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Science lite.

Don't buy Melissa & Doug products.

Excuse me while I digress from nonfiction for a moment. I'm only telling this customer service story because some of you sent CRjr gifts when he was born, so I know you have been consumers of baby products and toys. It's a long post today, so please bear with me.

Recently a friend of mine gave CRjr a new Melissa & Doug wood ring stacker toy. Because I am both a paranoid twenty-first century mother, and I believe in doing small things that probably don't matter but set my mind at ease in an "I've tried" sort of way, I did rinse the toy in cold water and wipe it down (and then let it dry thoroughly) before giving it to CRjr to play with the next day. Approximately 30 seconds after receiving the toy, we noticed the paint on one of the rings had started disappearing in large chunks, presumably into CRjr's mouth and tummy. I took the toy away from him and considered what to do. I didn't care whether he had the toy or not, so I considered just giving it to Goodwill and being done with it, but honestly, it wasn't in good enough shape to give to Goodwill. So I wrote to the company's customer service email address and attached a picture of the ring. I stated very clearly that I was not using the toy, would be throwing it away, and that I expected a refund check in the amount of $7.99, made out to my friend. (I provided my friend's name and my mail address.)

Two days later I received an email that "Lisa" really wanted to talk this over, could I call an 800 number or provide a number where she could call me? Okay...

At this point in the narrative there's a few things you should know about me, customer service in general, and Melissa & Doug. Here's the first thing: I am one of those people who's largely very easygoing in matters of customer service. I've worked behind counters, so I'm endlessly patient when there are lines, or when staff are trying their best, especially under management-type constraints. Most of the time if I'm not out too much cash I prefer to just let things go, as time is more important to me than money (to an extent). Once a local library charged me $10 for a scratched DVD, which I hadn't even opened or watched. Rather than fuss, I just paid it, because I figure that's the usage cost of checking out literally thousands of CDs, books, and movies from the library system over the years. That's the type of consumer I am.* So: I had a problem with this product, and I didn't care about tossing it, but I didn't think my friend's money should be wasted, so I tried to be polite and state in an email what my quick (and seemingly easy) refund expectations were. When I was told to call back, then, I pretty much realized this was already going to be an unsatisfactory engagement--had I wanted to talk to someone on the phone, I would have called in the first place. And here's all I have to say about Melissa and Doug in general: they're not really losing a consumer in me, because I don't buy their stuff anyway. When looking at it in stores, I can see that it's all made in China, but because it's wood and they once had a good reputation, they can charge a premium for it. They target the crowd that has a bit more discretionary income than your typical Wal-Mart crowd, and they take advantage of that audience who wants to use their slightly more money to buy toys they think might be slightly better than plastic. Whatever. If it's all cheap crap made in China, which it is, I'd rather just buy some really cheap plastic crap from China. That way I can save five bucks here or there, which I will use for popsicles if my son ever gets some sort of plastic-induced cancer, needs chemotheraphy, and therefore can use the popsicles to soothe his mouth during the treatment. So that's the back story. Basically, I had a few minutes to spare and nothing to lose, so I went ahead and called Lisa up.

To the credit of M&D, the 800 number did get me to a person, I asked for Lisa, and after a very short hold I got to talk to Lisa. She then proceeded to assure me that she really did want to help me and that she was just going to ask a few questions to learn more about the situation.

I told her that we opened the toy, I rinsed it, and then my son played with it briefly before chunks of the paint started coming off. At this point she did let me know that their toys should not be rinsed--"the paint is water-based"--so it wasn't really meant to be rinsed. She wasn't blaming me or anything, but I should have contacted them to find out that their toys should really just be wiped down with a damp cloth.

I suggested that I hadn't immersed the toy or used soap, and had dried it immediately after the rinsing, and perhaps there isn't that much difference between that and wiping the toy with a damp cloth. She re-iterated that she wasn't trying to say it was my fault, she was just letting me know how wood toys work.

So that's the first thing you should know: Don't rinse off Melissa & Doug wooden toys.

I did explain that in playing with it, my ten-month-old son probably got the toy wet himself when he put it in his mouth, because babies put everything in their mouths (the toy was marked for 6+ months, and I'm guessing my boy isn't the only 6+ monther who still puts some things in his mouth). I also suggested that if cold water was going to disturb the water-based paint, a child's mouth probably was going to as well. At some point in here she did let me know that she knew kids put things in their mouths--"I have two (or three; I didn't hear the exact number) kids myself."

Here's the second thing to know: Empathy is the big thing in customer service these days. I LOVE watching how this training gets played out in actual practice. "Chuckle chuckle, I've got two kids myself, we're all just mothers here chewing the fat!" I don't know if this actually works on some people, but it doesn't work on me. I think, Oh, they're ticking off the "show empathy" box on their customer service checklist, and the calculated nature of it pisses me off further.

Lisa also proceeded to tell me (again, not my fault, she assured me) that the Ring Stacker Toy was not meant as a teething toy. I know, I told her, he's really not using it as a teething toy or biting into it (he doesn't have teeth yet), he's just sticking it in his mouth to check it out and then taking it out again. (Today's philosophical question: is a child's mouth more like a damp cloth or a water rinse?)

So we could have gone on like this for a while, but Lisa really wanted to solve my problem. Would we like a replacement toy or a cloth teething toy (which she proceeded to describe) of some sort? I said, no, I very clearly explained what I wanted in my email: a $7.99 refund check made out to my friend, sent to me so I could send it to her. I further noted that I had dealt with other companies over defective materials before and hadn't had a problem receiving refund checks, so I expected no less from them.**

But, Lisa said, Melissa and Doug doesn't sell directly to consumers, so she had no way to exchange money with me. (I thought about quibbling with this, as what I was looking for wasn't technically an exchange of money.) Okay, I said, then I don't have any more time to spend on this. If I can't get a refund check, I can just recognize I'm out a gift and my friend is out her cash, and I respect that she's done her job as far as she can within the constraints of her company. In her defense, Lisa did offer to send both me and my friend a free toy each, but I couldn't think of a nice way to say I wouldn't ever be touching any Melissa & Doug stuff again.*** We did work out that I would forward the emails about this issue to my friend, and if she chose to pursue it, she could contact Lisa for a free toy. I will do this.

Lisa also asked for a couple of identifying numbers off the toy, so they could "note and track the problem." With this I couldn't help her, because a sticker on the bottom of the toy with that information was too smudged to read.

This was all pretty much what I expected from the moment I picked up the phone, and I'm not really upset, because frankly, I've already had eight bucks' worth of amusement out of it ("I'm not blaming you, but you killed the toy when you rinsed it!"; the textbook empathy; the continuing repetition of the theme that the company REALLY wanted to help me; the slightly judgmental tone of well, ma'am, I'm just trying to help you, if you don't want a free toy for you and your friend you are IMPOSSIBLE to please****; etc.). I just wanted YOU, possible fellow toy purchasers, to know. To complete the review: even without the paint issue, I would consider this a substandard toy; the edges inside the little wooden rings are very rough and could easily, I think, cause splinters to soft little hands.

To sum up: Don't bother paying extra for Melissa and Doug toys. And, when calling customer service, don't tell them anything other than that you opened the toy and it was immediately defective (although they won't "blame" you for anything you've done, even though you are probably the one who caused the whole problem, just so you know). And for the love of God, people, don't rinse anything that's painted with water-based paints.

Idea for further research: What I may actually do is see if Melissa & Doug is a public company in which I can buy some stock, because if they're this good about hanging onto eight bucks, I can only imagine their profits and stock price will keep going up.

*I think of myself as a simple consumer, with pretty simple desires and expectations. However, as Mr. CR has informed me many a time, "simple" is not synonymous with "easy."

**I had a very good experience with SafetyFirst, for instance, who promptly sent me a refund check for a leaking $20 bathtub when I emailed them about it.

***I am the Mr. Darcy of consumers: "My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever."

****I've replied to Lisa's email, letting her know about this post. If she wants to, she can defend her company in the comments. I don't think she did a bad job--I think she did what she was trained to do. I'll freely admit that, short of giving me what I asked for in my initial email--a refund check made out to my friend and simply mailed to me--there was no way she was going to "resolve this issue" for me satisfactorily.