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Consummate Consumer

Losing Sleep Over Online Bed Purchases

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page C10

When Alex Levin and Amy Stolls went bed shopping last August, they say they looked online and at a furniture store in Washington and found a hardwood sleigh-style bed called the Coronado. The price of the queen-size model, made by Lifestyle Solutions, ranged from $299 to $449.

But the District couple say they wanted something "a bit nicer." So they bought a $695, custom-ordered bed called Malibu from eco-furniture.com, the Web site of Green Culture, an Internet company specializing in environmentally friendly products.

When the bed arrived 16 days later, the box was labeled Coronado. Unpacking it, Levin and Stolls found the same bed they had decided against.

"We were shocked," says Levin. "We immediately called Green Culture to tell them they made a mistake."

The company said there was no mistake. "The bottom line is that [the customer] did receive the bed that was described on our Web site," says Sunil Wagle, owner of the Lake Forest, Calif.-based Green Culture.

What happened? In its online catalogue, Green Culture renames the Coronado as the Malibu.

The company is refusing to accept a return of the bed and to refund Levin and Stolls's money because its no-return policy on custom orders is clearly stated on its Web site.

But there's a catch: A label on the bed noted the date of manufacture as May 2004 -- three months before Levin and Stolls ordered it. "Clearly the bed was not custom-made for us," Levin says. "If the bed were made to order, I would understand the higher price and the no-return policy. . . . But the no-return policy is based on a lie."

Adds Levin, "We are outraged that a company that markets itself as ecologically responsible could get away with such dishonest practices."

Wagle says there's nothing dishonest about changing a product's name. Retailers do it all the time, he says, and "are not required to call a product by the arbitrary name given it by the manufacturer."

Besides, Levin and Stolls should have been able to see by the photographs online that the Malibu is "the exact same product" as the Coronado shown on other sites, because they all use the same manufacturer-provided photo, he says.

As for pricing it higher than competitors, Wagle says what many retailers sell are "factory seconds" or goods with "slight damages." And "many of these companies do not take care of their customers like Green Culture," referring to his customer service staff.

Although it's not described this way on the site, "custom order," says Wagle, doesn't mean the bed is made specifically for the buyer. Rather it is ordered in advance so buyers don't have to wait weeks for the bed to be made. "We give projections to our manufacturers about how much of an item we will sell," he says, "and they, in turn, make those beds available to us sooner."

Wagle contends that Levin and Stolls bought the bed at a price they felt afterward was too high. Levin says that's absurd. Levin appealed to his credit card company, but after four months, the charges were allowed.

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