Boycott Watch  
January 27, 2013
Microcenter Bait and Switch
Summary: Boycott Watch to file complaints with Federal Trade Commission, Ohio Attorney General and more.
By Fred Taub, President, Boycott Watch

   When shopping, consumers rightfully have the expectation that they will be treated fairly and that advertised offerings are in fact as advertised. It's not only fair, it's the law. If the price on a shelf is not what you see at the register, the company has the legal obligation to give the consumer the posted shelf price. This was not the case at Microcenter, a privately held computer products retailer with stores nationwide.

    On January 14, 2012, I saw an online ad on the company website offering a customer-returned Lenovo Z585 laptop for $440.96 which had every feature I needed, so I was in the store the next morning to purchase it. While there were several brand new unopened computers of this model in stock, the computer I wanted to purchases was an 'open box' returned item, and therefore discounted from the $629.99 price of an unopened computer. Veronica, the sales associate, told me the computer was 100% functional and was a "holiday" (Christmas) return, which is common. People return items they don't want and the Christmas shopping season is replete with perfectly good returned items. I was specifically and repeatedly promised the computer was in perfect working order, reformatted as if to be factory fresh and the only thing different from a new computer was I would get the remainder of the warranty, in this case eleven months of warranty rather than the full year. That was a great deal and I took it.

    After purchasing the computer and setting it up for my needs. I went to a meeting where I discovered the wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, feature was not working. After a considerable technical support effort, it was clear the Wi-Fi on the laptop was completely broken, making the computer useless. This is where the story gets interesting. After what ended up being an entire wasted day with the broken computer, I went back to the store later the same day to return it.

    When a computer is returned to a store, there has to be a stated reason. It is an expensive item and the store employees will surely ask why, even to just know if the item is functional. When the first purchaser returned this computer, it stands to reason the customer stated it was in fact broken and how, as opposed to just saying they did not like it. Even if there was no stated reason for the return, Microcenter represented a computer they told me was completely checked, including using the wireless Internet feature, and stated it was working 100%. At checkout , a Microcenter employee reiterated the computer carried an eleven month warranty as opposed to the full year as the only difference between the new model and this returned computer. Microcenter advertised a product and as a consumer, I expected the product to be as advertised, both in price and functionality.

    In the process of me returning the computer to the store, Microcenter confirmed the computer was not working and the store manager claimed it was a mistake by Microcenter technicians. The mistakes of their technical staff, however, should never be the problem of the customer. Regardless, one of two things happened. 1) Microcenter knew the product a defective returned item and tried to resell it while knowing it was broken, or 2) since the store manager stated their technicians thoroughly checked the computer including using Wi-Fi, Microcenter must have known the computer was defective before advertising it for sale. Therefore, Microcenter knowingly falsely advertised a broken computer as working, knowing the customer would have to return the computer, affording them the ability to sell a higher priced or different computer to the customer.

    That establishes this case as a bait and switch. Microcenter must have known they were placing a defective product on the shelf, advertising it on the Internet as an In-store-only offering, thus bringing the customer into the store. Microcenter lured me into their store to knowingly sell me a defective product at a discounted price, only to ensure I later return to buy a higher priced computer. Sure enough, I was offered a new and working Lenovo Z585 at the full retail price. It was only after I complained profusely that they offered me a discount on a new version of the computer, but not the advertised price I had paid. That was not acceptable as it was part of their bait and switch, in this case luring me in to their store to purchase a computer at a discount price while then trying to get me to pay more than the advertised price for a working computer of the same model.

    Mayfield Heights, Ohio Microcenter store manager Jim Brady also offered to repair the computer, but that would have made the computer a refurbished model at the price of a returned model. Meanwhile, I checked the Lenovo website where I saw they sold manufacturer-refurbished Z585 computers for $312, obviously far less than the $440 Microcenter wanted to charge me. For some perspective, the difference between a holiday returned computer and a refurbished computer is the same as a test-driver car at a dealership and one that has extensive repairs after an accident. I was not willing to accept being ripped off by Microcenter which wanted me to pay more for the computer I purchased than it was worth by turning it into a refurbished computer. Microcenter advertised a returned item, as opposed to a non-manufacturer refurbished item.

    Microcenter manager Jim Brady also offered me a far lesser computer for less money, but that too was bait and switch because what they offered was also far less of a computer for more than the value. At no time was I never offered an equal or better computer to replace what was advertised.

Other important facts:

1) I made several attempts to call the store before going back to the store to return the computer. As usual, it is virtually impossible to speak to anyone on the phone at Microcenter. They post their phone number on their website, but you hold times are thirty minutes or more and the sales associates don't even bother putting their phone number on their business cards. In my case, I was disconnected four times after being on hold for extended periods of time. This is not unusual as I have always found it nearly impossible to speak to anyone on the phone at Microcenter stores, and when I have ever actually reached a real live human being, the answer always turns to 'come into the store.

2) I had once purchased a hard drive from their used drive collection after seeing it advertised on the Internet, only to find the hard drive was also completely broken. The hard drive made an immediate clunking sound, typical of complete hard drive failure, thus also an item that should have been identified as broken beyond repair and not placed on the shelf for sale. Yet it was advertised online, thus making me come back to the store after receiving what was clearly pure junk.

3) I have purchased what I thought was a brand new peripheral board, only to discover I had to fix a virus issue on the computer soon after installing the board. After clearing the virus, I found someone else's tech support notes inside the manual which came with the device, clearly indicating that I was sold a returned item repackaged, shrink-wrapped and placed on the shelf as brand new along with factory-sealed items. Microcenter knowingly sold a returned item as brand new at full-retail pricing and did nothing other than offer to sell me a different product to replace it in an attempt to get me to purchase a better / more expensive product.

4) Being that Microcenter makes it difficult to call them to verify a product they advertise is available, I have on many occasions had to drive twenty minutes or more each way to their store just to find out the item I wanted was out of stock, and I ended up buying a more expensive item from in-store stock since I was there anyhow. Had I known the product they offered was not in stock before driving to the Microcenter store, I would have purchased a similar product for less money at closer stores such as Wal-Mart or OfficeMax.

    The fact is, Microcenter has a history of selling items they must know are defective in an attempt to get customers to spend more than they originally intended to spend. Mr. Brady informed me they only have one person on the phones at any time. This tells me Microcenter makes it difficult for consumers to call the store, forcing potential customers to come into their store just to find out of something is available or not. That is nothing new - contacting anyone at the Mayfield Heights, Ohio Microcenter store via the phone has been virtually impossible since the day it opened, and I Internet searches reveal the same problem exists at their other locations as well. This, therefore, is far more than a matter of bad customer service. Microcenter works hard to make it difficult for their customers and potential customers to get information before considering a purchase, or even to discuss a problem after a purchase. Microcenter appears to have a policy to get people into their stores any way they can, then getting people to buy items because they are already there, even if the item they came for is not available as Microcenter does not want customers to know when products are unavailable.

    The same tactic is used to get customers into their stores to purchase defective items, knowing the customer will have to come back to the store so Microcenter can sell more expensive items to the same customer. Just as Microcenter has resealed returned products and placed them back on the shelf as new and unopened; and just as Microcenter has placed obviously completely mechanically broken hard drives on the shelves as good used working products; and just as Microcenter makes it impossible for a customer to verify an advertised product is actually available in their stores, the evidence points to Microcenter clearly knowing the Z585 laptop they offered for sale as a 100% working returned computer was in fact defective. Microcenter will clearly do anything to get a potential customer into their stores in order to make any sale, regardless if a product the customer is traveling to their store to purchase is available or not.

    As a consumer, when I see an ad for a 100% functional item at a specific price, I expect to purchase a 100% functional item at that specific price. That was not the case at Microcenter, thus why I am calling this both false advertisement and saying Microcenter practices bait and switch.

    After addressing my bait and switch concerns, both store manager Jim Brady and national call center associate James Anderson both refused to settle with my demand to receive the advertised computer at the advertised price. They were both informed of my intentions to file a complaint with the Ohio Attorney General and US Federal Trade Commission for investigation into false advertising and bait and switch tactics by Microcenter. Both said they had no problem with that, nor did they object to me telling the story over the Internet.

Buyer Beware and the law:

   In any sale, the purchaser assumes risk that the item purchased may be defective or not suitable for the purchasers needs. Consumer protection laws, however, do not protect sellers who engage in fraud, bad faith, false or misleading representations about the quality or condition of any product. In this case, the Lenovo laptop was represented by the seller as 100% functional with the remainder of the manufacturer's warranty. Microcenter neither offered it as an "as-is" product, nor were any issues that Microcenter must have known about disclosed at any time. Caveat Emptor, therefore, does not apply here.

Bait and Switch laws:

   The US Federal Trade Commission posted 16 CFR PART 238 at and contains the following:

Sec. 238.0 Bait advertising defined: Bait advertising is an alluring but insincere offer to sell a product or service which the advertiser in truth does not intend or want to sell. Its purpose is to switch consumers from buying the advertised merchandise, in order to sell something else, usually at a higher price or on a basis more advantageous to the advertiser. The primary aim of a bait advertisement is to obtain leads as to persons interested in buying merchandise of the type so advertised.
The Microcenter ad and my purchase clearly fits this definition.

Sec. 238.1 Bait advertisement. No advertisement containing an offer to sell a product should be published when the offer is not a bona fide effort to sell the advertised product. [Guide 1]
Knowingly selling a computer in which primary functionality is broken, in this case the broken Wi-Fi, made this a non bona fide offer of a working computer.

Sec. 238.2 Initial offer. (a) No statement or illustration should be used in any advertisement which creates a false impression of the grade, quality, make, value, currency of model, size, color, usability, or origin of the product offered, or which may otherwise misrepresent the product in such a manner that later, on disclosure of the true facts, the purchaser may be switched from the advertised product to another. (b) Even though the true facts are subsequently made known to the buyer, the law is violated if the first contact or interview is secured by deception. [Guide 2]
The Microcenter ad and the quality promise I received in the store clearly fits the description.

Sec. 238.3 Discouragement of purchase of advertised merchandise. No act or practice should be engaged in by an advertiser to discourage the purchase of the advertised merchandise as part of a bait scheme to sell other merchandise. Among acts or practices which will be considered in determining if an advertisement is a bona fide offer are: (e) The showing or demonstrating of a product which is defective, unusable or impractical for the purpose represented or implied in the advertisement
Since Microcenter sales associate Veronica turned the computer on in front of me at the store to demonstrate the computer was working and then turned it off, that action clearly violated section (e)

Sec. 238.4 Switch after sale. No practice should be pursued by an advertiser, in the event of sale of the advertised product, of "unselling" with the intent and purpose of selling other merchandise in its stead. Among acts or practices which will be considered in determining if the initial sale was in good faith, and not a stratagem to sell other merchandise, are: (d) The delivery of the advertised product which is defective, unusable or impractical for the purpose represented or implied in the advertisement. [Guide 4]
Microcenter clearly violated section (d)

Note: Sales of advertised merchandise. Sales of the advertised merchandise do not preclude the existence of a bait and switch scheme. It has been determined that, on occasions, this is a mere incidental byproduct of the fundamental plan and is intended to provide an aura of legitimacy to the overall operation.
Microcenter knowingly selling a defective product clearly does not exempt itself from bait and switch laws.

Footnotes 1. For the purpose of this part "advertising" includes any form of public notice however disseminated or utilized.
Microcenter advertised the defective laptop for sale on their website, which is how I became aware of it and the reason I went to the store to purchase it.

    The FTC guidelines are clear, and Microcenter not only operated is in direct violation of 16 CFR PART 238, but as demonstrated in this complaint, has a history of violating consumer protection laws. A copy of this is also being sent to Lenovo for investigation into violations of the Lenovo reseller agreement.

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