Doubled bed: Springing the money took time

When Stephen Ward and his wife bought their first bed, they never dreamed that it would be grounds for a prolonged battle. Yet battle they did, with both the business that sold it (Mattress Masters) and the business that financed it (Wells Fargo). The uproar was settled– with no assistance from me– shortly after Ward contacted me, so I filed my notes with all the other situations that never see print.

The story kept nagging at me, however, and in the end, roared back to life. That's when things really got interesting. But that part comes later; let's begin with the Wards' experience.

The Wards bought a queen set from Mattress Masters on May 5, 2003, which cost $835.98. They paid $35.98, financed the balance, and shortly afterward received a payment booklet from Wells Fargo, the financing company Mattress Masters uses. They made one payment to Wells Fargo, which reduced the balance to $714.10.

On June 28, they went to Mattress Masters and made a $700 payment; they returned on August 5 and paid the balance of $14.10. "We paid by credit card," Ward told me via email, "with the explicit understanding that the money would be forwarded to Wells Fargo...the employees who helped us offered assurances that the money would be credited to our account there."

I have copies of their receipts, which support this claim: The June 28 receipt for $700 says "Pay account to Wells Fargo," and the August 5 receipt says "Pay-off from #5369 and #5037"– the receipts from the May 5 sale and the June 28 payment of $700.

Far from settling their account, however, they began getting dunning notices from Wells Fargo. "We petitioned [Mattress Masters] from August until November to submit our money to Wells Fargo" before "finally caving and paying Wells Fargo [$714.10] ourselves on November 4"– which means that the cost of their bed had gone from $835.98 to $1550.08.

When Ward first emailed me on December 4, they were still trying to get a refund from Mattress Masters. "My wife and I have met with nothing but delays and excuses," he wrote. "We are going to make one last attempt by giving them an ultimatum and perhaps filing a civil lawsuit." Two weeks later, they received a check.

When Ward contacted me, I immediately thought about an oddly similar situation with a mattress store I'd written about for C-Ville in January 1997. In that case, the consumer had put a "cheap, reliable" mattress set on layway and paid $100. Although she quickly changed her mind and canceled the deal, getting a refund proved almost impossible; in the end, she filed a complaint with the state's Office of Consumer Affairs. After three months of delays and excuses, she finally got a check.

Since the store in that case was Kings and Queens– which no longer exists– I concluded that the earlier dust-up couldn't be connected to the current one. One day last week, however, while driving south on 29, I glanced over at the shops at West Rio Hill and realized that Mattress Masters is in the same spot Kings and Queens had occupied. Even though I still assumed there was no connection, I decided to call the manager, Dick Serv, and ask him about the Wards' experience.

Serv insisted that the clerk who accepted their credit card payments must have assumed they were paying on a layaway, and nothing I said– including reading from the receipts– could convince him otherwise, so I gave up. But by then my interest was really engaged, and I made a trip to the store. Guess what? When I met Serv in person and asked about Kings and Queens, he told me it was the same business– which he'd owned for 12 years– and that he'd simply changed the name. When I asked why, he replied, "It isn't any of your business."

Mattress Masters has an "unsatisfactory record" with the Better Business Bureau of Central Virginia, based on complaints about coupons, delivery hours, and use of the word "sale" in the store's advertising. Ward would probably add what he calls "questionable business practices" to the list.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.