Friday, May 4, 2012

Festivals & Fairs: A Patron's Guide to Consumer Protection

Ohio State Fair - Columbus, Ohio
Spring is here and summer is nearing, and with the change of seasons in Ohio comes the many wonderful fairs and festivals that blossom all over the beautiful Buckeye state. But while this is a fun and festive time for most people who patron their favorite shows, for others it is quite the contrary, especially for those fair-goers who have fell victim to dishonest vendors and their shoddy products and dubious (sometimes illegal) sales practices. Although most vendors who sell their goods and services at fairs, festivals, and trade shows are honest and provide a satisfactory product, there are clearly others who are not, or else there would be no basis for this article and the laws governing consumer protection. Here is what you need to know regarding persons or entities who choose to vend in the state of Ohio and, more importantly, your rights and responsibilities as a consumer:

1) In order to conduct retail sales transactions in the state of Ohio, individuals and business entities must register for and possess an Ohio vendor's license.

This is good news for the consumer - it means that the seller's information is on file with the state of Ohio, and includes the seller's full name, business alias(es), permanent address (residential and/or business), federal tax identification or social security number, and state sales tax payment information. Furthermore, wherever a vendor peddles his wares, that particular fair, festival, or trade show must have the seller's vendor's license on file at all times. While the customer may not have full access to the seller's information, the state and the festivals do, and from here costumer complaints regarding a particular seller can be effectively investigated and reconciled, or legal action taken against the vendor, if not the festival itself.

2) Simply because a vendor has sold his goods or services at a particular fair, festival, or trade show for years does not mean that the vendor is reputable or conducts business honestly.

An example of this comes directly from a reader, who had placed a custom order for a pair of handmade gloves at a local festival with a well-known leather shop. Because the gloves would take time to craft and the vendor had other custom order obligations to fulfill, arrangements were made between the customer and the vendor to pick-up the gloves at the festival the following year (this "pick-up" arrangement is a common practice among transient vendors who sell handcrafted items). When the customer returned to the festival the following year to collect his gloves, the leather vendor had not completed the work and refused the customer a full refund for services not rendered - the vendor offered the customer half of the purchase price of the gloves back, claiming that the leather to construct the gloves had cost her the other half. In other words, the customer paid more than $100 for nothing. Attempts by the customer to collect the remaining half of his money were only met with hostility (even threats of physical harm) by the vendor.

 While this example of seller fraud seems almost ridiculous, extreme, or even unbelievable, it's a very real situation for those patrons who have actually experienced it. And, sorry to say, but dubious selling practices are more common with transient vendors, who travel the fair, festival, and trade show circuit year around (often from state to state), than stationary vendors, who sell from one location in a brick and mortar shop and are subject to continuous scrutiny by their respective communities. What comes as a surprise to customers who fall prey to dishonest vendors, especially transient vendors, is that most of them have worked the same show circuit for years, sometimes decades without consequence - yes, these merchants continue to dupe people at the same festivals, year after year. Of course, what consumer wants to believe that a fair, festival, or trade show would sanction such erroneous seller behavior by continuing to contract vendors who nick from their patrons? The leather shop in question is just such an establishment, where over the years, various customers have suffered the whims of the owner, and all the while the host festival(s) continues to renew the vendor's selling contract every year.

3) What you should do to avoid becoming a consumer victim at fairs, festivals, and trade shows, and what you can do if it happens to you:

I don't offer these suggestions lightly. I was a transient vendor for more than ten years and know the ins and outs of the business thoroughly. I can say that I have never been a victim of vendor fraud, but I have had the privilege of being on the "inside" and knowing which vendors to avoid (this goes without saying). Here are some important steps that you can take to protect yourself:

  • "Window shop" a festival before buying from any vendor. All that glitters is not gold and instant gratification is well and good, but other merchants might offer a higher quality product at comparable prices. Festival vendors are professional hawkers (high pressure sales professionals) who can easily sell the British crown jewels to old Queen Bess without cracking a grin - don't give in and comparative shop.
  •  Always consider buying items "off the rack" (product currently available in the vender's tent or shop): you can visually and tactually experience the product to discern quality; there is no real risk of suffering an incident of "services not rendered" and the frustrating ordeal of trying to get a refund.
  • If a custom order is necessary (and sometimes it is), gather as much information as possible about the seller (his or her location in the festival), what products are being sold, the business's name (you would not believe how many customers do not know the shop's name where they just made a purchase - snap a picture of the shop with your cell phone if you have to). But most important, it should be noted in writing on the order form (never commission custom work, or any other sales transaction, by verbal agreement, ever, ever, ever) the stipulations of the sale (including returns); further, the means of delivery and the date of delivery should be clearly noted - no exceptions!
  • Pay for your purchases (especially custom orders) with a credit or debit card where possible; this gives you the power to dispute the purchase with your financial institution and recover your money if you should find the sales transaction to be fraudulent. Note that about half of transient vendors do not accept electronic payment (preferring cash) even for high-end items (credit card merchant fees cut into profits, cash is untraceable and non-taxable, no paper trial of a sales transaction, etc.), and many who do accept credit or debit cards charge a "convenience fee" (do not buy from these sellers).
  •  Before committing to a sales transaction that could potentially be costly (especially regarding custom order purchases), the shop owner's vendor's license should be visible somewhere in their shop (usually behind the counter). According to Kate Hanson, Consumer Educational Director with the Ohio Attorney General's office, "It should be a red flag if a fair vendor cannot or refuses to produce [a vendor's license] when asked." Not only do you need to know if these vendors are legitimate, you need to know their names, especially when purchasing from a vendor at a themed show (i.e. Renaissance, old west, science fiction/fantasy, etc). Vendors who frequent themed shows often use an alias or alternate identity for anonymity and entertainment purposes. You can't file a complaint against the squash-buckling pirate Yellowbelly for plundering your purse and be taken seriously - it may raise a few eyebrows at the BBB. Further, observe caution when purchasing custom order items from vendors who require cash payment upfront and in full. "While this practice is not unlawful," says Ms. Hanson, "it may create a greater risk of losing more of a substantial amount of money, in case a vendor fails to deliver."
  •  Finally, if you find that you have been subject to unfair business practices or fraud, immediately file a complaint with the following: 1) fair, festival, or trade show officials; 2) your local Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the BBB where the sales transaction took place; 3) your state's attorney general's office and the vendor's state's attorney general's office. Ms. Hanson explains that these steps are necessary to ensure consumer protection and she reminds us that it's very difficult for the state's attorney general's office to enforce fair business practices and advocate for the consumer when the costumer does not file a complaint against a vendor or festival
 Standing up for your rights as a consumer and fighting back (even if the process is slow going) is never a waste of time. As a former and very reputable transient vendor in the state of Ohio, I encourage you to demand fair business practices from vendors who are more than willing to take your money as well as your dignity. For more information regarding consumer protection, to file a consumer complaint, or to speak with a consumer advocate, please visit the Office of the Ohio Attorney General

Blessings and happy sewing!

(This article was first published on The Emerald Parlor, August 12, 2011) 

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