Thursday, October 27, 2011

Paranoid Android

Remember the HP Touchpad? No? It was this lesson in how not to make a tablet, then it became a lesson in how to make a tablet. Or sell a tablet at least. But what kind of a lesson in business is "sell your stuff at below cost and sell a lot of your product"? Somebody hand me my MBA right now.

I got caught up in the HP Touchpad hoopla during the fire sale a couple months back. I mean who wouldn't want a tablet for 100 bucks? If for no other reason than to hand it to the kids and keep the iPad safe. I spent every available moment that weekend refreshing the HP store page, the Radio Shack page, searching the online forums to see where anybody scored one. No luck.

The word on many a website was that if you physically went into a Best Buy store as soon as the doors opened in the morning, you'd be able to get one. So I grabbed my coffee mug on a Sunday and drove to the Culver City Best Buy in the Culver City Center shopping center, which isn't in the center of Culver City.

There was already a line of about 12 dudes all looking desperate for some hundred dollar tablet love. Right at 10 am they opened the doors, and the male horde trudged over toward the computer area only to be met by the standard Best Buy-looking manager guy waving his hands furiously at us like he was about to be stampeded. "We're all out of stock of touchpads!" he stammered, probably hoping to avoid any confrontation. The horde let out a collective groan and did a 180 back toward the front door.

On my way out I saw another group of guys heading toward the door in a rush. I hollered "they're all out of Touchpads." Another collective groan from a few of them, while one smarmy fella with smartphone in hand glanced over at me and said "I'm buying one online!" grinning from ear to ear. Yeah. Sure you are.

A few thousand clicks later at home, I managed to track down one online store on Amazon that had them in stock. "In Stock" is what it said on the Amazon storefront of an unknown shop called OnSale. I immediately bought it. I felt like I won the lottery or something. But I won a stupid little obsolete tablet. Or so I thought.

Three days later I noticed that my credit card had still not been charged. And still no confirmation letter from OnSale. After a bit of research, it became clear that many online stores that had sold the Touchpad didn't have any stock to begin with. My Touchpad stock. I received an e-mail from Amazon later that day: "Greetings from, We're writing to inform you that your order from OnSale has been canceled because the item(s) you purchased were out of stock. Please return and place your order again at a later time."

I was livid. More than a hundred dollar tablet livid. Wait, but you said it was in stock! It said it right there on your page! I did what any normal, red blooded, easily-annoyed-at-customer-service consumer with too much time on their hands would do: I wrote a letter. A letter to Amazon. A letter to OnSale. When I discovered that the parent company of OnSale is indeed MacMall, I wrote a letter to them too. And when I eventually realized I was shouting at what amounted to a brick wall, some spurned Touchpad buyer on a random forum mentioned writing a letter to the Better Business Bureau. So I did. And then I let it all go.

No HP Touchpad, no big deal. It was over. It was over until about two weeks ago when my phone rang. A representative from OnSale was calling to ask if I wanted a Touchpad. I thought it must be a scam. The representative said that OnSale had received some Touchpad inventory and was offering them at the same price as before, but only to customers who had written the Better Business Bureau. Thanks BBB! To assure me that it wasn't a scam, the guy gave me his number and extension and told me to call him back. I quickly navigated to the OnSale page and looked up their contact info. Same number.

I called him back. I gave him my credit card info. I was getting a Touchpad. He said it would be shipped in 5 business days. 5 business days later I checked the status of my order. No shipping info on the OnSale site. I checked my credit card activity. No charge for a hundred dollar tablet. It wasn't looking good. A few days later I called OnSale.

The man on the phone with my order information said in robotic form-letter tone: "We regret to inform you that we cannot fulfill your order because we do not have the item in stock."
"Hold up" I said. "You mean to tell me you don't have my order in stock?"
"That's correct sir."
"Wait, your company called me. I didn't place an order out of the blue. Someone called me and told me they had it in stock."
"I'm sorry sir"
"Why would someone from your company call me to tell me they had it in stock if they didn't?"
"I don't know, sir" the employee said, then continued in his form-letter tone, "Perhaps it was in stock, and your credit card information did not go through and then it was sold out."
"But wouldn't somebody call me to get that straightened out before selling my item?" I asked.
It felt like I was part of an FAQ read through.

"I'm sorry sir, but what we can do is offer you a fifty dollar store credit."
"I highly doubt that I'll be buying anything from OnSale."
"I'm sorry sir, but we can offer you hundred dollar store credit."
He was starting to sound like a computer. A not so okay computer.
I upped the ante. "How about you give me a hundred and fifty dollar store credit?"
"Please hold sir while I check with my manager"
As I waited I wondered why I was wasting my phone minutes with this nonsense. He returned.
"Sir, my manager has authorized me to send you a one-hundred dollar check."
I almost laughed at the idea of it. "You mean to tell me you're going to send me a hundred dollars. I don't know why I would believe that you're actually going to follow through with that, but yeah sure why not."
"I will make sure to follow through and get the payment processed immediately."
We said our goodbyes and he thanked me for shopping with OnSale, nevermind the fact that I hadn't actually bought anything.

100 dollars. It's coming in the mail. I know it. I can feel it. There's probably a better chance of me putting a hundred dollars under my pillow at bedtime and waking up with an HP Touchpad in its place.