc. bars deceptive sales practices and requires the companies to monitor claims and disclosures their sales agents make. In addition, the corporations have agreed to a $1.1 million civil penalty, which is suspended upon payments totaling $350,000, based on the financial status of the corporations.

In April 2002, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice charged the telemarketers, who also operate under the name Consolidated Media Services or CMS, with violating federal laws by misrepresenting and failing to disclose adequately the costs and conditions of magazine subscription agreements and buying-club memberships.

The complaint alleged that the defendants' telemarketers either call consumers offering free prizes and sweepstakes opportunities or send mailings soliciting consumers to call the telemarketers. Near the end of these calls, the telemarketers pitch the magazine subscription packages with allegedly misleading suggestions that the consumers will get some "free" magazines and get others at a small weekly cost.

"Often consumers have not agreed to purchase anything, or agreed but attempt to cancel the order, yet are charged on their credit card. In addition, consumers often are billed for buying clubs after accepting what they are told is a free trial membership," according to court documents.

The complaint alleged that neither the "free" memberships nor the "free" magazines are free. The magazine subscription "bundles" allegedly cost consumers an average of $600. The complaint further alleged that the defendants tell consumers who try to cancel magazines either during verification calls, or later when they discover misrepresentations, that they cannot not cancel.

The complaint also charged that the defendants failed to cancel subscriptions and pay refunds, and failed to monitor their independent sales representatives and discontinue dealing with those who were violating federal law. The complaint further alleged that the defendants were violating a previously issued FTC order prohibiting deceptive practices in selling magazines.

The named defendants include Cross Media, a Delaware corporation based in New York; Media Outsourcing, based in Atlanta, Georgia; Ronald S. Altbach, then-chief executive officer and chairman of Cross Media and president of Media Outsourcing; Dennis Gougion, a vice president; and Richard Prochnow, who previously owned and operated the magazine telemarketing business under the names Direct Sales Inc. and Magazine Sweepstakes Ltd.

The settlement with Dennis H. Gougion, an officer of the companies, similarly bars deceptive sales practices and requires him to post a $1 million performance bond if he engages in telemarketing or assists others engaged in telemarketing in any way other than performing specified publisher-seller liaison responsibilities. Gougion has agreed to a $100,000 civil penalty suspended upon payment of $10,000, based on his financial status.

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Lipitor Recall Expanded

FDA is trying to track down counterfeit versions of the drug

Lipitor Recall Expanded...

The Food and Drug Administration has expanded its nationwide recall of certain Lipitor products, trying to track down counterfeit versions of the drug. The expanded recall involves products repacked by Med-Pro Inc., of Lexington, Neb., and distributed by Albers Medical Distributors Inc., of Kansas City, Mo.

The came as researchers found the Pfizer, Inc. drug helps reduce strokes and heart attacks in patients with Type II diabetes.

The FDA said the action is part of its continuing investigation into the counterfeiting of the popular drug. Officials said the FDA's Forensic Chemistry Center in Cincinnati has determined the counterfeit tablets tested so far do, in fact, contain the chemical atorvastatin, the active ingredient of Lipitor.

The analysis has not identified any harmful substances in the counterfeit tablets, although analytical testing continues, the FDA said.

Patients who have any Lipitor bottles labeled as "Repackaged by: MED-PRO, Inc.; Lexington, NE 68850" should not take the medication and should instead return it to their pharmacy.

Lipitor blocks the body's ability to produce cholesterol, thus preventing or reducing the harmful build-up of plaque in artery walls that contributes to heart disease, stroke and other maladies. Lipitor is among the best-selling pharmaceuticals ever developed.

Clinical Trial Stopped

So successful was Lipitor in preventing strokes and heart attacks in patients with type II diabetes that a four-year clinical trial was halted mid-stream so that all patients in the study could begin taking the drug, Pfizer announced.

The trial included 2,800 diabetes patients in the United Kingdom and Ireland with no history of heart disease or stroke. Diabetics are at high risk of cardiovascular problems because the high levels of blood sugar that accompany diabetes can damage blood vessels.

Halting a clinical trial in midstream is unusual but not unprecedented. It occurs when a drug or treatment is so clearly effective that it would be unethical to allow others in the trial to continue taking a placebo or another drug.

Another trial of Lipitor, involving patients with normal or slightly elevated cholesterol levels, was halted late last year when patients taking it had fewer fatal coronary incidents and non-fatal heart attacks than patients receiving placebos.

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Babi Italia Cribs Recalled

Sold at Babies 'R Us

Babi Italia Cribs Recalled -- Sold at Babies 'R Us...

June 4, 2003 -- Babi Italia is voluntarily recalling to replace crib drop-side rails for about 2,000 "Tiffany" and "Josephine" model cribs. The slats on the drop-side rails can come loose or detach. A child's head can get caught in the space left by loose or missing slats, presenting an entrapment hazard. In addition, children can fall through the slat opening.

The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

CribCPSC and LaJobi have received 41 reports of slats separating from rails of the crib. One child became entrapped between slats that came loose. Ten children fell out of the crib when the slats came out of the drop-side rail. No serious injuries have been reported.

The "Tiffany" and "Josephine" model cribs are made of solid natural wood with a chest of drawers attached to the footboard. The cribs can be converted into a toddler bed and an adult bed. The Tiffany cribs were manufactured from June through October 2001 and the Josephine cribs were manufactured from January through October 2001. The crib manufacture date code is located on the inside bottom of the headboard. The four middle numbers inside the eight-digit production number indicate the month and year of manufacture.

Tiffany cribs with production date codes (four middle numbers) 0601, 0701, 0801, 0901 and 1001 and Josephine cribs with production date codes (four middle numbers) 0101, 0201, 0301, 0401, 0501, 0601, 0701, 0801, 0901, and 1001 are included in the recall.

Babies R Us sold the recalled cribs exclusively from July 2001 through January 2003 for about $500.

Consumers should stop using these cribs immediately and contact LaJobi immediately to receive replacement drop-side rails. Consumers should contact LaJobi at (877) 440-2224 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday. Consumers also can visit the firm's Web site at www.babiitalia.com.

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Q-Ray Claims False, Feds Charge

Think a bracelet can cure pain?

The Federal Trade Commission has charged Illinois-based marketers of a purported pain-relief product called the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet with making false an...

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