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Need proof that consumers have a love/hate thing with manufacturers' rebates? A "Dilbert" cartoon last month lampooned cell-phone rebates with green monster Rebaterus, who forced Dilbert to pass five tests to get an authorized rebate. Dilbert failed the test, shouting to the three-headed monster, "Just keep my money!!!"
"Dude," Rebaterus replied, "we spent it before you left the store."
Despite the wariness that consumers have about rebates, they're back. "Many consumer products aren't selling as well, so manufacturers are bringing rebates back," said Hal Stinchfield, a rebate analyst and owner of consulting company Promotional Marketing Insights in Orono.
Best Buy and Office Max may have dropped mail-in rebates, but in this economy consumers are willing to give them another try to save a few bucks on Centrum vitamins or $25 to $150 on wireless services and computer peripherals. There are great rebate deals on phones from AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, said Stinchfield.
Q What steps should consumers take to ensure they'll get the rebate?
A On a calendar, circle the date you submitted the rebate and the date you expect to receive it. Also, make a copy of everything you sent in: the mail-in certificate, your receipt and the UPC or proof-of-purchase.
Q What is the manufacturer's responsibility if a rebate form is sent in incomplete?
A Most reputable fulfillment centers will send back a form letter with the entire original request, explaining what the consumer omitted and what has to be done to requalify. Occasionally, manufacturers notify consumers via e-mail that their request was incomplete, but that is generally not as effective.
Q What should a consumer do if the rebate isn't received within the time allowed?
A The rules for handling a complaint have been predetermined by a manufacturer before the offer is advertised. You can call the fulfillment center's 800 number on the form, but that's not always the best option, especially if it's a high-dollar rebate. Instead, try to get the name of a specific person at the company that sponsored the rebate. You can Google the name of the manufacturer to get a consumer relations or public relations person. After you submit a complaint, keep track of the name of the person. Manufacturers don't want you unhappy, or they risk losing your business.
Q In this economy, shouldn't consumers be checking the Internet to see if there is a rebate for nearly all purchases, small and large?
Q How have rebates changed recently?
A There are a lot of higher-dollar rebates. Some manufacturers offer gift cards instead of checks. Some retailers offer checks that are only redeemable in their stores. Staples.com has an entirely electronic rebate system called Easy Rebates. Avery Dennison allows its rebates to be submitted online for Staples' purchases. Some manufacturers allow the larger rebates to be directly deposited into a bank account, if the consumer feels comfortable with providing bank account numbers.
Q Is Young America, Minn., still a major rebate redemption center?
A Yes, it is quite reputable and receives tens of millions of rebate requests each year.
Q You advise businesses on how to make rebates consumer-friendly. Do businesses think rebates are a big hassle?
A Businesses that have not provided the appropriate oversight may think they are a big hassle, but those who manage rebates and rebate fulfillment suppliers well think they are great. Let's face it, they move product. The trick is to have the appropriate expertise to manage them well, and that is not a core competency of most rebate sponsors. Rebates are very effective. Sponsors don't have to decline consumer requests unfairly to save money. It will cost a manufacturer considerably more in consumer ill will when the consumer gets angry and switches brands than it will to [pay] a legitimately attempted rebate.
Q Tell me about a manufacturer on the dark side of rebates.
A Most manufacturers don't process rebate requests incorrectly on purpose. The problem is that they are usually not very good at predicting what's going to happen before it happens. In one instance a manufacturer had 50 percent of rebates rejected as invalid and didn't even know about it until all the rejection letters went out. So oversight is usually more of a problem than intentional malfeasance. Any rejection rate over 3 to 5 percent is indicative of a problem -- a manufacturer problem, not a consumer problem. It's the manufacturer's responsibility to get these programs right. I think the wireless suppliers are particularly vulnerable as they often experience rejection rates in the 8 to 20 percent range, and that's just not acceptable.
Q What mistakes do retailers or manufacturers make that confuse consumers?
A Burying critical components in fine print and putting instructions in paragraph form rather than a numbered list. Also, not using short sentences and not clearly communicating expiration and submission dates.
Q Besides the manufacturer or the retailer, where can a consumer complain?
A Go to ftc.gov to register a complaint or call or write the Better Business Bureau. But it's best of all to get the name of a specific person at the manufacturer and send that person a letter along with backup copies of the forms and receipts originally sent. If a consumer is concerned about fraud, you can also check with the attorney general's office.