Kurtis Ming of CBS 13 in Sacramento brings us the story of Fannie Wong, who ran into some difficulties after a tablet computer she ordered on Sears.com (SHLD) arrived broken. When the replacement tablet didn't show up, she contacted Sears customer support, who told her that they couldn't help her with the return -- because she hadn't actually ordered it from Sears.
Much like Amazon (AMZN), Sears has given space on its e-commerce website to a "marketplace" of third-party sellers who advertise and in some cases sell their wares through the site. The sellers get the benefit of showing up on a major retailer's website, and Sears gets a commission from the sales. But the upshot is that, sometimes, even if you make a purchase on Sears.com, you aren't actually buying the item from Sears.
And that means you won't get customer service from Sears either. While Amazon guarantees the purchases made on its marketplace, Walmart (WMT) and Sears make it clear that they're just middlemen in the transaction. Walmart, for instance, notes that you have to "contact the Retailer directly if there is a problem with your order" (though it does say it will attempt to resolve the situation on your behalf if the seller is unhelpful). And Sears has a special page explaining which marketplace purchases are and aren't covered under the Sears return policy.
A link to that page is included with every marketplace listing, along with a small box indicating who is fulfilling and shipping the order. Still, it's easy to see how customers like Fannie Wong might overlook that information and assume that they were making a purchase from Sears.
Indeed, Sears spokesman Brian Hanover told DailyFinance that "customers do often contact Sears first about their Marketplace purchases," despite the fact that the seller's contact information is included in the confirmation email.
The good news is that when this happens, Sears customer service will help by putting you in touch with representatives at the actual seller. But whether you'll get good support from that company is anyone's guess, and unlike Amazon, Sears won't guarantee that you'll leave satisfied.
In Wong's case, CBS reports that she didn't receive a response from the marketplace seller, Idolian, because the customer service representative who had originally been handling her case left the company. We can't imagine that's an issue she would have encountered if she'd been dealing with a major retailer like Sears.
Wong ultimately got her money back, but she says she won't be ordering through the Sears Marketplace again. And while we wouldn't go so far as to recommend against using such marketplaces, when you shop, it is important to be aware of who you're really ordering from.
So the next time you're ordering from Sears or Walmart online, double-check to see if the items are actually being sold by Sears or Walmart. If another seller is indicated, look them up and see if they look like the kind of retailer you'd be comfortable patronizing.
The good news is that Sears, perhaps recognizing that this was becoming an issue, just made it easier for customers to do background checks on its marketplace sellers. According to a Sears spokesperson, starting today shoppers can click through on any product page to bring up the seller's storefront; there you'll find a return policy, contact information and reviews of that seller by other customers.
If a marketplace seller has a lot of lousy reviews, or if you visit its website and get the feeling that it's a fly-by-night operation, you might consider looking elsewhere for your merchandise.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.