If you spend your
time, as I do, reading and editing consumer complaints and
reporting about misfortunes that befall consumers, you fall prey to
a condition similar to agoraphobia (fear of the outdoors).
After more than 12 years at ConsumerAffairs.com, you might
expect that I would have an advanced case of consumerophobia (fear
of buying stuff). But in fact, I don't and it's not because I'm a
particularly careful consumer. Rather the opposite in fact: I
expect things to go wrong and am therefore not surprised or
disappointed when they do. When things go right, it's a pleasant
Thus, when a relative purchased a tiny but pleasant waterfront
apartment (photo) on Great South Bay in Sayville, N.Y., I
volunteered to handle the set-up chores, figuring this would give
me an excuse to buy lots of toys while also conducting a real-world
test of companies our readers frequently complain about.
Since Sayville is way out East on Long Island and I live way
down South (comparatively speaking) in Northern Virginia, the first
thing I did was conduct a comprehensive study of my transportation
situation. After all, I would be running up and down the New Jersey
Turnpike and blasting out the Belt Parkway through Brooklyn, a
grueling test of car and driver.
two-seater that lolls around my garage was, as it is for most
things, useless. Too small. My long-suffering spouse's Saturn Vue
wouldn't do. Too old and not nimble enough for chaotic high-speed
East Coast traffic.
So after extensive research, consisting mostly of poring through
old car magazines at the dentist's office, I stopped into
Fairfax Volkswagen on my way
to a concert one night.
“Got any all-wheel drive (AWD) Tiguans in stock?” I
asked. They had one, all decked out with big alloy wheels, GPS,
87-speaker stereo (or something like that), nuclear headlights and
“Good, wrap it up and write me a 36-month lease. I'll be
back after the concert.”
It wasn't quite ready that night but was all washed up and ready
to roll when I dropped by a few days later. The lease deal was just
as described – a few thousand down and a monthly payment of
about $400, including maintenance. Like many consumers, I don't
like to dicker over price and, realistically, as the dealership had
only one AWD in stock, my chances of chipping at the price seemed
The Tiguan, a “crossover,” is everything the VW
Touareg is not. It's small where the Touareg is big and economical
where the Touareg is boastfully expensive. Cargo room is not great
but with the back seats down, it's big enough to jam in two big
chairs and a few lamps or end tables.
Its 2-liter turbocharged engine and 6-speed electronic
transmission make for a very lively little package. Cargo space is
big enough for most chores and gas mileage on several trips up and
down the Turnpike and around Long Island worked out to 24.9 miles
per gallon. Handling and acceleration are excellent and the
all-wheel-drive makes this overgrown Jetta feel like it's nailed to
Verdict: No worries. Great little car, a bit more expensive than
comparable crossovers from Honda, Hyundai and Toyota but a lot
better-looking and much more fun to drive.
OK, so at that point we had the condo and a car but not much
else. The task of furnishing the condo turned out to be relatively
We started at Macy's
where we picked out a queen-sized leather sleeper couch for the
living room. It cost a few bucks under $1,000 and seemed to be well
put together if weight is any indication. The leather was fairly
thick and seemed sturdy. Furniture in a beach house takes a lot of
wear so we wan't something durable.
But what about delivery? Our complaints about Macy's Furniture
would fill a good-sized moving van, and many of them are beefs
about botched or missed deliveries.
We began to quake in trepidation, first because we had to cancel
a scheduled delivery owing to a blizzard. I motored north a few
days before the replacement date and spent the next couple of
nights sleeping on a cot that I believe once had something to do
with the Boy Scouts. My physicians expect me to regain partial
movement later this decade.
The dread day approached. A Macy's computer called to confirm
the date and three-hour window. As the day dawned, a cold and very
blustery wind blew in off the Atlantic, making it difficult to walk
along the narrow outside walkway that leads to the condo after one
ascends some narrow, winding stairs and navigates several doors
that tend to slam without warning.
Right on time, the men from Macy's showed up – three
rather skinny little guys who didn't look as though they could lift
the couch much less carry it up the stairs and along the gangplank
through the gale-force winds.
But a few minutes later, the couch was set up and unwrapped and
the lads were removing the little red booties they had donned
before entering the condo and were rolling up the red Macy's
carpet. A bit later, we filled out the online survey from Macy's,
giving the delivery team an A+.
Not being one to shirk our duties, we slept on the thing a few
times and also lounged around on it. No problems found. The leather
seems durable but is soft enough to keep couch potatoes
Verdict: No worries. Good value and quality, excellent
The IKEA experience also
involved delivery, except that this time it was up to me and Mr.
Tiguan. My spouse had furnished me with a list of chairs, tables,
etc., complete with the IKEA stock numbers. This meant I could
ignore the IKEA showroom and go directly to the self check-out.
The first day I
bought two leather tulip chairs. They came in two huge boxes, which
fit nicely into the Tiguan. I wrestled the chairs up the stairs,
screwed the legs on, plopped down on one and put my feet up on the
other while enjoying an adult beverage.
The chairs are comfortable but have the rather dangerous habit
of tipping over if you lean on them or even tilt a little to the
side. The legs need to a bit farther out towards the edge of the
chair and perhaps a little bigger. This is actually not a small
defect, as it could cause personal injury.
My next trip
to IKEA netted an odd chair I would describe as a sort of Norwegian
version of the bentwood rocker, minus the rockers, and a couple of
small end tables. These came in small boxes, a tip-off that
“minor assembly” lay ahead.
The tables were simple enough but the chair remained in a
desultory state for more than a week. The three layers of fabric
which fit over the metal frame were – to put it simply
– too damned small. Whenever I had some spare time, I would
stop by the disassembled chair and tug vigorously on the various
fabrics, sort of like trying to squirm into a uniform or suit that
fit just great 30 years ago.
I finally got everything stretched into shape on my last day.
The chair looks OK and is quite comfortable, though I have my
doubts that it would withstand extended use by a person of
Verdict: I wish I liked IKEA's stuff a bit more. It is always a
little disappointing. I can't honestly say I think any of this
stuff will wear very well and the chairs are actually a safety
One of the crucial
elements in this project was the bed – ordered by my spouse
from some company in Canada, the name of which I have unfortunately
lost. It is a platform bed with drawers in the bottom and storage
space in the headboard, designed for tight spaces.
Customers are warned that the thing weighs about as much as Mars
and is delivered by freight, so delivery dates are approximate. We
were given a 10-day window, the first day being a Thursday.
On Thursday, I pulled into the condo parking lot after running
an errand around noon and saw Big Brown pulling out. We exchanged
waves and I made my way upstairs, where – lo! – outside
the condo door (up all those stairs and through all those doors)
were three roughly eight-foot-long, very heavy cardboard cartons,
along with a “Sorry we missed you note” from UPS.
It took quite a bit of blundering around, with lots of help from
the family's resident handyman, to get the thing put together. Not
the least of the problems was that the bedroom was just big enough
to hold the bed – which makes it kind of hard to spread out
all the pieces and put the bed together.
The next time I saw the UPS guy, I thanked him profusely for
lugging the stuff up there. He smiled and said that he got the best
part of the bargain since he didn't have to assemble it.
Verdict: Big Brown comes through again. Accidents do happen
(there was that unfortunate incident when a front-end loader rolled
over a laptop I had sent myself) but all things considered I have
had excellent service from UPS and its great drivers for many
Long Island is Sleepy's home and there seem to be more Sleepy's
stores than Starbucks. My biggest problem in buying a mattress was
figuring out which of four or five Sleepy's stores in the area was
the most convenient.
I picked one
at random and walked in. No one else was there except for the
salesman. Before he could speak, I told him I wanted a queen-sized
Serta Perfect Sleeper, firm. Many retail salesmen would be unable
to resist launching into their customary sales pitch despite the
customer having already stated his decision but, not wanting to
snooze past the close, the Sleepy's rep asked merely, “You
sure you don't want to try one out?”
“I try one out every night,” I assured him.
He ushered me to his computer, took down my info, traded a few
tales and announced that the earliest delivery would be in two days
between 10 and 2. He explained the warranty in great detail,
including the conditions under which the mattress could be returned
if it proved unsatisfactory.
Total price was in the $1,500 range, including box spring, liner
and delivery. I may lose my membership in the Crusading Consumerist
Club for saying this but I am not a big comparison shopper. The
price seemed about right. Besides, I had my wife's credit card.
A couple of days later, when the gale force winds were once
again blowing, two stout and chipper guys showed up on schedule,
fought their way up the stairs and in two quick trips delivered the
mattress, box spring and liner. They set everything up, invited me
to flop down on it (I obliged this time), collected my signature
and left. Elapsed time: 10 minutes.
Verdict: Nothing to lose any sleep over. Everything went like
clockwork, as people used to say back when clocks were common.
Things were coming
together but not until Verizon's
FiOS was installed would I consider the place truly livable.
Fortunately, while waiting for the FiOS man, I was able to work by
using my Verizon Wireless 3g
broadband card, also called the MiFi. Service was very good –
download speeds around 3 mbs, decent uploads. (Update: I have since
upgraded to a 4g card and the difference is astounding. I use it
regularly in Los Angeles, where it delivers download speeds that
sometimes hit 20 mbs – cable modem speed.)
Verizon was busy taking over the world and I couldn't get an
installation appointment until the following Tuesday. Monday night,
therefore, entailed a wild drive up the Turnpike to get to Sayville
before FiOS showed up the next day “between 8 .m. and 4
FiOS finally put in an appearance around noon. Hearing a knock,
I opened the door to find a sight that has often greeted me in
matters telephonic: a Verizon installer shaking his head and
muttering, “Not going to happen.”
There were several reasons FiOS couldn't be installed, he said,
some technical, others legal. I pointed out that I had filled out
numerous online forms and been told installation would be a snap.
Nope, he said. Muttering and shaking his head, the FiOS guy drove
off, promising to speak to someone about it. He was at least true
to his word. Some desk jockey from Verizon called a few days later
to say it really was too bad I couldn't have their service, even
though at least one other person in the condo complex has it.
Something about not enough outlets available.
Verdict: It's amazing that Verizon has spent billions to build
such an advanced product while doing such a terrible job of selling
it, installing it and servicing it. We had our FiOS connection in
Virginia taken out because it sped along at a crawl. It wasn't
until after the service had been shut off and we had gone back to
Cox Communications that Verizon offered to come out and try to fix
I then took the action I had tried to avoid. I called
Cablevision. No one ever has
a good word for Cablevision, which besides NBC Universal also owns
Newsday, Long Island's only newspaper of any import. The customer
service rep offered me a triple-play package (phone, TV,
Nope, I said, all I want is a 30 mps Internet feed. I'll use my
cell phone, Skype and Netflix for the rest. He gave me no argument
and signed me up for something around $40 per month.
Two days later (as opposed to the month or so it took to get
Verizon to come out and do nothing), the Comcast installer arrived,
hooked up a modem to the already-installed coax, tested it and
left. Elapsed time: about ten minutes.
I hustled over to Best
Buy, where a salesman fell into step beside me and asked
what I wanted. “Wireless router,” I said. He handed me
a dual-band Netgear that was
the exact model I had in mind and, without breaking stride, I beat
it over to the cashier line, grabbed a Blu-ray of the first season
of “The Walking Dead” (strong family resemblance) and
was soon back in the Tiguan.
As expected, setting up the router was a snap and in a few
minutes, I was watching “Law and Order” via Netflix,
checking out the latest FiOS complaints on my laptop and carrying
on a rather trite conversation via Skype.
After a few months of occasional drop-ins to see how everything
is going, I have heard no complaints about Cablevision, except that
service disappears sporadically for no apparent reason.
Verdict: So far, so good. Better than expected, in fact.
While we're on the subject of electronics, I wanted an
easy-to-use DVD/streaming video system that was not too expensive
and didn't take up too much room, as the property in question is
truly tiny. Turning to Amazon.com, I ordered a 26-inch ASUS computer monitor and an LG Blu-ray DVD player/streaming video
Wanting to avoid
having lots of wires, I looked for an all-in-one audio system to
replace the built-in monitor speakers and provide a little more
oomph. I settled on the ZVOX 525 low-profile sound system, $329 from
Amazon. You've heard of a black box? This amazing unit is just that
– a short but deep black box that slips in underneath the
monitor. It uses phase-shifting (or something) and a bunch of small
speakers to create a surround-sound effect that is quite
The sound quality is quite good. A little fiddling will get you
something that lends just the right degree of crispness to dialogue
without blasting your next-door neighbors out of bed.
Verdict: Amazon never disappoints. Selection is outstanding,
prices competitive and things show up on schedule.
It pains me to say it, but things went pretty well, with the
exception of Verizon and IKEA. Back in 1998, when we started
ConsumerAffairs.com, there was a widespread attitude among
consumers that retailers and product manufacturers didn't much care
whether their customers were satisfied.
Whether or not this was true is open to question but certainly,
consumers had fewer ways of making their complaints and compliments
public and businesses had fewer communication channels at their
Now, nearly every transaction is followed up by a survey of some
kind, asking the customer to rate the product, service and the
sales and delivery process. Do I want to take some of the credit
for this? Sure, why not? Certainly there are still lots of problems
with consumer goods (and everything else) but as this little
experiment showed, it is possible to conduct a number of
treacherous tasks in a short period of time and come out with a
pretty good outcome.
I had a good time doing this and, more importantly, I plan to
make frequent return visits to the Closet By the Sea this summer,
just to make sure everything remains ship-shape.
Furnishing a Closet by the Sea
Truman conducts a real-world test of the companies often pilloried by our readers...