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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Economic downturn has consumers giving businesses closer scrutiny

Jan Quintrall

April 2008: The historic U.S. presidential election dominated the news, and very few of us knew what was ahead for the economy.

April 2009: The headlines are on global recession and swine flu. And a recent BBB Gallup Trust Survey shows a marked decline in the public’s trust of business.

Allow me to delve a little deeper by sharing some Better Business Bureau facts, and let’s get some perspective on what a difference a year makes. I offer a look at April 2009 compared with April 2008:

•Complaints are up 5 percent.

•Resolution of complaints is up 4 percent.

•Requests for industry lists of accredited businesses are up 6 percent, to more than 2,300 per month.

I’m not surprised by any of these numbers, but what are they telling us?

Businesses are running thin, and that makes it easier for processes to break down and problems to fall through the cracks. Complaints go up.

Six months ago the BBB saw a decline in resolved complaints, mainly because many businesses in question had closed and we could not locate the owners. But now, resolution is up, too, and that is a good sign.

The increase in requests for industry lists is also a positive indicator. People are beginning to spend money, and they will spend it in the next four weeks.

The Internet is where most buyers start, and that is where 99.7 percent of those list requests come from. Google sends searchers to the BBB Web site to look for lists, and that is a great place to start.

While Craigslist is one resource, it is just one. Simply hiring someone from Craigslist without looking into their licensing, BBB report and other references drives a lot of complaints to us from people who hired a handyman or lawn care service that does business without insurance, licensing or a permanent address.

Some things never change, and people who take the cheapest offer many times end up paying double.

One industry that wasn’t even in the top 25 complaint categories in April 2008 which jumped to No. 2 this April: general contractors. Again, resolution is up and the majority of problems have been addressed. The closure of a few large builders has left us with some hanging issues, though.

As of the end of April, the BBB has delivered prepurchase information on businesses 31,702 times. The industries people ask us about have changed a lot in a year. Some businesses and industries that appeared at the top of the list were not on the list a year ago.

Apply 2 Save, the mortgage modification company in Hayden, dominates this year’s inquiries. It was not in business in April 2008, and the company received almost 3,000 inquiries this year.

Industries new to the list:

Credit and debt counseling : Simply a sign of the times, and there are some bad actors in this arena looking to make a quick buck. Be careful.

Fence contractors : Winter 2008 took its toll on many fences, and people are doing some research before selecting a company.

Lawn care companies : I’m not really sure why questions about this industry are up, but they definitely are.

Movers : People keep moving to Spokane from smaller surrounding communities in search of work, which inflates the unemployment statistics. This is one industry where the lowest price can be the most expensive.

Web designers : If sales are down, businesses owners are looking for new ways to reach customers. Whether it’s for a redesign or a new site, check out the designer first.

Concrete companies : With all the decline we hear about in construction, the consumer interest in this one seems a bit counter to all that bad news.

Banks : If you’re looking for a new banking relationship, checking the BBB report is critical. Remember, the BBB system revoked Washington Mutual’s accreditation a number of years ago because of aggressive and deceptive sales tactics in the mortgage department.

So what difference does a year make? Trouble visits different industries, as it visits us all, but the basic concept of doing careful research before doing business never changes. The good news here is that people are spending money; they are being cautious, doing more research and making careful choices.

In other positive news, the “Itsy-bitsy tail-wagger” column two weeks ago brought me more phone calls, e-mails and even letters than I have seen in years. Look for a follow-up this summer.

Jan Quintrall is president and CEO of the local Better Business Bureau. She can be reached at jquintrall@ spokane.bbb.org or (509) 232-0530.
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