Words of Doom: "We have new software"

You'd think buying a snow blower in snow country would be easy: but between the problem posed by an unwillingness to buy Chinese, a distrust of companies buying brand names to exploit customer loyalties, and the ultimate words of doom - a supplier who says he can't do or tell something because "we have new software" - things get more challenging.

Here in sunny Lethbridge we're about as far south as you can get in Alberta, but we're still a bit more than hour's drive north of Montana. The land here looks flat to gently rolling from the ground, but we're actually on a raised plain with an average elevation of about 3,000 feet.

It's dry here, but when we get snow, we get a lot of it: - an average of 1.6 meters a year - typically six to ten inches at a time.

It doesn't stay on the ground because we get chinooks -warm winds- that blow it into Saskatchewan, but I'm expected a few years of really cold and nasty winters, so this year I thought I'd get a snowblower.

As a family we try to first to choose quality over price or features and second to buy Canadian or American products where possible. In other words, I see "features" like a headlight as more a source of trouble than illumination, and consider the presence of metal screws where there should be bolts, or a "Made in China" label, as absolute "don't buy" indicators.

Personally, I'm also brand loyal - and my seven horsepower Troybilt rototiller was still in perfect working order when I sold it 20+ some years after buying it.

There are snow blowers available under the Troybilt label - but the ones being sold by Lowes in places like Kalispell (Montana) aren't the same as those being sold at Canadian Tire stores here. No one at the Canadian Tire store I went to could tell me anything about them - not even the price "we have a new computer system" one said, "they don't tell us", said another - "those belong to automotive", said a third -"know nothing about them" said automotive.

The display unit had a prominent Canadian flag and a stick on "Made in Canada label" - but I'm pretty sure they can claim that if they bolt the wheels on after unloading the container from China - so I tried to check. Not a chance - no response from Troybilt.ca, no information on the retailer site, the local independent has no stock and threatened to withhold warranty service if I bought from Lowes, the U.S. people told me that "it isn't ours", and I got no response from MTD - which nows owns and exploits the Troybilt brand.

So I settled on two options: the Snapper (owned by Simplicity) I924E, and the Ariens (owned by Ariens) 927LE. Both are premium brands, both are made in the United States, the Snapper is a small frame, 24" machine, the Ariens a larger frame 27". The value difference came down, for me, to two issues: first the Snapper has a plastic throw chute, the Ariens a steel one; and, the Snapper has a Briggs and Stratton motor, the Ariens a Tecumseh. Both are 9HP, OHC engines "optimized" for cold weather operation and both have very good reputations, but people I know and generally trust on these kinds of issues prefer the Briggs and Stratton.

The price difference came down to $51 more for the Snapper - but that included home delivery and dealer set up where the Ariens, from Home Depot, did not.

So, in the end, it came down to plastic versus steel for the snow throw chute - and since I don't know what happens when you throw a rock through a plastic chute at minus 40, I picked the Ariens and went off to Home Depot to buy it.

And promptly heard the words of doom: "We have New software."

AJAX crossed with SAP, running in IE, it looked like (don't actually know - but it seemed too slow to be VB) - but it couldn't handle the mail in rebate the Ariens come with, couldn't verify inventory ("we haven't done that yet"); and couldn't be used to order the optional non-abrasive skid shoes ("we can't do parts orders, head office says next week").

Worse, it was so slow (locally on brand new HP gear) that it took over ten minutes to discover that they either don't store the dimensions of the box it ships in or, at least, don't provide access to that information to their retail staff. (That's in SAP Retail, which this looked like a webbified/IE'd version of - but the people I spoke to didn't know whose software it is.)

And nobody could find the box in "the back" without the locator code - which they hadn't done yet because "we've only had this for a couple of weeks."

So we wandered around the storage area clutching a tape and looking for an Ariens box - and eventually found it too: sadly about one inch too high to go through a Volvo tailgate.

So, fine, Home Depot delivers: $40 -except.. remember the words of doom? "Delivery information isn't set up yet." So fine: use a pencil and paper for my address and just talk to the delivery guy: "Can't, he's a contractor and it has to go through the computer."

My neighbor has a truck, and we'll go pick up the Ariens tomorrow - at least I know where it is in the warehouse - but, of course, that's only going to happen if Home Depot's new software lets them make the sale.

So how did this happen? In poking around in that system a bit I came to believe that the slowdowns come from three distinct places: there's a network link to a server cluster somewhere else (Toronto?) that's absurdly too limited for the traffic; the clients seem to be running Vista on mid range HP PCs; and most of the data entry for the conversion seems to have been manual instead of automated.

So somebody, somewhere, figured out how to get this software in for cheap - and the net result is that if someone else sold Ariens around here I wouldn't be going back to Home Depot tomorrow. I am, but a lot of customers are going to become former customers if they don't fix this soon - and if the real cost of this thing is that 1 or 2 percent of their regular customers switch to competitors, that cost will be completely invisible to the IT people, but absolutely dwarf the savings they achieved for the company by cheaping out on networking, processors, training, and data conversion.