Along with the warm weather, April showers and green leaves of Spring, so too each year come the complaints about Gardeners' Choice, a mail-order horticulture company that hundreds of consumers say delivers dead plants or fails to deliver any plant and is nearly impossible to contact to get a refund or any answer.
Although the company's lawyer provided few answers, he has set up a special e-mail address for ConsumerAffairs.com readers that he promises will yield results.
Since 2000, ConsumerAffairs.com has been hit hard every Spring with complaints from angry gardeners, about 250 total. Many say their Gardeners' Choice orders never arrived from the company that has advertised its Giant Tomatoes for years on infomercials.
"I ordered tomato plants in February 2008 from Gardeners' Choice," Mark of Corbin, Ky. wrote. "I never received them, but they charged my credit card 60 days later."
Those who do receive their orders often say the plants are dead or dying.
"I ordered $80.81 worth of plants," wrote Kori of Locust Grove, Ga. "Most of what came here looked dead, nothing was marked. I ordered three trees, I received two, one was only three inches, and I lost it when I went to plant it, it was so small. I ordered three rose bushes, got two, not sure if they are alive or not. I planted them, haven't seen any growth yet, they looked like gnarled sticks."
Frederic Ury, an attorney who represents Gardeners' Choice and its parent company, Lipenwald Direct Response Marketing, had no response as to why the company sometimes fails to deliver anything, but said that some plants die during the shipment.
"No questions asked"
Regardless, consumers can request a refund or a new plant if they're not happy in any way, he said.
"If something arrives that's either dead, late, can't use, whatever, they get a refund. No questions asked," Ury said. "If they want a new plant, they get a new plant, no questions asked."
While many consumers would love to get a refund or new plant, most of the annual complainants say they have trouble getting in touch with Gardeners' Choice either via the e-mail address or local phone number provided on the company's website.
"In February I sent a check for $13.98 for four tomato trees," Harold of Marriottsville, Md. wrote. "Here it is May 14 and no plants. Their phone is always busy and they don't reply to e-mail."
What to do
So what can consumers do to avoid these problems?
The simplest solution is to buy plants locally at a nursery, supermarket or discount superstore, said David Ellis, editor of The American Gardener, although mail order nurseries are a great way for consumers to buy rare plants, he said. But he encouraged consumers to peruse reviews at the Garden Watchdog before purchasing any plant from a catalog or website. Gardeners' Choice has four positive, seven neutral and 25 negative reviews over the past 12 months on the Garden Watchdog.
He also suggested purchasing from a mail order nursery that is within a relatively close proximity since plants can die during long shipments.
Equally important -- don't pay by check when ordering merchandise by mail, telephone or the Internet. You have no recourse if you're dissatisfied. Use a credit (not debit) card, which gives you 60 days to contest any charge.
As the Gardeners' Choice complaints attest, once you've sent someone your money, it can be difficult to re-open the transaction.
ConsumerAffairs.com put itself in the place of an unhappy customer. We tried calling the long distance number more than 20 times. While their automatic message picks up, incurring long distance charges, choosing either of the two options for sales or customer service usually resulted in our being disconnected. The three times we weren't disconnected we were greeted by a busy signal. Not once did we speak to anyone. Two emails were answered within a few hours.
Ury agreed that the company's customer service is lacking but did not say anything was going to be done about it.
He did set up a special e-mail address for ConsumerAffairs.com readers which he guaranteed would yield responses. That e-mail is: email@example.com.
Consumers may also want to contact the Gardeners' Choice parent company, Lipenwald, based in Norwalk, Conn. ConsumerAffairs.com had no difficulty contacting the company through its direct line: (203) 852-0001.