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Consumer Watch: Think twice before you pay

Aug. 15, 2009 - 11:01AM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 15, 2009 - 11:01AM  |  
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A 20-year-old soldier headed to the exchange at Fort Bliss, Texas, on June 7 to buy a phone card. By the time he left, he had committed to buying more than $3,000 worth of books.

He regretted the impulse purchase almost immediately.

His experience serves as a cautionary tale: Big-ticket purchases should never be bought on the spur of the moment. Before making a purchase, you need to know exactly what you want, what you are getting and the terms of the deal.

The soldier and the book salesman, working as a concessionaire in the area outside the exchange, differ in their recollection of the transaction.

The soldier said the salesman approached him as he walked by and asked him to come over to the booth.

"Then he started on with this sales pitch," for a set of encyclopedias, said the soldier, who asked not to be named. "He said [they] would be useful for college."

The salesman used a computer at his booth to punch up the Defense Finance and Accounting Service's MyPay site, then guided the soldier through the system to set up an allotment to pay for the books — about $98 per month for 45 months, at an interest rate of 18 percent.

At that rate, the soldier would end up paying $4,425.30 for a set of books.

Terry Thompson, the salesman, said the deal was not for encyclopedias.

"We don't sell encyclopedias," Thompson said in a telephone interview from Bahrain, where he was traveling on business. "There's no reason to sell them anymore. You can buy them on a disk for $10. We have an education program with history books, and a collection of all the great minds."

That collection is 60 volumes of the writings of various authors, he said. He said he was not certain what extra products this soldier bought in his $3,000 package.

"I showed him a sample volume," said Thompson, who is also the owner of the company, U.M.Q.U.A. International, that sells these products only on military bases as a concessionaire outside exchanges.

"I've been doing this for years," Thompson said, adding that he follows the exchanges' requirements in refunding money to dissatisfied buyers.

He has been selling these books at Army bases in Europe for 10 to 15 years, and has a worldwide contract with Navy exchanges, he said.

"We absolutely do not have encyclopedias in our inventory," Thompson said.

Even so, the soldier said he thought he was buying encyclopedias, and buyer's remorse set in after he signed the contract.

"I said, ‘Wait a minute, I can find all this information on the Internet,‘" he said. He called his mother and his retired soldier father, who reassured him that he was right — he shouldn't have bought the books.

The soldier's mother, who works for the Army and knows the system, got the allotment stopped. The company charged his credit card, and she worked with the card company to cancel that card and open another account.

She disputes Thompson's statement that the sale was not for encyclopedias.

AAFES spokesman Judd Anstey noted that encyclopedias are legal to sell. "Exchanges are not the arbitrator of taste," he said. "BXs and PXs can incorporate legal products that customers have demonstrated a demand for into its assortment."

Anstey said Thompson sold about $67,000 worth of books during two weeks at Fort Bliss and AAFES received a 6 percent cut, or about $4,025, according to the terms of the contract. Anstey said this complaint was the only one Fort Bliss received about U.M.Q.U.A.

So, what recourse do customers havefor concession purchases? The same as for purchases made in an exchange, Anstey said.

"Shoppers who are not satisfied with their purchase should contact the exchange's local general manager or send a message through AAFES' customer comment program for resolution," he said.

When the general manager of the Fort Bliss exchange learned of the soldier's complaint, she told the service business manager to intervene and get the customer a refund — and if he couldn't get a refund, Anstey said, "he was to advance a refund" to the soldier and "seek remuneration" from the vendor.

The soldier's mother said her son did get his refund.

AAFES officials said they will send a message reminding stores of the procedures for handling complaints and making sure that customers are satisfied.

For AAFES contact information, go to http://odin.aafes.com/feedback">http://odin.aafes.com/feedback.

Questions or comments? Contact staff writer kjowers@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Karen Jowers at kjowers@militarytimes.com">kjowers@militarytimes.com.

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