Like many of the products we at Consumer Reports test, company policies and practices often fall short of expectations. And there's no better time than the holidays, when shopping and spending are front and center, to call out those that deserve jeers or cheers. This is our third annual Naughty & Nice List, and it's based on contributions from Consumer Reports staff members and Facebook fans.
Companies were dinged for hidden or tricky fees, fine print, and unfriendly practices; others were lauded for generous and outstanding customer service.
We received more than 100 nominees in all. From those, we narrowed the list to 10 "naughty" and 10 "nice" examples. To be clear, the list is not a Ratings, and the companies appear in alphabetical order inside each section. It's neither an endorsement nor a repudiation of the overall company. Rather, it's a thumbs-up or down on a specific policy or practice. We also acknowledge that the companies excluded from the list might have similar policies. (Watch our Naughty & Nice video.)
What company policies or practices make your personal list—for better or worse? Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter (#crnaughtynice) and let us know what you think. And if you're in New York City through Dec. 24, stop by our booth at the Union Square Holiday Market. In appreciation, you'll get 24 hours of free access to ConsumerReports.org, so you can check our newest product Ratings as you do your holiday shopping or post-holiday return.
Abe's of Maine
The New Jersey-based e-tailer and retailer, which sells appliances, electronics, housewares, fitness equipment, and other goods, says it will "gladly" help you exchange or return a product if dissatisfied, backing up its pledge with a "30-day money back guarantee.*" But that little asterisk hides a laundry list of exceptions to the policy: fitness equipment, large appliances, microwaves, wine coolers, humidifiers, security items, marine and camping gear, sunglasses, watches, software, TVs, computer components, laptops, tablets, and bicycles. And if you want to return many other items, for example, headphones, printers, gaming consoles, computer peripherals, and A/V receivers, they must be unopened.
Getting stuck with a flat isn't the best way to find out your car didn't come with a spare tire or jack, but that's what you might discover if you drive a BMW. Most of the carmaker's models now come with run-flat tires, which can get you to help after a simple puncture. But a blowout or rip in the sidewall means calling a tow truck. The disappearing-spare syndrome has been spreading to include even economy models from Hyundai, Chevy, and others. Check before you buy.
We have a pet peeve about so-called "freebies" automatically added to orders that force consumers to unclick the item so it's not added to the shopping cart. When we shopped for a toaster on CompUSA's website and went to checkout, a "free" download for computer antivirus software appeared on the invoice. The freebie, it says, lasts for six months. Afterward, you'll get a bill for $49.99, according to a customer representative we phoned, unless you cancel before the subscription period ends.
This bold pitch from Delta was impossible to overlook. When our reporter booked a domestic economy flight (the restricted fares most people choose) via the carrier's website, Delta offered him the chance to "add convenience and peace of mind." "Flex this fare for just $737," the offer shouted, as if you'd be crazy not to jump at the deal. Trouble is, our reporter's super-saver fare was just $248, so Delta was tripling the price to make it refundable. Gee thanks.
The apparel merchant has different policies for online and in-store returns. If you return an online order to a retail location, you can only exchange the item or obtain store credit. If you mail it back, you can get an actual refund.
"We empower you to save money on air travel by offering ultralow fares with a range of optional services—including bags—for a fee," Spirit proclaims on its website, "allowing you the freedom to choose only the extras you value." Well, if you value almost anything other than airfare itself, you'll likely need to dig into your wallet. The company just upped the freight to a maximum of $100 to stow a carryon in an overhead bin (it's free if you can stuff it under the seat), depending on whether you declare the carryon in advance, at the airport, or wait until you're at the gate. That's more than you could pay for a checked bag.
The king of sports, music, and entertainment tickets charges customers $2.50 per order to print out their own tickets? That's especially hard to justify since Ticketmaster will ship tickets for free via snail mail. But the company's got that angle covered, too. If you choose to have your tickets mailed for free, Ticketmaster says they'll ship within a leisurely 10 to 14 days of purchase, insufficient lead time for some events. Thus, you're forced to trade up to expedited shipping (starting at $14.50) or choose to print them yourself. Gotcha.
Restocking fees have been around for years. But TigerDirect.com's policy is vague and the penalty significant. To qualify for a return, the products "must be 100% complete, in the same condition as when sold, and in the original packaging . . . all packing materials, manuals, diskettes, CDs, digital media, blank warranty cards and other accessories and documentation must be included. Kits and other items assembled after purchase must be unassembled and returned in the manufacturer's original packaging." Talk about stern language: "All returns will be inspected and products found to be non-conforming will be rejected or subject to a restocking fee" of up to 25 percent "at TigerDirect.com's sole discretion."
Time Warner Cable
The broadband and cable giant recently announced it will begin charging customers $3.95 per month to lease a cable modem. Time Warner joins a list of other Internet biggies to do so, including Cox, Comcast, and Bright House. Although Time Warner and other companies allow customers to purchase and install their own modems outright, less-tech-savvy folks might be reluctant, assuring the companies a steady stream of extra revenue.
We all know how difficult it can be to decipher a phone bill. It's especially tricky to figure out those mysterious fees when companies use official-sounding wording that sounds like they're charges mandated by the government and, thus, beyond their control. Case in point: Vonage. A reader sent us a letter from the company noting a $1 per month increase, to $2.99, in the "Regulatory, Compliance and Intellectual Property Fee," RC&IP, for short. According to a Vonage spokesman, the fee covers "our regulatory-related and legal compliance expenses, including those related to customer privacy protection, anti-fraud protection and number portability, as well as intellectual property-related costs enabling our services. It also ensures that we continue to deliver best-in-class service and build innovative products that meet a range of customer calling needs."
There's a reason why Drury, a chain of more than 130 properties in 20 states, ranks at the top of Consumer Reports' Ratings of moderately priced hotels. The company lives up to its motto, "the extras aren't extra." Included in the price of a room: hot breakfast (eggs, waffles, cereal, sausage, etc.); hot food every evening (chicken strips, soups, baked potatoes, mac and cheese); soft drinks and popcorn in the lobby; wireless high-speed internet everywhere; 60 minutes worth of local and long distance calls a day; swimming pool and fitness center; 24-hour business center with free incoming and outgoing domestic faxes; HBO; and, coming soon, flat-screen TVs in every room.
Sometimes the worst part about getting a new appliance is the difficulty or expense associated with disposing of the old one. Companies that offer to "remove" the old product may simply lug it curbside; anything else costs extra. Home Depot will haul that old refrigerator or dishwasher off your property without charge. The delivery crew will also uncrate, set up, level, and test the new product.
The trouble with new safety features is that they can be costly add-ons or available only on high-end models before they become mainstream. Honda has taken a big step to enhance driver visibility and, hence, safety by equipping more than 94 percent of its 2013 models—including all of its truck and SUV lineup—with rearview cameras as standard equipment. The cameras are now also standard on Accord and Civic, two of the automaker's top sellers.
Some high-end retailers are known for their particularly generous return policies. But that largesse doesn't always translate to more middle-of-the-road merchants. Kohl's is an exception. The company has a "No Questions Asked - Hassle Free" return policy for all purchases—without any time limit.
Free shipping, free returns on orders of any size.
The innovative housewares manufacturer backs every product it sells with a no-exceptions pledge: If for any reason you are not satisfied, return it for replacement or refund.
Mega banks usually don't get a shout out for being consumer-friendly, but in the case of PNC, plaudits are deserved. In our survey of fees at the nation's 10 banking giants, Pittsburgh-based PNC, with 2,900 branches in 19 states and the District of Columbia, was the only one to offer a free basic checking account. What's more, the institution doesn't require customers to maintain a minimum balance to keep this freebie.
Fewer supermarkets, it seems, follow the old practice of giving customers the item for free if it scans incorrectly at the checkout. Fewer still put their policy on dealing with scanner errors in writing. Not so Publix. The Florida-based grocer, which consistently ranks among the top supermarket chains in Consumer Reports' surveys, puts the policy in black and white: "Our Publix checkout promise guarantees that if during checkout, the scanned price of an item (excluding alcohol and tobacco products) exceeds the shelf price or advertised price, we will give the customer one of that item free. The remaining items will be charged at the lower price."
Red Wing Shoe Co.
Here's a promise you won't encounter every day. The Red Wing, Minn., company, which still manufactures some of its work boots in the U.S., has an unconditional 30-day comfort guarantee. If you find your shoes uncomfortable for any reason, you can obtain a refund or exchange them for another pair, no questions asked.
Most people might be hesitant, even embarrassed, to return a mushy melon or bland banana. But the nearly 1,700-unit Pleasanton, Calif.-based grocer promises "fresh and delicious" produce every time and backs it up with a refund or replacement pledge.