Monday, December 21, 2009

Small Catholic Internet stores, revisited

Two years ago, I wrote this post addressing small Catholic Internet businesses. I outlined some of the problems I've had (and others have had, too) with ordering gifts, especially at Christmas, from small Catholic companies, religious goods stores, and other online Catholic retailers. Reading over it made me a little sad--because nothing has changed, not even with the bigger stores I routinely do business with, and it's led me to make a decision I'd rather not make concerning the purchasing of religious items.

In my gift wrap post below, I mentioned putting one box aside because only two of three items were inside, and then spending time on the phone with an employee of the company. The items in question were religious items, and the company is a well-established religious goods catalog business; unfortunately, this is not the first time I've had an order go awry from this company.

It turned out that one of my items was back-ordered. Nobody told me. Nobody sent an email, or called, even though the store asks for all that contact information when you order online. I didn't find out until I opened the box today.

The woman on the other end seemed mildly amused by my call. Oh, yes, it happens. Oh, it looks like the item came in, and was shipped--today. Oh, they expedited the shipping, so it should arrive this week. Surely by Thursday at the latest, though of course she had no idea how late it was sent out today, in which case...

I was nice to her; it wasn't her fault. I hung up the phone, and shrugged. It's important to me to give my children a religious gift at Christmas, but the third item will arrive long before Epiphany, so I can always give the girls this gift later. But like I said above, this is not the first time this has happened--and this is a fairly big, well-known sort of company.

I've had even worse times on occasion with smaller ones. There's only one Catholic store I can order from with supreme confidence, and that's a physical store in another state, where my youngest sister happens to work. If I know pretty much exactly what I want, or can figure it out in a reasonable time, I can call my sister; but during the busy Christmas season I wouldn't want to tie up her time with a call that says, "I need something religious for the girls for Christmas, in X price range, but not a small statue because that's what I got them last year, and I already ordered some books, and they have tons of rosaries, so what would you suggest?" and then goes on from there. (Don't get me wrong; she'd put up with that, because she's a thoroughly nice person and a terrific aunt; but I wouldn't take such advantage of her good nature at a time when there are plenty of flesh-and-blood customers needing to be helped in the store.)

To be honest, I'm rather tired of this. If I need a gift for a religious occasion, like my nephew's recent baptism, I need to know that ordering it three or four weeks in advance is plenty of lead-time for the store to get the item to me--or that they will, immediately, unhesitatingly, call me and let me know if for some reason the item can't be obtained in that time so I can at least have time to purchase something else. If an item says "In Stock" on a store's website, I need to know that this means they either have the item physically in a warehouse or can get it from the supplier in a week or less--it can't mean that, well, usually this particular manufacturer manages to bring the items in within a six-month time period, except for that one time when the factory workers in the Guangdong province had that industrial accident, but that wasn't Ye Olde Catholic Hobby Shoppe's fault. If I order a popular book from a well-known Catholic author to give to a friend, I don't expect the book to show up looking like the store owner and half a dozen customers read it in the store before it was packed up and sent to me. If I order a blue crystal rosary, I don't want to open the box to find a black wooden one.

Two years ago, I was all for giving small Catholic stores the most possible chances. But I'm at a point now where I can't afford to buy double gifts for religious occasions: one that I order, and one that I rush out to buy at the last minute because my order was delayed, wrong, or arrived in poor condition. Return the second? Oh, wait; that would require that the small Catholic store actually takes returns, something that seems to happen more in theory than in practice.

Here's the thing: when I needed that gift for my nephew, I saw a nice item in a religious catalog--and, just for the heck of it, searched for it on Amazon. And they had it. And so did I, in ample time before the baptism. When I needed a gift for a young acquaintance making her Confirmation, I remembered that a local department store had a nice silver necklace engraved with the words "Faith, Hope, Love," for a very reasonable price--and I bought that, instead of ordering something similar for double the price and then having to worry that it wouldn't show up.

There was a time when I might have felt guilty about this, about spending my money with a large corporation who is probably rather cynical about the sale of religious items instead of with some small noble Catholic company being run by a family or religious order who shares my faith and just wants to make a living in this small way. But I've put that guilt aside in most of these cases, because when given the opportunity to earn my repeat business just by doing the minimum--by sending my order out, complete and intact, and within the time frame stated on the website--so many of these companies have failed, and have failed on multiple occasions. And the biggest problem--the lack of communication--persists; I've wondered, not altogether facetiously, if the reason these companies don't tell you until it's much too late to do anything about it that there's a problem with your order is because they don't want to give you the opportunity to cancel it.

So from here on out, my religious gifts are going to come from big department stores (who are carrying more and more religious items, at least in our area of the country), from big online retailers (who try to have everything, and very nearly succeed) and from the place where my youngest sister works--provided I can get her on the store phone on a slow day. :)


Anonymous said...

I made this same decision last year. Yes, I want to support family and especially Catholic businesses, but I got tired of always having to contact them when something was wrong with an order. I still don't understand why these companies won't be proactive and contact the customer first.

Lindsay said...

How sad! I have not had your experience, though, I must admit that I don't order that many Catholic goods. Our friends own one of those small companies, and I recommend them to people often. They don't carry anything made in China, and I've never found goods of the quality they carry in our local Catholic bookstore. I imagine them to be very responsible vendors, even though it is a side business for them, but if you find it within you to give it one more try, I would try :)

I also had excellent experience with ordering a wooden painted saint from . They are made to order, and I ordered last minute for a First Communion gift. I was so worried I'd waited too long, but she was great working with me to get it in time!

I wonder if perhaps those who have more of a niche market in selling one particular category of items doesn't have quite the same issues as those trying to carry a more comprehensive inventory?

Hélène said...

When you wrote your post a couple years ago I thought you were a little harsh. However, in the time since then, I have come to agree with you. In my most recent experience, I paid extra to have something more quickly because I needed it right away. I found out only after the other (not as important) things arrived that it was backordered and I wouldn't get it for three weeks. There was nothing on the website saying that it was backordered, nor did they send me an email. Unfortunately, I live very rurally and if I can't find what I am looking for at one of the mega-websites, I must order from these small sites.

Kathleen said...

I sure hope you're not talking about The Catholic Company at . If you are, please let me know and we'll correct any problem you've had. Regarding your previous post and this one, we try to be as proactive as possible. We have the most customer friendly total satisfaction policy: you can return any item you're not happy with within 30 days of purchase. This includes gold jewelry and even items that have been personalized! Call us at 866-522-8465, we're happy to help!

Amy said...

It really is too bad. A comparison with Etsy might be in order - I've ordered three gifts for my daughter from Etsy vendors (shh! Don't tell!) - funky handmade stuff, you know - ordered them all at the beginning of last week - the 14th - and at this point, they have all arrived. Had excellent communication. Part of what helps w/Etsy, as it did w/Ebay (I don't buy through Ebay anymore, though, for various reasons) is the fact that buyers rate the sellers - which is the case w/Amazon storefronts too. If you don't have the possibility of people hitting lots of negative feedback about you even before they get around to placing an order, it might be easier to let things slide.

Red Cardigan said...

Kathleen, I wasn't talking about The Catholic Company, and I appreciate your message here!

baltimoremom said...

I agree! I ordered a small wooden crucifix from a Catholic company's catalogue. It took a long time to get to me and when it finally arrived, I was so disappointed! The crucifix was so poorly made, the glue wasn't even completely dried. The glue was sticky and smelly and the wood was poorly finished. If it had not been a crucifix, I would have just put it in the trash! Since it is a crucifix, it's just sitting on the bottom shelf of my bookcase until I can figure out a way to salvage it. The local Catholic bookstore is also a frustration. They keep the most inconvenient hours and usually out of stock of things I'm looking for, like brown scapulars, Advent candles, popular books, etc. Thank goodness for Amazon! I go there first. I also try museum gift shops online though they're pricey. The mom and pop Catholic shops are a last resort for me.

Ian said...

Hi Erin, thanks for the thoughts. I posted a reply to your article on our blog.