Buying in December? Read this first!

The CoffeeCrew.Com buyers guide to buying your machine now!

It is December and gift-giving is on everyones mind. Thinking of making a coffee related purchase this festive season? It might be in your best interest to consider a few, less than obvious, issues before dishing out your dollars.

In almost a dozen years cruising the coffee and appliance markets of North America, I have made a few conclusions about vendors. Whether or not they are online or off, mail order or bricks and mortar, the people that sell coffee equipment tend to be a dedicated and hard working bunch.

Consider this, online vendors of consumer products depend upon a wide variety of market driven conditions to survive. It is no longer about word of mouth anymore. The playing field is, on the one hand, dynamic and at the same time challenging for everyone in the business.

From my perspective, as consumer advocate and (if I can use the term) influencer, I am constantly on guard watching for unusual trends which, ultimately, may impact the end consumer of coffee related products.

Interestingly, I get hundreds and hundreds of e-mail, annually, asking about one product or another. I never, ever, get asked about the questions that need to be asked of the vendor prior to handing over your credit card number.

Let's start with a quick sketch on how the North American home coffee appliance market works. This is, after all, a highly simplified view of things but it will help clarify some points I will be making later on.

Espresso machines and coffee appliances are made in Asia and Europe. The best ones are made in Italy, Switzerland as well as some other spots across the ocean. Let's focus on some Italian espresso machines. Typically, Brand-X comes over to North America by the container load brought here by an importer. An importer may or may not be associated with or part of an online vendor. Their job is to buy espresso machines by the gross and get them to vendors at a cost that makes it reasonably competitive for the seller to sell to you and still make a decent profit. I know what you are thinking: You want to get the best value possible, that is, the lowest price with the least hassle. Fair enough. A seller, online or otherwise, has to do two very critical things -

a.) Get your purchase to you in a timely fashion at a cost that benefits everyone and
b.) Is the vendor there for you if anything goes wrong.

Okay, that first one was obvious. If you buy something on the internet, you should expect it to be delivered functional and in one piece within a reasonable amount of time. Any coffee vendor (I dare say all of them) will let you know via their purchase interface or via the phone when your purchase will arrive.

I have had the pleasure, as a consumer product tester, of having box after box after box of coffee and espresso equipment delivered to my door or lab. Everyone likes getting stuff right? Of course they do. What happens if something goes wrong? This is where that second issue comes up.

Obviously, if your Brand-X espresso machine or grinder shows up on your doorstep looking more like an accordion than an appliance, then there are some shipping things to deal with. This is a (pardon me) no brainer. If it arrives broken, there's no reason to be choked. Mishaps like this are generally insured. If in doubt, ask.

The second scenario is like this - The appliance that you have been saving for, the previous 11 months, pops and sputters into electrical oblivion within the first 7 days (or 20 days or 40 days...). What happens now will have everything to do with what you did before you made your purchase.

Warranty, what it is and what it isn't.

I have spoken about the profit margin for coffee and espresso machine vendors (or at least alluded to it). This margin, however slight, needs to cover one very important thing, at least partially. Warranty: Your machine does not work anymore and you need to know who is going to fix it, when it gets fixed and who is paying for the shipping to and fro the vendor. Have you ever heard the expression, We service what we sell? No? Well, you should have! Nothing is more important in the whole transaction process (my opinion of course) than the warranty. This is where I get all dramatic and give out my big warning.

If you buy online, from a company that does not offer some level of vendor warranty, you may be in for a big surprise!

Flash back time. In the Eighties, when I was into things other than coffee (yes, there was such a time), one of my primary interests and sidelines was photography. I actually did fashion shows, weddings and umpteen portraits. All of the equipment I bought for this gig was all purchased locally at bricks and mortar stores (pre-internet of course) that offered local warranty or, at least, regional factory warranty. Quite a few friends (in the photo biz) bought gear "grey market". This may ring a bell for a few of my readers.

What grey market generally means is - NO WARRANTY or INTERNATIONAL WARRANTY or Manufacturers Warranty. Sometimes this warranty is not worth the paper it was printed on. The prices were often too good to be true. Well guess what? If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

What does International or Manufacturers warranty often (but not always) mean?

You are cradling Brand-X espresso machine, from Milan, in your arms after it has expired. You bought it, online, for a rock bottom price that included an International or Manufacturers Warranty. Guess what? Brand-X is manufactured in Italy. That's right, it is now between you and the factory in Italy. Good luck with that! Sometimes a manufacturers warranty includes (but not always) the importer. Now, you are on the phone to some warehouse somewhere in North America trapped in voice mail hell trying to get some satisfaction from someone that, as of yet, you have had nothing to do with. Once again, good luck.

So, what is a good warranty?

Regardless of where your purchase comes from, you must establish who is going to do the fixing if some fixing is required. This might be the person who sold the product to you. This is a good thing. Perhaps some vendors cooperate on warranty service and there is a warranty outlet closer to you then the online vendors warehouse. This is also a good thing. Ask!

Believe it or not, there is a fair amount of cooperation between competing vendors of product, importers and manufacturers. It might not be obvious from first glance but if you think about it for a moment it makes sense: When everyone who sells product online follows a similar set of business practices, everyone wins. This includes you the consumer.

Try this exercise. Flip from one website to the other. You will notice that the variations in price may not be much. Shipping costs vary. Accessories and features vary. If you find an online or bricks and mortar coffee place that offers stripped down or bare bones pricing you have to ask yourself one question loud and clear:

What the heck is going on here?

Take this check list with you while you are browsing:

a.) What kind of warranty does this online or bricks and mortar vendor offer?
b.) Do they service what they sell? If not, why not?
c.) Do they offer manufacturers warranty? If yes, then ask (for the love of God) what they mean (by it) and what the conditions are.
d.) If your new machine goes kaput, who pays for the to and fro shipping? This can add up real quickly if the onus is on you.

Some typical warranty services include:

Return policy is 100% if unopened or opened and not used (everything
intact ie. The vendor can sell it again as new) less the actual uninflated shipping
If used, then up to 15% restocking fee (depending on returned condition) but
vendor will credit the credit card, or if they want another machine they will work
out a mutually satisfactory arrangement.

This is fairly common in the industry.

Hey folks. I am not just doing this for you people. Every year it is the same.
The horror stories, however rare, appear in small quantity in January and February when the gifts start to crash.

Do yourself and your loved ones this big favor - Ask, ask and ask again.
Oh yes. Get it in writing and tell them the CoffeeCrew sent you!

Colin Newell and the CoffeeCrew team have been advising potential purchasers, of coffee and espresso equipment, for over ten years. Our golden rule: The lowest price is not always the best price!