Do you enjoy rebates? My in-box is constantly filling up with stories of rebates gone wrong. Many shoppers — including me — are wary of them.
The "restrictions apply" clause is an ambiguous phrase found in a rebate's terms and conditions. When a manufacturer doesn't spell out those restrictions, even shoppers who read the fine print can get burned.
Months ago, a reader of my blog posted a great deal on an electronic weather clock. The clocks were on sale for $50, and there was a $50 rebate available from the manufacturer. Who wouldn't want a free clock that shows the weather forecast? I purchased the weather clock and mailed in the rebate. About a month later, I received a postcard from the manufacturer that read, "Purchase was made outside of the qualifying period." Meaning, I bought it on a day when the rebate wasn't valid.
I had a photocopy of my receipt. When I checked it, the date was valid. I called the manufacturer and spoke with a representative who said the rebate was denied because there was no date on the front of the receipt.
The problem? The store where I purchased the clock prints a double-sided receipt with the date of purchase on the back. I asked him to look at the back of the receipt, and the rep replied, "Well, restrictions apply." I argued that shoppers would have no way of knowing that the purchase had to be made at a store with a single-sided receipt. After that, he agreed to process the rebate.
Another time, I ran into difficulty with a rebate on motor oil. One manufacturer offered a $50 rebate on a case of oil, but this new variety wasn't readily available at any stores where I live. We saw that Amazon sold the oil, and several of my readers ordered it. When we submitted receipts, the rebates were all denied with the note, "Receipt submitted was from a non-qualifying store." Did the rebate specify where the oil had to be purchased? No. My readers complained to the manufacturer and posted their experiences on my blog. Eventually, the oil company agreed to honor the rebates, but only if shoppers contacted them to complain.
These aren't the only issues I've had with rebates. Last year, a Chicago area supermarket had a mail-in rebate offering a $25 gift card when you bought $25 worth of a certain brand of paper products and sent in a receipt. The rebate was printed in the store's weekly circular and went out to thousands of households. Free paper towels, napkins and bath tissues? I was in! In fact, my mom, my aunt and I all bought our paper products the next day and sent in our rebates.
About a month later, I received my $25 gift card. My mom also got hers, but my aunt received a note that she would not receive the rebate. The reports that came into my blog and email were mixed; some got the rebate, many did not. People emailed the manufacturer, and this was the manufacturer's reply:
"(Manufacturer) did advertise this as being a limited time offer: Restrictions apply. There were not an unlimited number of gift cards available to shoppers that chose to participate in this promotion, so not everyone that mailed in a submission was guaranteed an award."
Another email from the manufacturer stated that there were just 600 gift cards allocated to this rebate. The supermarket that offered the rebate in its ad has more than 180 locations in the Chicago area. As hard as this is for me to believe, it seems the manufacturer anticipated that just three shoppers from each store would send in this rebate offer before it ran out of gift cards. Yet none of this was disclosed in the rebate's terms — simply, "restrictions apply."
So here's my word of warning: If you use rebates, proceed with caution. And keep good records!
Super-Couponing Tips runs the first Wednesday of every month. Email couponing questions that may be used in this column to Jill Cataldo at email@example.com.