The woman was incredulous. The table had a scratch on it, but the delivery man refused to take it back. Instead, he told the woman what kind of paint to buy so she could fix it herself.
Her disgust was mild compared to the smoldering indignation of the woman who made a special trip to a department store to buy twin sheets advertised for sale in the paper, only to learn from the salesclerk that actually, just the king and queen size sheets were on sale.
Then there's the man who had a row with the company that delivered his new dining table-with one leg missing. And the couple that was billed twice for the same plumbing repair. And the person who was refused a refund on some moldy frozen pizza purchased a day earlier at a local supermarket.
Talk to almost anyone and they can tell you a tale of the wrongheaded treatment they feel they have received from merchants, repairmen, professionals and others who sell goods and services.
Some consumers, like the ones mentioned above, say they always fight back and usually "win." But many others never resolve their complaints, not troubling to take a stand because of inertia, intimidation or a lack of information about their rights as consumers.
In the District, several organizations provide information on consumer rights and will help individuals settle disputes.
The cardinal rule of consumer advocacy is that if you have a gripe, by all means, complain. Complaining can bring results and can save others from sharing your plight.
Take your complaint to the supervisor, consumer advocates advise, and go up through the chain of command to the very top if necessary.
"Often salespersons or subordinates don't have the authority to deal with complaints or don't know company policy on handling them," says a spokeswoman for the D.C. Consumer Protection Office.
Customers should lodge their complaints in a firm but reasonable fashion.
"You must walk a fine line between submissiveness and aggressiveness," says Ann Brown, chairwoman of the Consumer Affairs Committee for Americans for Democratic Action. The best stance, she says, is "assertiveness."
Consumers should always hold onto sales slips, contracts, repair estimates, warranties and other documents pertaining to the purchase of goods and services. These papers can be decisive in determining whether the consumer or the seller is at fault.
District residents are protected by both local and federal laws. The responsibility for enforcing D.C. laws lies with many different agencies.
If the "fresh" orange juice offered at a restaurant turns out to be frozen, you can complain to the D.C. Department of Environmental Services, which oversees practices at eating establishments. Or you can complain to the Consumer Protection Office, which handles false advertising.
Gripes about doctors' fees go the D.C. Commission on Licensures, and complaints about the octane levels of gasoline at your neighborhood station go to the weights and measures office in the License and Inspection Investigation Department.
Acknowledging the problems of decentralized responsibility, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Protection Office said complaints of any type may be made with her agency and are referred to another department if necessary. The protection office number is 727-1158.
Other consumer organizations in the District that handle a broad range of complaints and serve as mediators in individual cases are:
Consumer HELP, George Washington University National Law Center, 785-1001.
United Planning Organization, Consumer Protection Branch, 638-7300.
City Hall Complaint Center, 393-3333; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday; Thursday, 10 a.m. to noon.
AYUDA, Inc. (for Spanish-speaking residents); 387-4848.
PEP (Protection for Elderly People), George Washington University Consumer Protection Center, 265-4900.
The following are community organizations that direct their services for low-in-come residents:
PIC (People's Involvement Corp.), 797-3990.
Center City Community Corp., 789-0866.
Far East Community Corp., 583-6000.
Near Northeast Community Improvement Corp., 399-6900.
For District residents who frequently shop or use services in the suburbs, numbers of consumer protection offices in surrounding jurisdictions are:
Montgomery County Office of Consuemr Affairs, 279-1776.
Prince George's county Consumer Protection Commission, 952-4700.
Consumer Affairs Coordinator for the City of Alexandria, 750-6675.
Arlington County Office of Consumer Affairs, 558-2142.
Fairfax County Consumer Protection and Landlord-Tenant Commission, 691-3214.
Prince William County Office of Consumer Affairs, 703/221-4156.
Federal agencies maintain consumer affairs offices as well, although most of their cases are referre by local agencies.
Consumer advocates also suggest that complaints be filed with the Better Business Bureau, 393-8000, and appropriate D.C. licensing boards and porfessial associations.