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Two Stories to Restore Your Faith in Commerce

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About six years ago, I bought an AlphaSmart 3000. Unless you are an elementary school teacher, you probably have never heard of the AlphaSmart. It's a devilishly simple idea: put a simple word processor in a container smaller than a laptop. That was my AlphaSmart. It had a keyboard and a tiny screen — enough to fit five lines of text — and some very simple utilities (spell check and word count were the only ones I ever used).

I bought the AlphaSmart because I really wanted a laptop for writing but didn't want to spend the money. It turned out to be just the thing. I could take it to the cafe to write, and I brought it on vacations to keep travelogues. Its simplicity was its great strength, because all I could do with it was write – no e-mail and no Internet surfing to distract me. The price was right: just $100 at the time.

My trusty friend served me well and did not even require new batteries for years (three AAs), however, all the traveling took its toll. A couple of keys popped off the keyboard, and then one morning I turned it on and it turned itself off. Its brains were loose.

Okay, time for a new one. I got on the web site Renaissance Learning, which now owns AlphaSmart, and found they no longer sold the 3000. Now they have two models, the Neo, which is pretty much the same as the 3000, or the Dana, which is a 3000 + a Palm Pilot (has the Palm software and works with a stylus, has portable MS docs and Internet capability). Also, it was supposed to be sturdier. Sturdy – that's for me, I thought, so I ordered a Dana.

I immediately took a dislike to it, I'm afraid. Used to simplicity, I was now faced with complexity. Even though I had had a Palm Pilot at one time, I had a hard time navigating the interface. The Dana also has a rechargeable battery that I kept forgetting to charge (and therefore had to plug it in). Worst of all, I had a hard time with the screen. To me, there was a glare that made it hard to see.

Unable to accept my poor decision, I just didn't use the Dana much. After five months of avoiding it, I came to the conclusion that I wished I had bought the Neo. On a lark one Sunday morning, I wrote to Renaissance Learning to see if they'd do a trade. I assumed the answer would be no, but it never hurts to ask.

I went off to work the next day thinking nothing of it, but when I got home there was a message on my answering machine. It was the Renaissance Learning, wanting to discuss my message. The story was that if I had voiced my displeasure with the Dana within 30 days, they could have refunded my money. Since it was past the 30 days, they would accept the Dana back and give me credit if I bought a Neo first.

This is exactly what I did. I happily typed this article on my Neo. Isn't that fabulous? The company was well within its rights to say "sorry," but instead they wanted to make me happy and were willing to accept a deficit out of the deal themselves (the Neo is only 2/3 the price of the Dana, and they refunded the Dana's full price). I liked their products before, but they now have a customer loyal to the company itself.

Another cool thing was that last year Renaissance Learning had a program for used AlphaSmart called AlphaSmarts for Africa. If you sent it back to them, they'd recondition it in order to donate it to a poor community in Africa. I did this with my AlphaSmart, and I'm very pleased it's gone on to better things. 

Here's another heart-warming story of commerce gone right:

I came upon the Squishable.com site via a link provided by my 20-something niece. Pictures of fat and adorable stuffed animals abound, including many "in-situ": the animals being held by people or placed in a room, so you can easily see they are rather large (the size of watermelon, only round).

They also had a "Bundle of Bunnies," three little bunnies stuffed into a carrot. At $15, I had a clue that they were not as big as the watermelon variety (which run around $38). On the page describing them, the dimensions are plain to see: seven inches long. My eyes fooled me, however. The close-up of the adorable bunnies had no context, and given the size of the other critters, I assumed they were bigger than they are, despite being told otherwise.

I ordered the bunnies (I didn't want my shopping basket to remain "empty and sad"), received them in good time, but was disappointed at their size. I decided they'd do and just thought I'd live with it. Squishable uses Google Checkout as a payment method, and Google asked me to rate them as a vendor. I'm mostly lazy about such requests, but I did it this time, rating them a 4 out of 5 because of the size of the bunnies.

Within hours I had an e-mail from Squishable saying they were sorry I was disappointed, that if I wanted to return the bunnies they'd pay the shipping, and here's a 20% off coupon on your next purchase. They even promised to put up some pictures that would help others avoid the same problem (when I checked the website recently I did not see any, perhaps because the bunnies are sold out). I was surprised and delighted. That is the way commerce is supposed to be conducted! Making customers happy is the goal of Squishable, and they certainly succeeded here.

Both of these companies are small. Is there a moral in that story? Small companies are more service-conscious than large ones? This may be true, by and large, but I'm not sure there's a one-to-one correlation. Whatever the reason, these are two companies worth doing business with.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.