Help me WalletPop: An intrepid reader gets her money back from Sears after a valiant fight over a not-so-cool fridge

Dear WalletPop:

I bought a compact Galaxy refrigerator from Sears by phone. Milk sours in this compact refrigerator in 1-2 days and the temperature is always in the danger zone (50-65, and higher on the hottest days). Because of this, I have used a small zippered lunch-size container into which I put a small jar of milk and ice packs, and then put the whole thing in the Galaxy every night so that I can have coffee and breakfast upstairs while checking my email each morning.

I liked it because it is quiet. But a technician who handles warranty service for Sears told me it is quiet because there is no compressor in it and it cannot keep food cold enough to eat safely if there is no compressor. He said it isn't a refrigerator; it is a cooler. I paid about $145 for this item thinking it was a refrigerator. It says it is a refrigerator on the manual. The salesman said it was a refrigerator.I called Sears and was told to call the delivery department. A woman there took my number saying, "They may or may not call you about this." I then called their National Customer Relations number and got transferred to three different people. The last one put me on hold while she discussed the problem with their "Customer Solutions Department" and when she came back on the line, she said that, since the 90-day warranty was up, there was nothing she could do for me.

I told her Sears should not be selling such a dangerous appliance that could result in illness and or death -- that this was deceptive advertising. I did not know that I was sold a refrigerator that is only a cooler. If I had eaten food from this appliance that requires proper refrigeration (like meat), I could have died. It cannot get cold enough to keep food from spoiling. She kept saying, "I apologize."

Please tell me what recourse I have.

Vera Gropper
Somerville, Mass.

Vera, I admire your consumer savvy, drive and willingness to stick to your principles. It is easy to give up in the face of rejection by company customer service representatives, but you didn't and you were right not to. What you did was correct -- keep moving along the food chain and try to get someone to listen and if you fail, involve a third party. Often a state attorney general's office, local consumer affairs office or a good business group can be helpful third parties.

To try to figure out what was going on, I asked the folks in Sears' corporate offices to try to get to the bottom of this refrigerator situation.

Sears explained in detail how the small cube (the type used in offices and dorm rooms) is not intended for long-term use and was designed without a compressor (like wine coolers) so they could be made and run less expensively and operate more quietly.

But the complaint brought to the surface issues with the idea that this is really not a refrigerator. It's really a place to keep your lunch or a soda cold for a while. Purchasers, even on Sears' own site, shared concerns for its lack of cooling power.

Here's what one Sears official had to say: "The item does meet the criteria to be called a refrigerator, but we currently have plans to transition the product. In this process, we will surface these concerns with the brand before finalizing the new item. In the interim, we will be working to clarify the collateral that already exists in order to state the proper features to help fit the customers' needs."

Wow. That blast of corporate speak loosely translates into: "We won't admit the lady's right, but we'll be a lot more careful with our words when we repackage this thing and start marketing the new model."

So, Sears then decided it was time to make this right -- offering an apology and a refund, with a slight catch. Either Vera (who's 77) bring the refrigerator back to the store or she would have to pay the shipping charges to give it back.

Once again, holding her ground, Vera let Sears know what she thought about the charge-back for returning the refrigerator:

"In this case, all of my time, energy and stress dealing with Sears about a falsely advertised product has been essentially wasted. There is no question that I was sold a product that was falsely advertised. So why should I pay for you to get it back? Please refund the total amount and I will have the cooler put in the trash."

With that, Sears told her that they would make an exception for her: They'll throw in free shipping. Now, she's just waiting for the pick-up and the check.

Not everyone has the time or the frustration quotient to keep after the goal as Vera did. And for that commitment and bringing to light a product that was marketed in a way that confused an awful lot of consumers, Vera Gropper is my Consumer of the Month.
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