THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Don't call us: Sears manager shares philosophy

It's a safe bet the folks at Sears don't read my column; if they did, they'd be answering their phones. Instead, it looks like customers who try reaching them by phone would do better to hang up and drive– to Sears, that is, where they can ask their questions in person.

Two weeks ago I wrote about a revealing incident in Sears' appliance department ["One ringy-dingy," March 23], in which I went in to buy a range and refrigerator and, in the process, watched as four or five employees steadfastly ignored a ringing telephone. When I finally asked whether they were going to answer it, a saleswoman replied, "We don't want to answer it."

I shamed her into it, though, and when she'd hung up and wandered off, I told her coworkers that I was the Fearless Consumer and had written about problems with the department before ["Cold shoulder" and "Seared," November 3 and 17, 2005, respectively].

At the same time I was writing about others' bad experiences, I said, I was struggling to get a Sears washer and dryer of my own delivered and installed. One of the most frustrating parts, I told them, had been trying to get someone in the appliance department to answer the phone.

Glancing over at the phone-phobic employee in another aisle, I said, "She picked the wrong person to do that in front of." Silly me: I figured they'd soon change their ways. Not a chance.

Two weeks later I was back, this time to buy another washer and dryer (I'm remodeling my house, which has two apartments). The column about my earlier visit had come out the day before, and I was a little nervous about how I'd be received. I shouldn't have been; not only had they not read it, but they hadn't altered their policy on ringing telephones one whit. As one salesperson rang up my sale and another worked at a nearby computer, a third leaned on a display and gazed, somewhat moonily, into the distance. And then the phone began to ring. And ring. And ring.

The moony clerk didn't move, and neither did either of the occupied ones. Finally I said, "Aren't you going to answer it?" He did– and, unlike his coworker, skipped the part about how he didn't want to.

I heard from several Sears customers after the column appeared. One, Edward Russell Jr., emailed to say that although he's found appliance department staff to be "knowledgeable and professional in a face-to-face situation" (and is "delighted" with a stackable washer and dryer he bought there), he found that "it is almost impossible to reach any staff by phone. It almost seems as if they take pride in evading telephone contact!"

"Thirty years ago," he continued, "the inside joke was, 'The guy who wins the Sears sales contest gets to keep his job.' Now it seems it's 'the guy who loses his Sears job is the one who answers the phone!'"

Given my past experiences with trying to reach Sears employees by calling the store, I decided to approach manager Robert Cox on his cell phone. (Cox had given me the number when I wrote the columns last fall.) After describing my own experiences and Russell's– along with stories I'd heard from two other Sears customers– I asked whether he'd like to comment.

"Ms. Nordin," he replied, "I have no comment for you. Have a great day– and don't call me on my personal cell phone anymore. Have a great day." Then he hung up on me.

It's one thing to hang up on a reporter. But I had also listed the $5,500 worth of appliances I've bought there since last fall. That means he was also hanging up on a customer– who wonders who's running that store.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.