Robert Soule, 62, used to be a devoted Costco customer, spending nearly $10,000 a year on groceries, electronics and home furnishings at the big box discount store.
But last spring he had an experience with Costco that made him stop shopping at the retail giant.
Soule's mother, Florence, an 88-year-old who suffers from mild dementia and is paralyzed on the right side of her body, had an American Express card that offered 1 percent back on Costco purchases. Through that program, she'd received a refund check for $2.38.
One day, Soule, who is retired from the pharmaceutical industry and lives in Phoenix, was making a routine Costco run so he grabbed the check, planning to cash it at the store. But once there, he was told that he couldn't. The employee explained that because the account was in his mother's name, she had to show up in person to cash it, according to Soule.
Soule explained that his mother was physically unable to come to the store and suggested that he bring in a copy of his Power of Attorney, a standard legal document demonstrating that he has authority over his mother's affairs. The employee responded that the document wouldn't suffice. Soule then asked to speak to a manager, who repeated to Soule that the company couldn't use the Power of Attorney.
"I said, 'What are people supposed to do?' He says, 'Well, she is supposed to come in and cash the check,'" recalled Soule, who, at that point admits that he "got a little hot under the collar."
"It was so ridiculous. I mean, we were talking about a $2.38 check. So when talking to the guy, I tore it up into little pieces, handed it back to him, and told him obviously Costco needed the money more than we did and we would be happy to take our money elsewhere," Soule said.
For Soule, the incident is less about the money and more about how he was treated. "I don't need the $2.38. My mother doesn't need the $2.38. That wasn't the issue. It is the fact that the employees were dismissive and somewhat condescending," he explained.
"If a cardmember has a dissatisfactory experience we encourage them to call the number on the back of their card so we can help them," said American Express spokeswoman Leah Gerstner. Costco spokeswoman Muriel Cooper declined to comment.
To avoid similar problems going forward, Soule's mother could open a joint account with Soule or make him an authorized user on an existing account, suggested Linda Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action Network, a nonprofit organization that promotes consumer education. Or he could take the check to a traditional bank, which would cash it as long as he had an account at the institution and the check was endorsed, she said.
As for the larger problem of unresponsive management, Soule could have taken his complaint up the chain.
"If the actual supervisor won't help, or you're still unsatisfied after talking to the supervisor, you can contact the corporate office," Sherry said. "The corporate office really doesn't want to hear from consumers, especially not in the President's office, because it means something went wrong with the customer, so they're usually responsive."
Sherry acknowledged that reaching out to the office of the president of a major corporation can sound intimating, but insisted that it isn't as hard as it sounds. "In the day of the Internet, it's easier and easier to do."
To help consumers looking to file a complaint with a company, Consumer Action Network offers a free guide to complaining that walks you through the process, including resources for locating corporate contact information and advice for effectively communicating your problem.
As for Soule, he followed through on his threat to take his business elsewhere. He now spends closer to $1,000 a year at Costco, choosing instead to frequent Sam's Club.
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