My online HDTV Shopping Nightmare
(a.k.a. “Why Sound Seller and Watkins Motor Lines Should be Avoided”)

By Chris Boylan

In November of 2002, my wife and I decided to take the plunge and purchase an HDTV for our new home.  After much research and evaluation, we decided on the Sony 34” KV-34XBR800 - a beautiful widescreen HDTV-capable monitor.   I checked a couple of local dealers (Best Buy, Circuit City, etc.), but all were asking full retail (or near it) and once you factor in the 8.625% local NYC tax plus the local delivery charge, the price was just a bit more than I was prepared to pay. 

So I Googled away, looking for a nice friendly online dealer.  I found a reference to Sound Seller in Marinette, Wisconsin.  The salesman, a gentleman by the name of Ron, offered the TV to me for a good price (about 20% below list) and suggested that I have the TV delivered to a business (rather than my home) so that a.) someone would be around to sign for the package and b.) the shipping charge would be slightly cheaper than delivering it to a residence.

E-mail extract:

>Hi Chris,
>Residential delivery is quite a bit more. I would have the set shipped to
a friends business.
>See if you can work something out so we can get the commercial ship rate
and I will let you know when I have more sets available. This truly is an
awesome set.

The Mistakes just Keep Coming!

This all seemed reasonable to me but that, it turns out, was Fatal Mistake Number 3.  Fatal Mistake Number 1 was ordering from Sound Seller in the first place and Fatal Mistake Number 2 was allowing them to use Watkins Motor Lines as the carrier.

My friend who owned a neighborhood video rental store agreed to accept the package for me.  He called a few days later to let me know the HDTV had arrived.  Upon quick inspection, the box looked fine and we brought it over to my house and set it aside until the weekend when we could have a chance to install it.

Sony KV-34XBR800 box
Here's what the box looked like
(click image to enlarge to full size and click "Back" to return)

So that's what an imploded HDTV tube looks like!

To my horror, when I opened the box, I found that the HDTV had been damaged beyond repair. It turns out that there was a small hole in the outer box (visible in above photo on the bottom right) that my friend did not notice upon delivery and, to be fair to him, I did not notice either when picking up the TV.  But it was there nonetheless.   The picture below shows what the TV looked like once I opened the box.

Sony KV-34XBR800 with damage by Watkins Motor Lines
Here's what I saw when I opened the box - ARGHHHHHH!!!

Upon closer inspection, you can actually see both a hole and a smaller scuff and dent in the box about 12 inches away from it.  It looks as if someone in the Watkins Motor Lines warehouse accidentally drove a forklift into the box at a pretty high speed.  High enough speed to chip the glass of the picture tube, explode the inner vacuum tube and separate the tube from the chassis as you can see in the photos.

Close-up showing damage to Sony box

Close-up - showing minimal visible
damage to box.

chip in tube glass

Chip in glass caused by impact
(perhaps a forklift?).

Tube separted from chassis due to force of impact

Sony tube separated from chassis
due to force of impact.

Having some prior experience with damaged packages, I wasn’t too concerned.  I called Ron immediately, and he referred me to the carrier (the afore-mentioned Watkins Motor Lines) stating that I had to take it up with them.  This is, in fact, not entirely true.  The carrier’s claim forms explicitly state that either the shipper or the recipient can file the claim.  What should have happened then?  Ron should have credited my card, and took the claim up with the carrier.  But this did not happen.

The Extreme Displeasures of Dealing with Watkins Claims Department

Instead I had the pleasure of taking time out of my own schedule to call Watkins, request the claim forms, call their independent claims investigator, arrange to have him inspect the damaged HDTV (“Yup, it’s definitely broke”), file the claim and then wait for my reimbursement check.  And wait… and wait…

I filed that claim with Ms. Donna McConnell - Claims Analyst Extraordinaire who was anything but pleasant in all of my conversations with her - from Watkins Motor Lines on 11/19/02, called 2 weeks later (after hearing nothing) and received no reply.  I finally received a letter several days later that they were missing the original receipt (which they were not, as it turns out – that was apparently just a delay tactic). 

After that, I had to call them myself 3 times over the next 30 days trying to get an update on my claim, with no return calls. Finally, on January 20, 2003 (2 months after filing the claim), I was told by Ms. McConnell that she was not honoring the claim.  Because my friend had signed for the package as "received in good condition," she now had an excuse to deny my claim, causing me to lose exactly $2160 of my hard-earned cash. 

The above photographic evidence that suggests that the damage came from a forklift (did I mention the video store doesn’t happen to have any forklifts lying around?) meant absolutely nothing to Watkins.  My assurance that no harm came to the box after delivery meant nothing.  They had an excuse, and they were sticking to it.  I’m sure she’s a nice person but… no wait, I take that back.  She did not seem like a nice person at all.  In fact, she did everything short of calling me a thief and a liar, stating that I must have damaged the TV after delivery.  That, and I quote, “clearly if it was damaged, then no one would have signed for it.” 

Not Acting in Good Faith

With this incredible, and quite unanticipated response, I again contacted Ron at Sound Seller and requested his assistance in settling the claim and returning my money.  Ron did say that they filed the claim on my behalf again, with the head of Watkins’ claim department, one Sheila McDougall.  And Sheila’s response was the same – no dice.  Ron told me that his attorney was going to pursue this further with Watkins.  And I quote (once again):

My lawyer wants to send out a demand letter and file an action against them that they did not act in “Good Faith”. Watkins did not use any common sense in the matter…”

I told Ron I was grateful for him trying to help, but after three months, I just couldn’t wait any longer to get my money back so I told him I was going to contest the charge with my credit card company.  That's the last I ever heard from Sound Seller in Marinette, WI. 

Sound Seller fought my credit card dispute, and armed with the copy of my friend’s signature on the receipt (which I had sent Ron, by the way, acting in complete good faith), Sound Seller convinced Discover Card to reinstate the charge. 

Let me get this straight - Ron from Sound Seller says Watkins did not act in good faith, yet Sound Seller uses the same tactic to avoid refunding my money for this fiasco.  How is that any different? 

The next step was that my attorney sent a letter explaining the problem to the president of Watkins Motor Lines, a Mr. John Watkins.  This resulted in a $600 settlement offer from Mr. Watkins' office.  This suggests to me that Watkins at least acknowledges the possibility that they were responsible for the damage.  However, I was not satisfied with anything less than a complete refund.  After all, I paid $2160 for a brand new HDTV, and this is what I should have received.

So in late 2003, I took Watkins to small claims court.  They were so disorganized that they called me a couple of days before the trial asking me for some details on my case.  Apparently they didn't even know who I was and why I was suing them!  I promptly forwarded them information pertinent to the case (though I had no moral obligation to do so) and showed up in court along with my wife and my friend who had signed for the package.   The three of us comprised everyone who had been in contact with the package since its delivery.

Here Come Da Judge

After waiting for hours, the judge finally saw us, examined the photos, expressed his condolences but said that the signed form stating the the item was "received in good condition" was enough to release Watkins from responsibility for the damages.  When I brought up the idea of "concealed damage" (damage that is not immediately apparent on delivery, and which is a standard clause in any shipping contract, including Watkins' shipping contract), that judge said that "you should have had them open the box before signing anything."  Apparently this judge doesn't receive too many packages, because I have never heard of a driver waiting around for a customer to open and inspect a package before signing for it.  In fact, it is against company policy for many carriers, according to shipping reps which whom I have spoken.  This is the whole point of a "concealed damage" clause - if the damage is not apparent on delivery, then the customer simply has to notify Watkins of the concealed damage within 14 days (which I did), in order for the claim to be honored.  

So here I am… now over a year later - out $2160 with a 250 pound HDTV paperweight in my basement and a few less illusions that justice will prevail in the world.  What has become of us?  What happened to “the customer is always right?” What happened to giving a customer the benefit of the doubt?  And what exactly does $2160 mean to a multi-billion dollar shipping company?  Or a fair to mid-sized Audio Video dealer?  Apparently it means enough to them to spread a little more bad will in the world, and unfortunately I’m just mad enough to help make that happen. 

Lessons learned?

  1. Don’t buy from Sound Seller in Marinette, Wisconsin.  Oh you might save a few bucks, and you may even receive your goods in good condition.  But what happens if something goes wrong?
  2. Don’t ship something via Watkins Motor Lines. Not only do they apparently put forklifts through boxes (and deliver the goods anyway), but also they may just choose not  to reimburse you for the damage.
  3. If you’ve got a good local dealer for audio or video, please patronize them!  The few extra bucks you spend will be repaid 1000-fold in peace of mind.
In fact, taking my own advice, I have finally purchased a working HDTV - a 38" Loewe Aconda widescreen tube HDTV.  It's beautiful and has a fantastic picture.  I bought it at a local dealer - Harvey Electronics - and, guess what?  I picked it up from the store and delivered it myself!

June, 2005 Update: When Sony's Executive Customer Relations team caught wind of this problem, they offered me a replacement set below employee cost. Although I already had the Loewe HDTV, I did take them up on their offer for a high def PVR box at their discounted rate. Props to Sony for their efforts above and beyond the call of duty.

-Chris Boylan is a staff writer for Enjoy The Music and Big Picture Big Sound Magazines

Note: Our friend Jake Freivald has his own axe to grind with Weichert Realtors of New Jersey. Read more about it on his web site "Why Weichert Sucks."