Chaos theory: Customers boil over appliance mix-ups

When two readers have the same problem with the same business at the same time, I've learned that the situation is probably more complex than most consumer disputes. That proved to be the case with Ron Martin Appliance, subject of this week's stereo complaints.

The first came from Kay Fracher, who ordered a microwave from the store on February 19. Installation was scheduled for March 4, but nothing happened. In an April 6 letter to Logan Martin, who owns and operates the business his late father founded, Fracher detailed what followed.

After she called "several times" on March 4 to ask what had happened, Fracher claims, an employee, Chris, called to apologize and reschedule installation for March 8. Fracher asked that the $95 installation fee be refunded, and says that the employee agreed. The microwave was installed as promised, but the refund proved to be elusive.

In her letter, Fracher says that between March 17 and April 4, she called a number of times and went to the store twice. On the 4th, Chris told her the refund had been issued. Two days later, when it still hadn't materialized, she wrote her letter; there was no response. Finally, on April 23, she contacted me.

When I spoke with Logan Martin on May 16, he said that the store was going through a turbulent time and blamed the problems on a competitor who had arranged to buy the business but then reneged on the deal right before closing. He also promised to issue Fracher's refund immediately.

The refund indeed materialized, but not as quickly as I'd been led to believe; it landed in Fracher's account on June 8. By then I'd heard from the second consumer, Debby Stanford.

At the store's scratch and dent sale in February, Stanford and her husband bought a microwave that was missing some parts. They were "reassured," she claims, that they could get the parts "for about $50." If the right parts couldn't be found or the microwave didn't work, the salesperson told them, "there would be no problem" in returning it.

When Stanford called the 800 number she'd been given to order the parts, however, she says the man she spoke with couldn't find the model. He sent parts that he said "might fit," and told her to return them if they didn't. They didn't. The supplier issued her a credit, and she called Ron Martin to explain the situation.

The employee she spoke with, she says, "yelled" at her that "they don't handle parts." When the conversation continued in that vein, she asked to speak to his supervisor, at which point, she says, he hung up on her. After "numerous" calls, she reached the sales manager, who picked up the microwave at their home and said the refund would appear on their credit card "in a couple of days." That was April 28. On June 6, when the refund still hadn't been issued, she contacted me; with no action on my part, however, the credit showed up on June 13.

I had an early-morning meeting with Martin on July 8 in the store's new location above its former showroom, which is now occupied by Hauser Homes. Martin was effusive in his regrets, saying, "We've been awful." The store was in such an upheaval after the failed buyout, he told me, that for several months this spring– i.e., right when Fracher and Stanford had their problems– they were operating out of a tent in the parking lot, since Hauser Homes had moved into the old space and the upstairs wasn't finished yet.

"We've been in a nightmare," he said, but adds that he's confident that the store is now on the road to recovery. Perhaps now that they're under a roof again, Martin and his employees can get back to the business of selling appliances.

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