When Kathy Jex bought a Headsokz as a Christmas present for her husband in December, she thought the $40 hat/ski mask would be perfect for keeping him warm as he pursued his favorite sport: ice fishing.
But she was careful to keep her receipt from the vendor who operated out of a hallway cart at the Cottonwood Mall. True, it wasn't one of the established stores at the mall, but if the mall management had let them in, what could go wrong?Quite a bit, as it turned out. When Jex's husband bought a tent to go ice fishing, they decided the hat would be too warm, so back she went to the mall to return the item and get her refund.
You can guess the rest. The vendor, who had taken out a short-term lease at the mall just for the holiday season, was gone.
Well, she still had options, or so she thought. She contacted the mall's customer service department and was given a phone number for the vendor. She called him but was told her refund would have to come from the Headsokz manufacturer, Gotta-go Industries, Tukwila, Wash.
But Gotta-go told her no go. The refund would have to come from the vendor. "They told me it was like trying to take a pair of shoes back to Nike, it doesn't work that way," said Jex.
Her retort was that stores who sold Nike products tend to stay around longer than Christmas Eve and that she felt sure that Nike wouldn't give her the brush-off in any case. Still, she called the vendor again, but this time she could only get an answering machine. Her calls were never returned.
Jex concedes that she could have written the $40 off. She had given it her best shot but had failed. But by this time it had become something of a quest for her. She wrote letters to Gotta-go and to the editors of local newspapers, but no luck.
The moral of the story? Maybe there isn't one, but Jex says she won't be buying any merchandise at mall kiosks and carts for awhile. "After this experience, I'm just not comfortable with the idea any more. If you have a legitimate refund coming, they just aren't traceable."
When informed of the problem by the Deseret News, Mike Enslow, spokesman for mall owner JP Realty, contacted the vendor and Jex is now confident she will get her money back. Still, it shouldn't have been that hard.
Although he was happy to help, Enslow expressed surprise that there had been a problem with the Headsokz vendor.
"They were in almost every shopping center last holiday season," said Enslow. "It's a good, reputable company. They've been doing business for three years and it's rare to get complaints or problems with them that aren't dealt with right away."
There's no question that seasonal and short-term cart and kiosk vendors have become a staple at local malls, and most agree that they add a festive feeling to the shopping experience. But established stores tend to resent them as "carpetbaggers" who swoop in during the prime selling season, then fold their tents and disappear.
Sometimes they leave behind unhappy customers who end up feeling less than positive about the mall and its other tenants.
Richard Madsen, chairman and chief executive officer of ZCMI, is ambivalent about cart vendors in the malls where the department store chain operates.
"The positive side is that they add excitement and color to the holiday season," said Madsen, "but we compete with floor space and square footage with everyone else, and we do it with 20-year contracts. So it does agitate us to have someone get a 30-day contract at the high (sales) season.
"If we could cast our vote, we wouldn't cast it in favor of the carts, but I understand that when you own real estate, you try to get what you can when you can. Let the buyer beware, that's the most positive thing I can say about it."
Not all kiosk and cart operators are in it just for the quick buck, of course. "We're here every day just like the regular stores," noted one cart operator who asked not to be named. "Anyone who has a problem can find us here at any time."
Tiffany Olson, who works at the Piercing Pagoda earring and jewelry kiosk in the main hall at Cottonwood Mall, points out that her company has been in operation locally for 13 years. And while there are only two Pagoda outlets in Utah (the other one is at SouthTowne Mall) the Pennsylvania-based company has 800 such operations around the country.
"We're just like the in-line stores, except that I think we have a better location," she said. "People walk by and they can't miss us."
Mel Pearson, retail division manager for the ZCMI Center downtown, says mall management checks out the history and background of cart vendors before granting them a short-term lease. The vendors must submit a business plan and make a deposit.
"Once in a while, a few disappear and no one can find them, but not often," Pearson said. "Many times the kiosks are operated by people who want to test a product or, like Hickory Farms, are just there for Christmas. Others are trying to fish - find out if they want to put a permanent store into the mall.
"If there's a problem, we try to track them down for the customer, just for public relations if no other reason, but sometimes they can't be found. But it's not a problem exclusive with us. Every mall goes through that with kiosks and carts."
But Pearson said the mall has no intention of giving up on seasonal vendors just because there are some problems. "They have been very successful for the mall. They create a nice atmosphere and the feel of being busy. Every mall in the country has them."
Jeanie Van Amen, marketing director for Trolley Square, said she hasn't fielded many complaints about cart vendors from customers or year-round merchants, but she said the mall tries to get vendors whose wares don't directly compete with Trolley's established stores.
As do most malls, Van Amen said Trolley Square tries to maintain current information on merchants who have rented kiosks from them and will make that information available to customers or forward complaints to the vendor.
"We do what we need to to make sure the customer is happy," Van Amen said.
Bill Beadle, president of the Utah Better Business Bureau, said the BBB hasn't processed many complaints about cart vendors but he thinks he knows why - and it's not because there aren't people who have problems with them.
"We can't deal with complaints if the customer doesn't have an address for the merchant so we can contact them. And if they have done business with someone on a street corner or a transient merchant in a hotel or a mall, there is usually no way to track them down, and our policy is not to contact mall management."
Basically, Beadle said, he tells shoppers to follow one simple piece of advice: "Know who you're dealing with and where they'll be tomorrow."