Takae Ueda
TransAction Holdings, LLC.
CEO  Founding Partner

About six months ago my PC started developing nagging problems.

During a routine visit to my local Office Depot store I noticed a copy of their current tab advertisement stacked neatly at the cashier’s counter. There was a big sale going on, featuring a new Sony portable PC on the front cover with an attractive price of $699, which seemed really low to me.

Taking the ad home to research the detailed specs and comparative products on the web, I determined it was a great deal with certainty. I quickly made up my mind to purchase one considering the value for the price.

The following day I went to the same Office Depot location with the purpose to buy the specific VAIO brand model in the ad, and luckily they still had a couple left in stock . . . I agreed to purchase one.

However upon the point of payment, the cashier informed me that the price I was to pay was $849, not $699, as advertised. This was $150 more than the advertised price. Now, $849 for that Sony PC was still a very reasonable price, but the promotional price of $699 was already ingrained in my thinking. I thought, ”why be embarrassed to simply request, I think you input the incorrect price from the ad.” She quickly replied; “You will receive the $150 by mail-in-rebate.”

A “Mail-in-rebate? What is this I thought?”

At that moment I had no concept of what the term meant and had to ask my husband for an explanation. The direct translation of Mail-In-Rebate is just that, “a discount sent by mail”. Purchasing this product at a price before an applied discount ($849 in my case), the customer is responsible to send the copy of receipt or coupon with an application form to a specified address by mail. Subsequently (and supposedly) a check in the discount amount ($150 in this case) would be sent to me, by mail.

I wondered . . . why do they have to have this kind of complicated system? Why not simply deduct the discount amount at the point of purchase? Reluctantly, I agreed to pay $849 assuming it would eventually net my price down to $699 after receiving this “rebate”, I went ahead and bought the PC. It's a great product and in fact, I’m writing this article with it.

The receipt I received from the cashier detailed what I needed to do to receive this rebate. I read it carefully in the car on the way home and found that the due date to apply for the rebate gave me very little time to comply, in fact, only 2-7 days. Most people would not be able to react this quickly. But, as soon as I got home, I filled out the application form, stuck it into an envelope with the receipt and all the documentation they requested and put it in the mailbox, making a copy for myself, just in case.

With my over compensating nature, I thought I should send the form using a delivery confirmation method such as US postal service certified mail but thought it was probably unnecessary and simply verified I had photocopies of everything one more time. The instructions emphasized, “Please allow 90 days to receive your rebate check.” Curious how they can force me to apply for the rebate within just a few days, but they can take up to three months to send me my money? I thought it somewhat unfair but cleared my mind with the comfort that I fully complied with the directives and should receive my check soon without incident.

However . . . !

To receive this $150 I soon confronted some surprising challenges.

After approximately 3 months had passed following the PC purchase I went to Office Depot again to buy some office supplies and remembered that the rebate had not arrived yet, even though over 3 months had passed. I completely forgot about this money owed to me as I had been so busy recently.

Soon after, I looked for the receipt from three months ago and read it again carefully. It said specifically . . . “If you have not received your rebate after approximately 90 days of mailing, please contact our customer center or our website.” There was a phone number and URL, so I accessed the website to see what the delay was. Even after inputting my information in the web form the system could not locate my transaction. I asked my husband to call the customer center number. After waiting about 30 minutes to get to an operator they finally answered. What she said was nothing short of shocking.

“Your application has arrived but it’s not input in the system yet. I am going to register it for you so, so please hold for a moment.”

“What have they been doing all this time? I was angry!” After hanging up it took me a few minutes to regain my composure. However, this gave me insight into the actual purpose of most retailers who plan and promote rebate programs. Frankly, it appears that they do not want to send any rebate to customers. The retailer secretly hopes that consumers do not apply for rebates by designing a myriad of tasks to comply with the program rules, on purpose. And if a customer applies for rebate meeting the restrictive tasks, it also seems that the retailer would prefer they forget they applied. It reminded me of the phrase that I seem to use more and more in the US; “Isn’t this fraud?”

So, I decided to do some research. Previously as a business consultant, research was one of my favorite tasks and I also enjoyed detective stories as a kid. So I did my research . . . and scoured the web looking for clues, interviews, and checked with several retailers about rebate programs.