Bonfire of the Vanity

By Jay Lynch


There’s no doubt that the Internet has transformed many people’s retail shopping habits, including USC residents and yours truly. Improvements in product availability and efficient delivery can be wonderful. However, sometimes, the web shopping process includes humans who lacked common sense… resulting in odd mysteries and dark humor.



Last summer, my wife, Katie, and I decided to remodel a rarely-used powder room in our 1970s-era home. The paisley wallpaper, pale green toilet and thick shag carpeting had to go. We selected a replacement vanity, new sink, plumbing fixtures, and toilet with the help of Gordon Edwards, the owner of Brookside Lumber and a member of USC’s Class of 1970. Sal Catalucci, a USC resident, was our contractor.



Katie used Houzz.com to buy a mirror that would be placed above the vanity in the remodeled powder room. Unfortunately, the frame of the mirror was damaged when it arrived. So, she followed web protocol by using the Houzz.com “contact us” page, where she e-described the damage and sent accompanying digital photos.



You may know that Houzz is really an “aggregator” site that connects buyers with independent sellers or agents of sellers. In our case, the seller of the mirror was a sales agent, located in Los Angeles (likely a fellow in boxer shorts with a laptop). He sent us an email indicating that he’d arrange for the return of the mirror to the manufacturer, a company in North Carolina. We anticipated a customary pre-paid shipping label for taking the mirror to the local UPS or FedEx store.


Meanwhile, our remodeling project was progressing quite nicely. When the new vanity arrived at Brookside Lumber, Gordon kindly delivered it to our front porch in its cardboard shipping box. The plan was to have Sal remove it from its packaging, drill plumbing holes, and then move it inside for installation. I called Sal and left a voicemail, telling him the vanity—in its box—was on our front porch.


Later that evening, I was surprised to see that the box was gone. I assumed that ever efficient Sal had picked up the vanity and taken it elsewhere to be drilled and prepped for installation. The next day, I spotted his crew working on a neighbor’s house and asked them when they’d be installing the vanity. The response: “What vanity?” I asked, “Didn’t you take it from the porch yesterday? I left Sal a message.” Then came the real surprise: “Sal’s on vacation and won’t be listening to voicemail for a few days. He never told us to pick up your vanity.”


"Vanity...what vanity?" asked Sal Catalucci's crew

My mind started to race. What happened to the vanity? I’d heard about packages being stolen from porches, so I checked with neighbors to see if they’d also been victims. I also talked with the USC police to see if there had been reports of similar thefts in recent days. In both cases, the answer was “no,” but they warned me that “porch pirates” can be both clever and aggressive.


Since there was no other explanation, I assumed that I was a victim of these shrewd criminals and I’d need to replace the vanity. Insurance wasn’t a viable option, since our $1000 deductible matched the cost of a replacement vanity. I bit the bullet and called Gordon to order a duplicate. He took pity on our plight and kindly sold us the new vanity at cost. Our project was delayed for a month while we waited for the replacement.


Soon after we placed the vanity replacement order, Katie got a seemingly hostile email from Houzz.com that said, “Why did you return unauthorized furniture? You have violated the terms of our online agreement.” We had no idea what this meant, until the e-conversation continued, “You were authorized to return a mirror and you returned a piece of furniture.”


Of course, we hadn’t returned anything. The damaged mirror was still sitting in our garage, waiting for a return authorization receipt. We quickly ended the email chatter and called a Houzz representative. She remained accusatory, and said the seller had sent FedEx to our house to pick up the damaged mirror, but we gave the driver a box that contained a vanity. The mystery was solved: the guy in boxer shorts in Los Angeles didn’t email a return authorization, he sent FedEx to our house without notifying us. The FedEx driver didn’t ring the doorbell, check the contents of the box, or leave a receipt. He assumed that the box contained the damaged mirror, threw it on his truck, and drove off to his next destination.


After explaining to the Houzz representative what had apparently happened, he acknowledged the mistake, but blamed the seller and told us we’d have to deal with him directly. He had little incentive to resolve the issue, was very difficult to understand (broken English), and directed us back to Houzz.com. When we finally got a slightly more helpful Houzz rep, I requested a simple resolution: return our vanity and pick up the damaged mirror. The response: “We can’t. We don’t have the furniture. It was sent to the mirror manufacturer in North Carolina. You’ll have to call them.” The run-around was becoming more bizarre. When I called the mirror manufacturing plant, it took them three days to locate the cardboard box containing our vanity. Then, the plant supervisor gave me good news and bad news.


“We found your furniture, Mr. Lynch!”

“Great, please return it to us.”

“OK, but just so you know, it’s badly damaged.”

“Damaged?”

“Yes. The corners of the shipping box are crushed, one of the sides is collapsed, and the vanity inside has been destroyed. Do you still want it?”

My next step on this e-commerce journey was to contact everyone involved: Houzz, the sales agent in boxer shorts, and FedEx. Of the three, the FedEx customer service representative was the most responsive. He said the driver was following instructions from the sales agent to “pick up a package containing damaged goods and return it to North Carolina.” However, he admitted that the driver likely treated it as “already damaged” and may have “thrown it around a little.” He offered to reimburse us for the cost of the destroyed vanity.


I called the mirror manufacturing plant supervisor to tell her FedEx would be reimbursing us, but the damaged vanity, even though it was brand new, was now of little value. When I asked what they’d do with it, she said it would be thrown into their large incinerator, along with other damaged items. Seems a bit harsh, but it gave me a great idea for the title of this short story.


replacement vanity finds a home

So, friends and neighbors, be careful as you participate in the new world of web-based shopping. Humans are still involved and can sometimes complicate things!



This story first appeared in the spring 2019 issue of UPPER ST. CLAIR TODAY. You can find this story on pages 22 and 23.



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