Frank Maurer just wanted some blueberries.
Instead, the 65-year-old disabled Pasco County resident found himself in a baffling fight with Walmart, the largest retailer in America.
Last week, Maurer's Port Richey Walmart Supercenter ran out of the fresh blueberries advertised at $2.50 a pint. Maurer asked for a rain check.
Walmart doesn't offer rain checks, the customer service reps shot back.''
It says right here that you do, Maurer said, pointing to the fine print in the advertising circular that spells out Walmart's longstanding policy.
"If an advertised item is out-of-stock at your Walmart, upon request, we will issue you a Rain Check so that you can purchase the item at the advertised price when it becomes available," Maurer read aloud.
Despite the evidence, the answer was the same.
Walmart doesn't offer rain checks.
Maurer, still clutching the circular and growing frustrated, asked to talk to someone in management.
The assistant manager wouldn't budge, either.
Walmart doesn't offer rain checks, he said.
Maurer quit arguing. Instead, he began stopping shoppers and telling them of Walmart's "fraud" and "false advertising." For making a fuss, Maurer faced the police after Walmart called them. They threatened Maurer with a trespassing arrest if he didn't leave the store. They then talked with him in the parking lot.
"It was ridiculous," said Maurer, who tried another Walmart in Hudson, which also echoed the "no rain check" mantra. "I was right. But they bullied, then humiliated me in public for 45 minutes in the parking lot."
I decided to check out how some local Walmarts handle the policy. Sure enough, I encountered the same sentiment at two stores in Pinellas County and one in Hillsborough County. Shown a printed policy, an assistant manager in a St. Petersburg store said it was not operative because I had a week-old circular and the store didn't have a current one.
Walmart realized it had a serious breakdown in communication.
"We screwed up," said Dan Fogleman, spokesman for the world's largest retailer. "We are taking this very seriously."
In the wake of the blueberry affair, all Florida district managers were told in a conference call to be sure workers understand rain checks are available for any advertised special that is out of stock. That doesn't apply to special deals on "bonus buy" products like hot toys or electronics that are tagged as available in only limited quantities. Reminders to ensure the policy is understood in stores were made part of the weekly corporate instructions dispatched Saturday to all store managers coast to coast.
Word filtered down. Over the weekend a Tampa produce stocker and customer service rep didn't think Walmart offered rain checks, but learned otherwise after checking with a supervisor.
"We just started doing this," explained a clerk handing over a blank rain check.
Not honoring an advertised policy can be the makings of a consumer fraud case. But Attorney General Bill McCollum's office received only one consumer complaint against Walmart statewide in the past five years and has never seen enough to open an investigation.
The Pinellas County Justice and Consumer Protection office has received just four complaints of "any kind against Walmart since 2006," said Larry Krick, chief investigator.
To Walmart's credit, rain checks are not that common a request. Because the chain uses an everyday-low-pricing strategy, it advertises only a handful of specials weekly compared with hundreds in supermarkets.
Rain check forms are not kept on hand. Employees must download them from an internal e-mail system. Recent freezes caused shortages of blueberries, but only at isolated stores.
After my inquiries, a Walmart district manager called Maurer to apologize and to offer a flat of blueberries and a gift certificate.
However, Maurer, who lost his Walmart privileges when he got the trespass warning, isn't sure he wants to shop there again.
"They haven't been completely forthright with me," he said.
Mark Albright can be reached at albright[email protected] or (727) 893-8252.