Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Grey Shopping Warning

It’s that time of the year when many consume themselves into a life of shopping. So I thought this is the right time for me to contribute to Aussie consumerists' awareness through a personal story of mine. The story of how I did not get my Sennheiser Momentum headphones.
The thing about these headphones is that they are stupidly expensive. At the time they were generally selling at Australian shops for $450, although through careful shopping one could cut the price down to $400. However, it became clear through looking around that one can do much better through a grey import. That is, buying from someone who brought the headphones to Australia themselves, instead of through the official Sennheiser importer. In plain English this means buying from someone that made sure I got my hands on headphones originating from Hong Kong.
So off I went to the Internet, looking for a grey importer of choice. That, on its own, proved to be a pain. There are many price comparison websites and online shopping search engines out there, but all of them fail when it comes to price quotation. As in, I’d go into a shop that promises to sell me the headphone for $250 (hooray!), only to find they charge $150 shipping (boo!). And let us not discuss the inclusion of shops that will only accept such esteemed payment methods as Western Union money transfers. So yeah, a lot of work is required till a decent looking candidate is found.

I thought I found one in the shape of ValueBasket. They had a decent price on both product and shipping, they had a .com.au website, an Australian phone number and an Australian address. What could go wrong? As it turned out, a lot.
Two weeks after purchasing the item online I got my headphones delivered by courier. The matter of the two weeks wait aside, the problem was I did not get the headphones I ordered. You see, the Momentums come in two shapes: the original brown colored one, that no one wants to come nearby anymore, and the much coveted red and black one which I had ordered. Guess which color headphones was delivered to me?
Although I cannot prove it, I have a strong suspicion this was not an innocent mistake. Especially when my first query was answered by a “we would be willing to offer you a cleaning kit as compensation”. WTF is a cleaning kit and why would I want one?
Thus started an ordeal of emails and phone calls. After a week or so I thought I had a written agreement from ValueBasket which said I will return the headphones to their Australian address via Australia Post, and they will refund me for both the headphones and the return postage costs. I did my part the next day; ValueBasket certainly took their time with theirs.
After several weeks of emails that always got answered with refund promises but never an actual refund I was fed up. I filed a dispute with PayPal. Yet, how shall I put it? If I were you I would not put my trust upon the staff of this bruised reed that is PayPal.
First, PayPal could only return the funds I had paid through them, which means I was not able to ask for my return shipping costs. Second, and more importantly, it was clear PayPal never bothered reading my complaint in detail: even though by now I had returned the headphones and ValueBasket acknowledged it, PayPal came back to me insisting I provide proof of return. Further, they insisted the return costs are one me, a peculiar and bewildering call: what if, for argument’s sake, I had ordered a toothpick and ValueBasket sent me a battle tank instead? Would I have to return the tank at my own cost, too? Why should I pay the price of ValueBasket's [intentional, in my opinion] mistake?
Anyway, after a bit of bickering PayPal refunded me for my original payment. All that was left was for me to receive a refund for my return shipping costs back from ValueBasket, as per their original promise. Should be simple, shouldn’t it? Especially as we were talking $12?
Well, it wasn’t simple at all. It took almost two months and north of twenty emails from my direction till I got the promised refund. In the process I learned three important lessons:

  • First, I learned an Australian phone number is worthless when it clearly transfers you to some overseas call centre. Especially one that does not always bother to answer calls.
  • Second, I learned a physical Australian address does not really matter. When I looked to have Australian Consumer Affairs authorities involved, and had a deeper look into ValueBasket, it turned out that without an Aussie ABN there is not much that can be done in the way of enforcement. ValueBasket is not an Australian retailer and making it play Aussie Rules is difficult.
  • And third, I learned the only real weapon at my disposal was perseverance. It really did come down to me nagging ValueBasket to the death, which I had successfully done.

What should you take from account?
The lesson is to only deal with grey importers with good track record. While not everyone is as reliable as Amazon, grey importers tend to belong to the opposite end of the scale more often than not. Do your homework; if I had done mine I would have discovered many people complaining in various online forums about ValueBasket sending them the inferior version of the product they had ordered. I might have also noticed articles such as this one, warning consumers that a .com.au website does not in itself guarantee much.
Me, I am going to stick with reputable grey importers. Take Kogan, for example: their own products can be dodgy, no doubt about that; but as a grey importer of, say, Apple products, they are fine. At least until you need to make your warranty claim, an Apple iGadget is an Apple iGadget. Even if it comes with an aftermarket charger because Hong Kong uses different plugs to Australia.
Hope you will learn from my lesson. Happy consumption season!

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