“What can I do?” a reader asked me recently after explaining how he purchased a WWII German helmet. His dilemma stemmed from having bought the helmet sight-unseen. He had seen it advertised as a “WWII Afrikakorps painted helmet.” With no picture in the advertisement, he was left to imagine how the helmet would look. Apparently, the real thing did not match the picture in his mind. With close to $800 invested, he was becoming upset. “I am going to blast the seller!”, he declared, implying that he would tell anyone who would listen, how he had been “ripped off.” Having learned there are two sides to every deal, I began an attempt to “talk him off the ledge.”
TALKING SOMEONE DOWN
By writing about the hobby while actively buying and selling, I am privileged with a unique perspective. I have sat in the offices of prominent dealers, listening as they talk on the phone with irate customers. I have been behind the table at shows when someone wants to return something they had just purchased, only to show it “to a friend” who declared the item “no good.” And, I have been the guy who has made a substantial payment via Paypal only to have the item arrive and not look like anything I imagined. To anyone in the hobby, any of these scenarios is familiar. It is the nature of what we do.
When collectors feel they have been ripped off, their first instinctual reaction is one of near helplessness. Our hobby is not regulated by any greater organization. Regular laws of commerce are sometimes useless because our deals are not like normal business where customers walk into a store, buys widgets, and if any of the widgets aren’t what they should be, the customers can return them for money back or exchange for different widgets.
Many in our hobby who call themselves “dealers,” are really more like weekend garage salers. They don’t maintain separate business accounts where cash is always on hand, nor do they want to accept returns. The fact of the matter is, they are, first and foremost, collectors. If the item is on their table or featured in their ad, they have already decided they don’t want to keep the item. When it is sold, they are happy it has found a new home. Like a parent sending a kid off to college, they really don’t want that item coming back home to roost.
So right there was the first thing my reader had to consider: Returns are difficult when dealing with a “collector/dealer.” I explained to him, when we buy an $800 helmet from a collector/dealer, the chances are, within hours of that helmet being shipped or carried away from the table, the collector/dealer has already reinvested that money into something they wanted for their own collection. All sorts of yelling and accusations might ensue, but the reality is: The money is gone. A return for cash isn’t going to happen no matter what is threatened.
Most collector/dealers will, however, exchange an item “for credit.” Whether it is used for something else they have available or future purchase is up to the buyer and seller to sort. Though this is a generous offer, it usually isn’t that useful. Because most collectors/dealers sell what they find, they don’t have multiple Afrikakorps helmets or multiple anything for sale. The offerings are usually one of whatever they have found.
On the other side of the table, if a customer buys an Afrikakorps helmet, and they decides they want to return it, two factors come into play: First, the buyer’s trust of the dealer has dropped—for whatever reason. And second, if the customer bought an Afrikakorps helmet, that is what they wanted. Exchanging it for a Vietnam graffiti-covered M1 helmet or a Prussian spiked helmet isn’t going to help the buyer complete his Afrikakorps display. He needs an Afrikakorps helmet, but the collector/dealer can’t just reach into a box and produce a second one for an exchange.
This is where it gets dicey. Because an exchange isn’t possible, and a refund is unlikely, the name-calling and threats seem to be the next level of negotiation. These rarely end well. There has to be a better way.
DEFCON 1 IS NOT AN OPTION
When I worked for one dealer, we used to joke about how customers go from “all is good” to “DEFCON 1” in a split second. In the safety of our office, it was easy to laugh about it, but when you are on the phone or standing at a table with an angry customer, it isn’t fun at all. In that situation, working for a full-time, professional dealer, the solution was easy: Keep the customer happy. Return their money and assume all the blame for the transaction.
I understood that approach. It was like when I was a kid working at my Dad’s store. “The customer is always right, and the customer is who puts food on our table,” Dad would tell each of his five children. If someone bought a crate of peaches only to return three days later and say, “Fifteen peaches were bad,” we didn’t argue, ask for evidence or tell them they were nuts. We offered them fifteen peaches or a full refund. Usually, they took the peaches.
But refunding a customer was much easier in both situations: Whether at the family grocery store or working for a professional dealer, returns were simply part of doing business. We kept a reserve of cash at all times for such things.
Most of us, however, are not professional dealers. We don’t depend on selling militaria for paying the mortgage or electricity bills, even if our sales might supplement our cost of living payments. And because we are not professional dealers, we don’t keep a reserve of cash on hand for the “costs of doing business.” So when a customer buys an $800 Afrikakorps helmet, we are ready to spend that full $800 on something we really want, rather than stuff $600 in a “business account” and $200 in our “I am going out to buy something right now” account. This is why the collector/dealer probably doesn’t want to listen to any talk about a “full refund.” The reality is: The money is gone.
Conversely, the person who bought the $800 helmet really thought they were smart... from what they knew, the helmet was worth $1,000. At $800, they were “getting something over” the dealer. Imagine the mental turmoil that followed after showing the helmet to someone smarter who declared it a “fake.” Not only is the buyer mad at the dealer/collector, he is mad at himself for not recognizing the fraudulent details. He doesn’t like the feeling that the “dealer got one over on him.” As he rushes back to the collector/dealer’s table, combat readiness jumps to DEFCON 1. It is “0 to 60” in two seconds.
What happened? The buyer was happy to pick up a helmet for $200 less than its market value. The attractive price probably caused him to overlook a few anomalies before he made the purchase. Proud of what he bought, he showed it to someone he knew who was capable of justifying the buyer’s pride of making a good purchase. The friend, having nothing invested in the helmet, was able to look at the piece objectively. The anomalies jumped out at him, and he was able to recognize it for what it was—and that wasn’t an original Afrikakorps helmet.
So now, the buyer is embarrassed on two fronts: First, for not exercising good collector judgment, and second, for allowing his friend to see that the buyer wasn’t as smart as he had thought. At that point, the buyer already had his finger on the DEFCON 1 button.
You know how it is at a show… no one sits alone. Invariably, there is another person present when you show off a purchase. Whether asked or not, that third person almost always offers an opinion. With the weight of the discussion already tilting toward “fake,” that person isn’t going to weigh in differently. He is going to jump with both feet on the side of, “You’ve been taken!” BAM. The button is pressed: DEFCON 1.
Already with steam coming from his ears, the buyer marches back to the collector/dealer’s table. “I showed this to Joe Schmoe who said it is a FAKE,” are the first words from the buyer’s mouth. He then starts pointing to the anomalies declaring each one as evidence of intended fraud.
The colletor/dealer tries to counter with explanations of how he had seen that before on another helmet. That omni-present third person behind the table chimes in, offering further oral conviction of authenticity. Names are thrown about as one side declares, “Harry X” said it was good,” or “Gina Y bought it off a veteran’s family.” With each explanation ignored in the heat of discussion, the temperature goes up on both sides of the table. Where will it end?
Step back. What is really happening? The dealer/collector bought the helmet, fully believing it was good. Something made him change his attitude about wanting to keep it. Maybe his interests changed, or maybe he saw the same anomalies the buyer’s friend saw. For whatever reason, he decided to sell it—to get rid of it.
He was relieved when someone else bought the helmet. That meant, the money he had invested in it, could be reused to purchase something else. That sense of relief can really feel great—and nobody wants to give up that good feeling.
So when the buyer stormed back to the dealer’s table, those good feelings were threatened. The collector/dealer would try to keep the feeling, first by telling the buyer all of the reasons why the helmet was “good.” When that didn’t work, the collector/dealer becomes more determined to retain the good feeling, by becoming a bit more aggressive.
His first line of his defense is to discredit the buyer’s friend who had declared the helmet “fake.” “Is he a helmet collector?” the dealer will demand. “I have been in this hobby for xty-five years,” is usually the second declaration. From there, it just becomes a back-and-forth of verbal posturing as one hopes the other will back down. It is real National Geographic stuff—if an impartial observer squints their eyes, they can almost see two gray-back gorillas going at it.
We have all witnessed this scenario—and most do not end happily. Results can range from verbal escalation with loud swearing to actual fisticuffs. Like I said, real National Geographic stuff—primal activity at its worst.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
It doesn’t have to end badly, though. Take a breath—on both sides of the table. A little honesty will reveal a high level of integrity. For example, the buyer could admit he didn’t fully recognize what he was buying. He could approach the dealer/collector with a smile, rather than steam from the ears. “Hey, I just showed this to Joe Schmoe who pointed out a couple of things,” might be a smoother start.
On the other side of the table, the dealer/collector could simply state the facts: “I had bought that helmet and decided to sell it so I could purchase something else. In fact, I already made the purchase, so I don’t have the $800 to give you right now.” By being honest, the buyer is probably going to recognize that the dealer/collector is just like every other collector—he isn’t out to “get one over” the buyer, but simply trying to add to his own collection.
But with the money already spent, does that mean the two are at an impasse? Not at all, there is always “middle ground.” The trick, in collecting, is to discover what constitutes that area between buyer and dealer.
Whereas a direct exchange for a different helmet is probably unlikely, it is quite possible there are other items on the dealer’s table that might work toward a credit. The dealer could first admit, “I don’t have the $800 to give you, but look at the table to see if there is anything else you might like.” The dealer, in a gesture of good will, might even say, “Since I don’t have the $800, let’s say you have $900 credit against anything on my table.” The buyer might not find a full $900 worth of goods, but whatever he finds, will cut down the dollar amount owed for the return. Even if the dealer doesn’t have the $800 to return, he probably has a few hundred that he can give—this, plus some more items from the table will, hopefully, satisfy the buyer. DEFCON 1 averted.
A different approach would be for the buyer to admit his mistake. He could still approach the dealer with the same explanation, “I showed this to Joe Schmoe and he said…” But instead of getting angry and demanding a full refund, admit, “I made a mistake on this one and am not real happy with myself. I like the helmet for a lot of reasons, after all, I did purchase it. But, now that I have learned a bit more about it, I don’t feel it is worth the $800 I paid for it. In fact, I think it is more like a $500 helmet.” He could follow this explanation with an opportunity for the dealer to rectify the matter, “If you agree that these anomalies indicate the helmet isn’t what you sold it as, how about you give me $300 in cash or credit so that we can both be satisfied with the deal?”
This approach does two things: First, the buyer admits responsibility for his own purchase without accusing anyone of anything. And second, it gives the dealer the opportunity to demonstrate integrity. With reasonable individuals, this can usually result in “DEFCON 1 averted.”
DID IT END WELL?
Even though I offered alternative solutions to the reader who had contact me about his unhappy helmet purchase, I can’t tell you how—or if—his dilemma was resolved. Happy readers don’t usually contact me, so I am guessing he used the approach of seeking a return of partial credit and cash. Or maybe, the buyer and dealer talked it out and found their own solution. Whatever happened, I want to believe that just being reminded that the collector/dealer was cut from the same cloth, was enough for the helmet buyer to see that there are two sides to every transaction.
And since I didn’t see a mushroom cloud on the horizon, I am guessing it ended well.
Research, then buy with confidence,
John Adams-Graf, Editor
Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine