Customers feel blue over green mail-order firm

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The Independent Online
HUNDREDS of customers have had problems getting goods or refunds from an eco- friendly company that prided itself on offering Britain's first green commercial catalogue.

The Green Catalogue Ltd, based in Somerset, has got into financial difficulties and has ceased trading. Its parent company, the Green Catalogue Corporation, has taken over its catalogue business for new customers.

The parent is also attempting to sort out the problems of aggrieved customers of the Green Catalogue Ltd (GCL). However, cash refunds for customers are not initially on the cards.

Under company law, one company is a completely separate legal entity from another. The debts of one company are not the responsibility of another, however closely they are linked - even if they subsequently carry on the same business.

Ray Crownshaw has been a customer of GCL for some time and has always been pleased with the products he has received.

In October 1993, he ordered some headed stationery and envelopes from GCL and authorised the company to charge his Access account pounds 53.95.

The company's order form said: 'Allow 45 days for delivery but we generally supply in 28 days'.

Mr Crownshaw said: 'I telephoned early in December to inquire when I might receive the goods and was assured that my order was in a batch being made that week and I should receive it within two weeks.' Mr Crownshaw has not received his goods. Since Christmas, two messages left by him on the company answering machine have been ignored, and three promises that 'somebody will get back to you' were not kept.

His subsequent letters have gone unanswered, including one that was sent by recorded delivery on 21 January.

Mr Crownshaw said: 'Irritatingly, a few days after sending the recorded delivery letter I received a new catalogue. Is there anything I can do to get my stationery?'.

What has particularly upset him is that his Access account was charged for the goods on 29 November and he has still heard nothing.

Some other aggrieved customers have received a standard letter that offers an explanation as to what is happening at the company.

The letter says that 'as a result of disasters' the business has been restructured. The disasters included the complete breakdown of a new computer system, which caused chaos and the loss of 3,000 names and addresses, and the death of one of the two directors.

The parent company is keen to mend fences, but there is no cash refund on offer. Instead, as a goodwill gesture, customers are being offered 'a large discount of 50 per cent off an order of up to 2.5 times what the old company owes you'.

In other words, you have to pay half as much again to get the same goods. Mr Crownshaw was not initially impressed at the prospect of having to pay more than pounds 25 to get the stationary he has already paid for in full.

He said: 'I am upset that they charged my account before they were in a position to supply the goods and I would like my cash back. I might then consider ordering again as things have been fine in the past, and I do want the company to succeed.'

Eric Hill, the assistant chief of fair trading on the Somerset County Council, said: 'As a result of complaints to this office, we have spoken to the management. They say that the Corporation is actively trying to assist customers. However, if customers are not happy they should contact us'.

We spoke to Matthew Dodson, a spokesman for the Green Catalogue Corporation. He said that the GCL had been trading as the Green Catalogue, and that the parent company had bought the rights from the limited company. It was taking on all the problems of the customers but not the suppliers.

'We are dealing with about 700 to 1,000 customer problems,' he added. 'Being a green company, it is obviously pretty embarrassing.

'But one thing we are absolutely determined to do is that members of the public who have paid for things and not got them will be looked after.'

Does that mean a cash refund or just a discount on goods?

Mr Dodson said: 'Most people have been really helpful and understanding. We have settled their claims in full either by providing products or if they absolutely insist - and not too many insist - by a refund. We have probably paid about 10 people back.' He is confident that the Green Catalogue is here to stay.

He said that changes in the administration and procedures will mean that the company 'will move to a new phase and provide a better service'.

He added that if Mr Crownshaw contacted him, he would try to sort out his problems.

After we spoke to Mr Dodson, Mr Crownshaw was offered his stationery at no extra cost. He is delighted and awaiting delivery.

(Photograph omitted)