ike many other working women, I approach the Christmas season with mixed feelings. The holiday warms and cheers me. But even with my husband's unflagging help, I am never quite sure how to fit my Christmas shopping into all my Christmas column deadlines.
The miracle of Christmas does, somehow, arrive at the Quinn home every year. But this year the odds against it seemed longer than usual so I tried something new for me: I ordered all my gifts from Christmas catalogs.
Eureka and hosanna! I may never again fight December crowds in a department store. For someone who hates to shop or hasn't the time, Christmas catalogs are the answer.
It was on a Saturday in early November that I curled up with a dozen catalogs, my Christmas list and a coffee pot. I found something suitable for almost everyone. Within two weeks after sending my orders, the first gifts began to come. The Christmas cache is filling up, and all I've had to do is answer the doorbell.
So far, I've run into only three problems: One gift was out of stock. One gift was wrong. One gift couldn't be delivered until after Christmas.
The price of the out-of-stock gift has been credited to my charge card. The wrong gift has been mailed back and the right one sent out. The company that can't deliver until after Christmas informed me of that fact, as required by the federal rules on mail order, listed below. I changed my order to something else.
Had I done all my shopping in stores, I'd have laid my hands on exactly the right gifts and brought them home, with no mistakes. But it takes a lot less time and energy to correct a couple of problems by telephone than it does to fight the Christmas crowds.
The drawbacks to catalog shopping are that you cannot see the merchandise in advance or try things on for size. Also, catalogs have no pre-Christmas sales, like the ones that have been running in stores. Catalog prices are reasonably competitive, but for standard goods you can generally find better prices locally if you shop around.
Some shoppers also report problems with some catalog mailers who deliver late, deliver wrong or don't deliver at all. I've found the reputable companies to give excellent service. But if you have problems with a mail order, you do have some rights under the mail-order rule of the Federal Trade Commission:
* Your order must be sent within the time promised or within 30 days. A seller who can't make the deadline must notify you of the new shipping date. If you consider the new date to be too late, you may cancel and get a complete refund. If you decide to wait for the merchandise and the seller misses the second deadline, you must be notified again. At that point, you must actively reconfirm the order, if you still want the item. Otherwise, the seller should automatically send you a refund.
* Cash refunds should be paid within seven business days. If you charged the purchase, the papers that credit your account must be mailed within one billing cycle.
The catalog should explain the seller's policy on returning or exchanging goods. If it doesn't, ask about refunds before you buy. (Most mailers have toll-free telephone numbers.) Most of the good companies will make an exchange or take back an item for the asking. They also should accept responsibility if the gift arrives broken. Keep the catalog and a copy of your order, in case you have a problem.
If you have a dispute with a catalog company that can't be resolved, there are a couple of places to turn for help. The Direct Marketing Association (6 E. 43rd St., New York, N.Y. 10017), a mail-order trade association, will try to help you with problems. A consumer-protection agency, in your city or the city where the mailer is located, may also be useful.
Send copies of all correspondence involving troublesome catalog companies to the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC can't enter into your individual case. But it may approach the offending company if it gets enough letters to show a pattern of abuse.
The FTC's rules apply to everything ordered by mail except photo-finishing, magazine subscriptions (other than the first issue), seeds and plants, C.O.D. orders and credit orders where your account is not charged before the goods are shipped.