All-Star Tech Stores

Rebates Get Easier to Collect

Illustration: Chip Taylor

Frequently stores entice you inside with a low advertised price, and then when you're there you realize that the "$100 off!" promise is actually a mail-in rebate, one that you probably won't receive until you've celebrated another birthday or two.

Historically, retailers have loved rebates, because only a slim proportion of buyers ever bother to file the necessary paperwork to collect their funds. Due to procrastination, forgetfulness, and the effort required, anywhere from 40 to 95 percent of shoppers don't file their rebate forms (the percentage varies depending on the amount of the rebate). You can't blame those consumers: Rebate paperwork can seem as complex as filing your taxes, and once you arrive home with your brand new digital camera, a mere $20 hardly seems worth the trouble.

There's good news on the rebate front, however. In light of increasing customer frustration with the rebate process and with deadbeat rebate companies (most vendors outsource rebate processing to a third party), retailers are cleaning up their act. For starters, the miles-long paper trail has finally moved online for many stores, including CompUSA and Costco. Instead of filling out a ream of forms and snail-mailing them to Dubuque with UPC codes dissected from the packaging, now you can simply enter information from your receipt on a section of the company's Web site. Such online services make it simple to track the money you're owed and to determine exactly when you can expect a check.

Other companies are getting out of rebates altogether. Best Buy, for example, no longer offers mail-in rebates on any computer products, and has set a goal of eliminating all rebates throughout the store by 2008. The catch: The policy applies only to Best Buy's own rebate offers, not to those from product vendors.

Still, many stores remain addicted to rebates, and you'll continue to see the offers. If you don't like the idea of your money sitting in limbo for weeks on end, check out no-rebates-allowed deal sites such as AntiRebate.com, which lists genuinely discounted items daily.

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