THE TOUGH CUSTOMER - Vinyl soul: Short-sheeting makes tempers flare

New today!
This is the debut of Alan Zimmerman, who steps into our consumer column space vacated in mid-March by the longtime "Fearless Consumer," Barbara Nordin. Let's give a warm welcome to Alan!–editor

My predecessor on this beat, Barbara Nordin, always seemed to have stories with a good guy to root for and a bad guy to vanquish. In picking up her baton, I saw myself as regularly standing up for truth, justice, and the Charlottesville consumer.

Those stories, I'm discovering, were a testament to Barbara's skill, not to the actual nature of consumer disputes.

Frustrated and angry, people on both sides of an issue raise voices, hurl threats, and slam down phones. Before you know it, the last vestige of an already uneasy relationship has disappeared. Finding the truth of what happened is an elusive task, and even an ultimately fair resolution can leave bad feelings.

Late last month, Cristal Sowder of Scottsville and her sister set out to buy their mother a new vinyl kitchen floor as an early Mother's Day gift. They special-ordered a 12' x 30' vinyl sheet from Floor Fashions, the venerable Charlottesville store.

Sowder picked up the vinyl in a borrowed truck. When the small army of friends and family helpers who had gathered at her mom's to lay the floor unrolled the sheet, however, they discovered it was too small, only 12' x 27', Sowder says.

Sowder thought Floor Fashions ought to stand behind their sale and pick up the useless vinyl, which was a hassle for her to transport. But she says Floor Fashions refused on the grounds that they had not delivered it. Sowder also claims Floor Fashions said it would not take the vinyl back unless Sowder could prove she did not cut it herself. 

"This was very demeaning," Sowder later wrote. "I was being accused of cutting the vinyl, lying, and trying to cheat."

Floor Fashions says they were willing to pick up the vinyl, but Sowder also demanded– unreasonably they felt– that they install the replacement vinyl at no extra charge. "We try to bend over backwards for the customer," Floor Fashions' Christine Andrake says, "but you can only bend so far before you break." 

Sowder denies that she asked Floor Fashions to install the replacement piece. In any event, Floor Fashions didn't pick up the vinyl, and over the next several days, telephone calls flew back and forth. Predictably, each side blames the other for rude behavior and escalating hostilities. 

Since Floor Fashions held the upper hand, Sowder eventually took the vinyl back herself and exchanged it for a correctly sized sheet, which she laid herself. But she sent a complaint letter to Floor Fashions' president, Phillip Ryder, who quickly responded with an apology for "the unprofessional way this was handled" and gave Sowder a full refund, undoubtedly a more felicitous outcome than she had expected.

The moral of this story: Can't we all just get along?

The answer? Apparently, uh, no.

Human nature being what it is, our emotions get the better of us in stressful situations. Maybe Sowder came across as unreasonable, but the complications with the flooring, meant as a present for her mom, had become "nightmarish," so perhaps her response is understandable. 

Was the Floor Fashions' employees' response equally understandable? Sure.

While Sowder appreciates the end result, the experience left a bad taste in her mouth. She's planning a home renovation, but doesn't know whether she'll do business with Floor Fashions again. Since they eventually did right by her, if I were Sowder, I'd give Ryder and company another chance.

But the lesson here for business and consumer alike is that once disputes turn emotional and angry, no one wins. If it's possible, it may be best to turn the matter over to someone else, a co-worker or a friend, removed from the situation. But if that's not possible, keep in mind that the person on the other end of the phone is just that– a person.

Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x232 or email the Tough Customer directly.