Friday, February 5, 2010

Banks, Big Businesses, and the Waning Power of Consumers to Be Heard


I’ve blogged before (most recently here) about Steve’s and my futile attempts to renegotiate the loan for a house we bought in Florida several years ago because a former friend asked us to work with her at a university there, promised us jobs up to retirement, and then turned on us after a year.  That leaves us with a house we bought solely for the period we were to live in Florida, and solely on the basis of promises our former friend broke.

As I’ve noted, though I am unemployed and the mortgage is now upside-down (the house’s value has fallen by $88,000 in three years)—and though the federal government gave lavishly to banks to assist people in precisely this situation—we have been unable to refinance the loan and make the mortgage payment on this house possible, without depleting our savings.  The sticking point is the precipitous decline in the house’s value.

In my postings about this issue, I’ve noted that we had decided to move our money out of the bank that holds the loan (and our money)—Bank of America.  I’m writing about this issue with a bit of chagrin, because I don’t enjoy sharing details of my finances publicly.

But I think this story illustrates something that’s significant for many of us to know and to think about: it illustrates the way in which huge corporations (including over-sized banks) now hold extraordinary power over all of our lives, and seem answerable to no one.  That will change only if we who are affected by that situation tell our stories, push back, organize, and demand change. 

As  Robert Parry noted at Alternet yesterday,

Americans are drenched in right-wing messaging, which stresses that the enemy is Big Government, not Big Business. The anti-government propaganda seeks to make sure that no meaningful restrictions will be placed on the power of corporations to hold sway over the lives of average citizens.

With the federal government thus blocked, citizens will be left to bargain on their own for better treatment from their bosses, their banks, their credit card companies, their health-care providers, oil companies, cable TV conglomerates, etc., etc. Not surprisingly, the citizens usually get rolled.

And so I’m telling our story, the attempt of two tiny, fairly insignificant citizens to do at least one or two things that are within our power to push back against these seemingly impregnable economic forces that hold such sway over all of our lives . . . .

As I’ve noted previously, one way we have planned to respond to the refusal of Bank of America to renegotiate the loan on the Florida house is to move our money out of Bank of America.  I’m reporting now that we’ve begun that process.  We started it on the day of the State of the Union address.  (For a report on the Move Your Money campaign, hot off the presses, see Daniela Perdomo at Alternet today).

I should note that, like many others, we ended up with Bank of America by default, as one bank after another with which we had been doing business got gobbled up by the conglomerate that eventually emerged as Bank of America.  And we’ve stuck with them primarily because of one outstanding officer at the local bank, who has been extraordinarily helpful to us for a number of years now.

But despite her repeated attempts to assist us in obtaining a better loan rate for the Florida house, and despite our outstanding credit ratings and years of business with Bank of America, those higher up in the bank’s chain of command won’t budge with the mortgage.  And so we continue to be stuck with a mortgage payment for a house we don’t want and can’t sell, which depletes the small savings we’ve set aside for retirement.

And one of the few things we can do in response is to show our displeasure with Bank of America by moving our money elsewhere.  This doesn’t assure that we’ll get a new loan from our new bank.  But it does communicate to Bank of America that two more customers are unhappy with the bank’s refusal to assist unemployed citizens with upside-down mortgages, even after the bank has been handed federal money to do that.  Unhappy enough to pull our money from Bank of America . . . .

(Bank of America is, by the way, now the defendant in a lawsuit filed by the state of New York against the bank yesterday.  The suit alleges that top Bank of America executives colluded to deceive shareholders and the federal government about Merrill Lynch’s financial situation when Bank of America merged with Merrill Lynch.)

As Robert Parry notes, it’s well-nigh impossible to make a dent nowadays, as one deals with powerful corporations who hold all of our economic lives in the balance—even when we’ve been loyal, good customers of those corporations.  In fact, when we try to make our voices heard with these corporations, we’re entirely likely to be slapped down.  It’s possible that my posting this statement on my blog will lead to unhappy consequences I can’t foresee from the two big businesses I’m discussing here.

The second of those businesses: Target.  This is another personal story I want to make public, because it illustrates (to my mind) how impersonal, insensitive, and even destructive out-of-control corporations are becoming these days, vis-à-vis their customers.

At one level, the details I’m sharing here are inconsequential.  This is a story about lemon ice.  And about my attempt to buy it.

At another level, they’re not inconsequential at all, I’d argue, because these details indicate the growing callousness of international corporations towards even their own customers—and the difficulty of making a difference, when one is “just” a citizen-consumer.

Here’s the story: in the fall last year, I discovered that one of the local Target stores carries a brand of lemon ice I like, and which I can’t find anyplace else in the city.  This store is out of my usual shopping circuit.  It’s out in the suburbs, where I avoid shopping whenever I can do so, because, well, frankly, I don’t like the me-first attitude of many of my fellow citizens who live and shop there, and the sloppy customer service that develops in such me-first cultures.  And I don't like the plastic, anti-intellectual, white-flight culture of these suburbs.

We do, however, end up at the local Target occasionally when some item we need is available only at a store near there.  My brother also owns a restaurant near the store, so we can kill two birds with one stone by heading there, supporting my brother’s restaurant and visiting with him or one of his sons, and shopping in the area.

I should say we did end up at the local Target occasionally when we headed to that part of the city, because I’ve now ended my relationship with Target altogether.  We were never big spenders there.  We just don’t need a lot of things, and when we do need something, we prefer to shop at locally-owned places and/or places that recycle what we’re buying.

Even so, we have found Target useful over the years.  The house we bought in Florida sits close to a big Target where we bought many of the items with which we furnished that house.  Like many customers using stores of this sort, we seldom go to Target without finding a number of other items in addition to the one or two that brought us to the store.

I have been generally impressed, too, with Target’s civic-mindedness and willingness to support progressive groups.  I was happy to give our business to Target rather than its competitors for that reason alone.

And so the lemon ice saga.  After I discovered that Target carried the lemon ice I like, I also found out that it does so only in boxes that contain a mix of lemon and strawberry ice.  This puzzled me, since I’ve been to other stores that carry this brand, and I know that they carry boxes of only lemon ice, boxes of mixed ice, and boxes of flavors other than lemon.  A visit to the company’s website showed me that they continue to sell all those kinds of ices.

So I emailed Target, thinking I was emailing the local customer service office.  I was later to find out that I was apparently emailing some national Target inquiry office.  I asked them if they might consider adding boxes of lemon ice—just the lemon, not the mix—to the local store.  I explained that I’d visit the store much more frequently if I knew that option was available, and that I know other customers who’ve told me the same.

I pointed out that I buy other items anytime I visit.  I shared my other reasons for liking Target—the reasons I’ve shared above.

In due course, I got an email back, thanking me for my input, and informing me that Target loves to hear from customers, but can’t always accede to customer suggestions, even when it takes these suggestions seriously.

Fair enough.  I emailed back to say thanks, told them it sounded like they didn’t intend to add the boxes of lemon ice to their offerings, and then asked if they could simply explain to me what the impediment was.  If the could carry a mixed box, couldn’t they carry with equal ease a box that has one of the flavors in the mixed box, knowing customers were asking for it?

No answer.  And so I let it drop.  There are more important things in the world than lemon ice and Target.

After Christmas, it began to occur to me, though, that this story is a case study in customer relations that anyone interested in better customer service at Target might need to hear.  Local store doesn’t listen: maybe corporate headquarters would like to know that, and need to hear the story.

I fired off a letter to someone high up in the corporation’s structure, the v-p for Marketing Relations. 

And here’s what happened then.  I got a call from someone that officer had delegated to respond to my letter.  Who spent about fifteen minutes haranguing. insulting, and instructing me (I do, after all, live in hicksville Arkansas, and he was calling from sophisticated Minneapolis), until I finally did something I have rarely done in my life: I told him thanks for his call, and I hung up.

The gist of the fifteen minutes went like this: we’re a big corporation and we don’t have a habit of explaining to anyone why we can or can’t order a particular item.  To which I replied that this strikes me as a strange approach to customer relations, since I can go to my local grocery store (a branch of a national chain), head right to the person who places orders in a given department, ask for them to consider adding something to their offerings, and have a nice, informative exchange about that, which satisfies me as a customer.

I told the man on the phone that, in fact, I’ve had precisely such a conversation with the person who orders frozen foods at the grocery store, to ask if they could carry the lemon ice I like.  He told me they’d carried it in the past, it didn’t sell well, and so they pulled it from their shelves.

This kind of interaction and information-sharing gives me a high level of satisfaction and confidence as a customer of my local grocery store.  The lack of such interaction and information-sharing when I tried to bring a similar question to Target has the opposite effect. 

Target's too big to be able to explain to a customer why it can carry a box of mixed ice that has lemon ice, but not a box of that same lemon ice with no other flavors in the box?!  What's the big mystery with this question?

And then the man who had placed the call to me from corporate headquarters wanted to know the name of the chain to which my local grocery store belongs.  When I replied “Kroger,” he shouted, “That’s not a national chain!”

At which point I politely thanked him for his call and hung up. 

And now Target has lost my business and Steve’s—and the business of anyone else I can convince to consider boycotting a store that treats its loyal customers with such disdain.  A new Target outlet is scheduled to open up near my neighborhood sometime in the near future.  I won’t be shopping there, though the location is convenient for me.

P.S. head to Kroger’s website, and in the “about” page describing the corporation, you’ll read that the company is “one of the nation's largest grocery retailers . . . .”  Go to their “operations overview” page, and you’ll find that they have stores in 31 states.  I emphasize this point because the man delegated to answer my letter to the v-p of marketing wanted to argue that Target is too large to deal with customer questions like mine—where Kroger is presumably small enough to answer questions. 

And so it goes: I doubt very much that losing my business will make any difference at all to Target.  And I wonder how it’s come to this: the customer as enemy.  We make polite, reasonable requests for information, and we’re treated as if we’re unreasonable and hostile. 

This seems to be a trend that will characterize more and more businesses in the future.  And it doesn’t portend well for the quality of life of citizens and consumers.