|Mail Order Caveat Emptor
by Henry Posner, B&H Photo Video Sales & Training Manager*
I often get asked why someone should shop with a mail order house, versus taking their proverbial wallet across the street to a general retail or camera specialty shop. Over the years, we've learned a few basic truths about marketing and sales. In addition to those old axioms, "The customer is always right," and "If a deal sounds too good to be true it probably is," I hope the following rules of thumb will be useful whether you're shopping mail order, camera shop, or at a general retail. When shopping for good deals anywhere, here are some of the things you may want to ask about:
What's included in the price you're being quoted? Some cameras include batteries, some don't. Some lenses include hoods, others do not. Usually, these decisions are made by the manufacturer or importer and should not be a choice of the seller. For instance, Minolta's Maxxum 7 includes an eyecup and strap. If a salesman from any shop offers you a strap with your Maxxum 7, either he doesn't know what's in the box, or someone may be removing accessories in order to build up the sale. It pays to shop around and be informed, even if that means checking the manufacturers web site. Regardless of the item, make sure whatever the manufacturer has elected to include is coming your way.
We hear far too many anecdotes of customers who get told the low advertised price for the zoom lens they want is for the "plastic version made in Malaysia" (or Thailand, or wherever) and the good solid metal version, made in Japan, is only $100.00 more. When you hear that song being sung, it's time to dance right out the door and don't look back!
What's the warranty? Some photographers are aware of the "USA-warranty" vs "grey market" issue. The sales associate should tell you about both, with both prices, and any variations that might influence your decision. What should not happen is for a customer to order a Nikon N90s, for example, and find a "grey market" F90x on the doorstep. We've also heard horror stories of less scrupulous retailers who claim an item is "USA warranted" and then ship a "grey market" item claiming that they're warranting the item and since they're located in the USA it's a USA warranty.
Far worse though is the retailer advertising unbelievably low prices who tells you the price is for the "grey market" version, but it's out of stock, and you can have the item with the "USA" warranty for a mere $300.00 more. That's bait-n-switch and it's unethical, and in some cases illegal.
How much is the total cost? It's all well and good to get a great price on an item, but face it; it shouldn't cost $90.00 for ground shipping for one lens to St. Louis, unless the retailer's warehouse is on the Moon. Ask for the total out-the-door price whenever buying mail order.
If a mail order house also has a retail location, is the store price the same as mail order? At some stores, like B&H Photo Video in Manhattan, the price is the same. At others it may be different. Find out, and ask why if the price is different.
How about taxes? Are you charged tax on your order when buying from a mail order? The answer is probably yes if the mail order house is within your state. You probably won't be charged tax if the item is being shipped from outside the state you live in. However, you are still responsible to pay YOUR state's tax rate. Sales tax is not a VAT and cannot be recouped by non-USA residents when they return home.
Is there a credit card surcharge? There shouldn't be. Sure, the banks charge a couple of pennies on the dollar to process your order, but for most retailers credit cards are money in the bank, while personal checks are sometimes an iffy gamble. For the customer, credit cards offer more protection. No retailer should be charging you a separate credit card fee.
What's the return policy? The given store, or mail order house's policy should be clearly printed either on your invoice, or additional included materials. For example, the B&H policy is two weeks for photo items, one for digital, video and the like. Most sellers will not take the merchandise back unless it arrives in as-new condition with all the manufacturer's packaging and inserts, and a blank warranty card. There should be no restocking fee as long as you comply with the description above.
Is it in stock? Always ask the sales associate if an item you've requested is, or is not available. They should ask your permission to back-order an item for you. The last thing you need is a sinking feeling when you're scrambling madly through those Styrofoam peanuts for the soft-focus filters you've waited all week to test; or worse that you need for a job or vacation.
When will the order be shipped? It varies, but shouldn't be any more than 48 hours if the item was in stock. Why should you wait?
So, wherever you decide to shop - be it mail order, specialty shop, or general retail - ask these questions and more, and you'll be safe throughout your purchase cycle. The more you know, the better off your experience will be. You'll learn to ask the right questions and to separate "the wheat from the chaff" of claims and promises retailers make.* B&H Photo Video is a mail order photo retailer. Both their offices and their retail store are based in New York City. You can find them at http://www.bhphotovideo.com.