Monday, October 18, 2010

We're mad as hell, and we're not "putting up with it" anymore!

The other day, I went to Staples to buy some computer supplies. While I was there, that little voice that lives between my ears shouted, “Pens. Get some pens.” And it was true, I was at the point of searching high and low for one whenever I needed to write something. Where do they go?
Over in the appropriate section, I found a wide selection of pens in different quantities and prices. Now I’m not the kind of idiot who spends big money on something that has a life expectancy of a day or two at the most in my house. I suspect there’s a peculiar burglar in the neighborhood who sneaks around while we’re all asleep, gathering up the pens from the jars we keep by our phones. What other explanation for their disappearance can there be?

So in keeping with my frugal nature, I opted for the bargain pack of twenty-five stick pens in a pack, with the promise “writes first time every time” emblazoned on the packaging. $9.95 for the whole lot – not a fortune, but still a ten bill out of my somewhat limited monthly budget. I congratulated myself on having solved the chronic pen shortage for at least a few weeks, and took them home.

Not a single one wrote anything. Their nibs scratched dryly across the paper, leaving no trail of ink in any color. Twenty-five out of twenty-five turned out to be duds. And in what is truly a rare occurrence, I was enraged enough to take them back to Staples and vent my anguish.

“How can you market such rubbish to the public?” I demanded of the poor clerk who just happened to be within reach. 

“We don’t do the buying,” she explained. “It’s done centrally and we stock whatever they send us.”

“Well, what genius decided pens that don’t write were worth buying?” I fumed. “I want the email address of your central buying office so I can get an answer to that question.”

“Uh-um-uh – wait a minute.” She ran off, and returned with a gentleman wearing a suit.

“What seems to be the problem?” he wanted to know.

I explained that none of the pens in the package worked, and I wanted to know why such useless trash was on market to the unsuspecting and already financially beleaguered public. I repeated my request for the email address of the corporate buying office so I might satisfy my curiosity on that score.

Needless to say, the gentleman did his best to soothe my ire, and made it clear my reaction was entirely out of proportion to the scale of the problem. And the sideways glances from the clerks in the vicinity communicated that they, too thought my anger excessive. 

In the end, I received a refund, a glib, insincere apology and a refusal to give me the information requested. I went home to my penless house, to find the email address of Staple’s corporate offices on the internet myself. When it came time to jot it down on my notepad, I used a mechanical pencil. (The lead broke several times and then ran out – but at least it wrote long enough.)

Was my reaction excessive?

Perhaps if the expenditure of good money on shoddy goods had been a one-time thing, I would consider myself ready for Valium or some other medication. But it wasn’t.

Just two days prior, I needed a bookshelf for my little office alcove, and went out to buy one. No matter which store I went to here in North Port, all I could find at a reasonable price was the put-it-together-by-yourself-made-in-China–and-good-luck sort. I bought one, and took it home.
Now I consider myself a handy person. I’ve built sheds from scratch, a dog kennel building, framed in rooms, built fences – in other words, I know my way around tools and the elements of construction.

But this simple bookcase tried what little patience I could muster – missing hardware, predrilled holes that didn’t line up, locking devices for those metal pins that couldn’t be inserted in the supposedly precut destinations, dowels that couldn’t be inserted. Oh, it was a nightmare, and one that ended with me throwing away the instructions (written in very strange English), pulling out my electric drill and building the thing my own way, with my own hardware (which necessitated a trip to Home Depot.) For $79.99, I basically purchased twelve sheets of particle board, and spent another $11.00 buying hardware.

On Saturday, I went to Walmart (I know, but my options are limited in this neighborhood) to purchase a new phone. By Sunday, the display screen stopped working. I took it back to Walmart and received another phone. Today the display screen is lit up, but with strange characters I cannot decipher. I’ll take it back later today. For $69.99, and two trips to Walmart, I have a phone that refuses to tell me who is calling, leaving me vulnerable to all kinds of marketing calls. More trash handed out to the public at a ridiculous price.

While there in the Walmart parking lot yesterday, I watched a young mom try to comfort her little boy whose new action figure toy hadn’t survived long enough to get to the car, hadn’t even survived removal from the packaging. The little tyke was heart-broken.                                           

“Take it back,” I told her, sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong.

She was a quiet, soft-spoken kind of person and shied away from the idea. I offered to go with her. In fact, I insisted. I was in that kind of mood.

“My little grandson here,“ I began, knowing when a lie was both acceptable and necessary, “just purchased this toy not ten minutes ago. It fell apart when he tried to take it out of the packaging. What are you going to do about it?”

“We’ll exchange it. Go and get another one,” the clerk said, with that minimum wage glaze in her eyes.

“Why?” I shouted. “So that one can fall apart too?”

“Please lower your voice,” the clerk said.

“Why? So others won’t hear how you prey on children, selling them junk you know won’t last? Look at him – he’s traumatized.”

And indeed the little fellow was the picture of misery, with his chubby cheeks streaked with tears and his tiny body still shuddering with suppressed sobs. 

“And for the record,” I said, still louder. “$8.99 may be a drop in the ocean to Walmart’s bottom line, but to my daughter-in-law here, it represents a major slice of her budget. She can’t afford to buy much for her child, but to spend her limited money on a treat for her son to have it fall apart before he can even play with it – shame on Walmart!”

The frustrations of the past few days had finally found an outlet.

My newly adopted daughter-in-law looked like she’d rather run for the door, but stood her ground. Of course, the iron grip I had on her arm may have had something to do with it. While the clerk grabbed the intercom mike and desperately hailed a manager, I whispered “What’s your name and his?”

She told me and together we waited for the manager, along with the audience we’d attracted.

When the manager arrived, I continued to orate on the perfidies of a multi-billion dollar corporation that exploited consumers by knowingly selling shoddy goods to the children of financially strapped parents. I was in fine form, ready to filibuster until a suitable solution and appropriate compensation was reached.

It was.

My “daughter-in-law” and “grandson” received a $25 Walmart card; I felt the relief that comes of venting a long-held gripe and our audience enjoyed themselves and applauded when little Joey walked off with his mother, to pick out yet another disappointing and poorly made toy.

I left Walmart -- much to their relief -- and joined the girls (aged 55 to 72) for lunch on the patio of our favorite neighborhood hangout. I shared my adventures of the morning. That set off a whole chain of consumer gripes.
  • Coffee pots that dribble when they pour.
  • Packaged fruit with a top layer that looks delightful and mold growing on the lower layers.
  • Books purchased for top dollar with missing or misplaced pages.
  • Crossword puzzle books printed in China that don’t make sense.
  •  Lamps purchased that have poles that don’t screw together.
  • Women’s clothes made in Asia that don’t allow for the ample bosoms of many North American women.
  •  Small appliances that give up the ghost within weeks.
  • An electric drill purchased for $59 and the shaft bent on the second attempt to drive in a three inch screw.
  • Clothing with seams that unravel on the first laundering
  • .Reading glasses priced at $15 and up, and the lenses fall out.
  • Put-it-together-yourself kits missing parts and the store that sold them doesn’t sell the missing parts, and will order them but it takes six weeks.
  • Printers that need new cartridges and the store where you bought it doesn’t carry that type of cartridge.
  • CDs and DVDs that won’t play.
  • Anything sold in packaging that requires tools and an engineering degree to open
And then the eldest among us delivered the coup de grace:

  • Pet food purchased in good faith, of a well-known and trusted brand that poisoned and killed her beloved cat, Butterball, a few years ago.
And we all agreed, it was time to stop ”putting up with it.”

Brave but impotent words; don’t you agree? 

Sincerely Yours,                                    


  1. I have made a vow along time ago not to buy unnecessary stuff made in China. The second hand store actually has many items people donate, which are still in good condition. I have found many nice picture frames there.

  2. Great -- but no pens. I do buy from Goodwill and other thrift stores whenever possible, but there is much day-to-day stuff one needs that can't be found anywhere else. I sometimes wonder if there isn't anything for sale that isn't made in China. Thanks for commenting. Lynda