Monday, February 24, 2014

Why the Gear Industry is Awesome

This is a tale of two customer service adventures. Like cities, it was the best of times and the worst of times. One involves a return of a knife to Brous Blades. The other involves a return of a product to an online-only clothing company. This isn't designed to bash a company, but demonstrate just how amazing our slicing the marketplace really is.

The Best Of Times

When Jim Skelton previewed the Brous Bionic on his YouTube channel, I was pumped. I have been looking for a small, mid-priced flipper for a long time. Like my obsession with knives the size of the Dragonfly, this is my next great hunt. I have tried quite a few, including the good but flawed Surefire Jekyll, the totally meh Benchmade 300SN, and the good, but slightly too big Spyderco Domino. So as you can see, the Bionic could have very well been the knife I am hunting.


When the Bionic came I was thrilled. Its surprisingly light. The flipping action was a smooth as silk, as is the case on most Brous knives I have handled. Even the normally hard to polish D2 looked good. And the coloring of the handle's anondization was outstanding.

But there were a few negative points. They were actually points. First the flipper was quite pokey. It wasn't a big deal, but it was not as rounded and finger-friendly as it should be. Second, the jimping on the handle right where your finger lands after flipping open the knife was especially sharp. So sharp, in fact, that it drew blood after exactly seven flips open and closed (I counted aware right away that it could pose a problem). Third, the two points at the end of the handle opposite the pivot were unpleasantly sharp. Fourth, the tip of the blade was so close to the end of the handle that it was snagging fabric and, on occasion, the tip of my finger.

All of this was not good. The knife is relatively inexpensive, but at $159 its not a throwaway import blade. The insert in the Bionic's tube provided Jason's email account (or one of his email accounts, I'd hope he has other), so I emailed him. I sent him a picture of my finger and less than 48 hours later I had an email from Brous instructing me to send the knife back and a promise that he'd fix it. That was it. No offers for a refund or some long convoluted set of return instructions. "Send it to me. I got your back." When you have a problem, even one as minor as a pokey pocket knife, that's what you want to hear.

The Worst of Times

I browse the Internet. I am sure you do as well. And on occasion you see something that makes you excited. You think: "Geez this is so amazing. I am glad the Internet exists so that I could find this thing." It might be the Pebble or a grocery delivery service or a way to renew prescriptions automatically. Its something you have been wanting for a while and you finally found it. In my case I have a particular article of clothing that I have always wanted a nicer version of, but for reasons that have a lot to do with the exporting of clothing manufacturing, this particular article of clothing, in a nicer form, did not exist.

This isn't a piece of clothing that Triple Aught Design has had the opportunity to upgrade or improve. This isn't some high tech wonder garment made of SPACE FIBER 3000. This isn't a Savile Row suit. Its a pretty basic thing that I wanted a nicer version of--that's it. But there was nothing out there until I stumbled across this garment. BANG. I wanted it. But it was about three weeks from Christmas, so I asked for it as a gift instead. Christmas arrived and so did the garment. It was exceedingly nice. Great in fact. But it was sized for, um, smaller people. I am not a Greek God, I got myself a little 36 year old flab, but I am not fat. Nor am I an NBA center. I am 5'10", 180 pounds. This garment wouldn't have fit me, despite being called a large, if I were five inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter. I get a little tightness around the belly, but the arms were the real issue. They were comically short and this is before the shirt went through the wash.

No problem, I thought, I can send it back. The box it came in even included a return mailer. So a few days after Christmas I bundled everything up and sent it back with a request for the next size up. A few days go by. Then a few weeks. Nothing. So I send an email to the company asking what's up. They get back to me with an automated email response telling me someone will respond shortly. I'd prefer a real person, but whatever. Then I did get a response from a real person, telling me that they had received nothing from me. That was strange. They asked if I had some product number or order number. I told them: a) I got it as a gift so I don't have the ordering information and b) as per their instructions I packaged everything up for a return. They looked into the matter and came back a few days later telling me, oh by the way, we don't handle our own returns and they still hadn't received anything.

This struck me as incredibly odd. Why would a company, especially a clothing company that sells stuff ONLY on the Internet, not handle their returns? Surely they have had people order the wrong size or color before. My wife gets stuff from Boden all the time and their return policies are flawless and the process is simple. I have ordered and returned stuff from LL Bean with equal easy. Contracting out your returns is, quite literally, contracting our your customer service. It was annoying but I chalked it to them being a new, small company.

Then they told me they don't do exchanges, just refunds. WAIT, WHAT!??!?! Yeah, they sell clothes and if you get the wrong size they won't send you a replacement. I checked their website, which has a large and prominent section on their return policy, and nowhere was that mentioned. Some digging through an FAQ (why, pray tell, do you need an FAQ for returns? LL Bean's policy is one sentence: Return anything at anytime for a refund or exchange.) and sure enough in the fine print it says they don't do exchanges, just refunds. Okay, that is super annoying, especially because if a person gets a refund they can just buy the thing that actual need, so why go through the process of a refund instead of an exchange (I know why, to boost sales numbers, but still)? They then told me the refund goes to the gift giver, not to me. Stupid, I get it, but whatever. So I ask if I can just use the refund to purchase the next size up, essentially making it an exchange. Oh no, sorry you can't do that, I am told. Now, its on. This is total fucking horseshit. I ask why and I am told they don't have any in stock. I ask for a different color. Nope, out of stock too. I ask for a slightly different version. Out of stock. I ask to get something different and I will throw in cash. Sorry, not possible. Finally, after some rather serious and upset emails (I am, in case you don't know, a very low key person in real life, I NEVER get serious outside my job), they agreed to do an exchange. They tell me the next size up should be available sometime in February.

Well, February came and almost went when a package arrived from the company. I was sort of amazed and realized I was going to have to pull this post....until I opened the bag and was nearly choked to death by a chemical smell akin the malodorous fumes of a meth lab. The item I was shipped was either used to wipe down vats at said meth lab or it was used, "deordorized" and then sent to me. Closer inspection showed me a couple of things that indicated that this item was used. Look, I love used clothes. I love the feel of a broken in pair of jeans or a comfy jacket. I just don't like having people pay for new stuff and getting used stuff instead. With their incredibly small stock, I would imagine that they just give returned items a quick spray repackage them and send them to people on their waiting list for garments. BAD MOJO.

This company has spent a kazillion dollars on advertising. They have really nice product placements. They have a hi-rez campaign with excellent video and photos. They have quaint making-of videos. They have an awesome logo and actually nice products. They were featured in large newspapers and big shill websites (another reason you should never trust shill websites, as if the copious amount of Gerber stuff on their isn't warning enough), all of which praised their products and their Made in the USA story. But in the end, its about the customer and here, this darling of the internet, the emblem of the new craft movement in the USA, farms out their customer service, makes exchanges impossible, has no stock, and has a terrible process for returning their items. All of the slick HDR pics and praise from business cognescenti cannot help this company. Absent changes, and assuming this experience is representative, they will be gone before my 18-month desk calendar is. This is simply not how you do business, especially now when stores like Nordstrom and LL Bean exist in the same space with vastly superior customer service.


Every company, every object made by man can have flaws. The flaws are not how you judge a company or a product or even a man. Its how he (or it, in the case of a company) responds to those flaws that matters. And in our little part of the huge capitalist marketplace, our people, gear geeks--knife knuts and flashaholics--tend to be good people. When stuff goes wrong, they have your back. These two stories illustrate a world of difference. Brous puts his email in the package (I feel like that guy in Tommy Boy asking for a guarantee on the box). He responds quickly and personally to an issue. And his response is: I'll take care of it, send it to me and it will get fixed. This other company, from outside our little enclave of gear, is all flash and no substance. They literally farm out their customer service. That shows how much they care about us, the customer.

The gear business is still relatively small, but it has been, in my experience, uniformly superior to other parts of the economy. AG Russell has personally responded to my questions. Thomas W came on my podcast. Jason Brous responded to my email. That is customer service. And here is the killer thing about Brous--I am fairly certain he has no idea I run this site or the podcast or even who I am. I never told him (not that it would matter, after all I am just a paper pushing lawyer that likes to go outside and play with cool shit). He's just that decent of a guy.

Maybe it is the fact that the gear business has roots in small town America. Maybe it is the fact that the people selling this stuff know we rely on it and want us to feel like we can rely on them. Maybe it is the fact that the gear folks know intuitively what a Wharton MBA tells big companies--customer servicce sells. Whatever it is, this slice of the market is filled with pretty decent people. Sure there are exceptions and sure you can have a bad experience with anyone, but I have had very good dealings with just about everyone I have met and talked to. And that is, as my experience with the other company has shown, incredibly rare these days.


  1. Why don't you tell us the company so we know to proceed with caution. You have never shied away from giving us specifics when dealing with a product you don't like. Are you just waiting until you get your money back?

    1. I can't get the money back. It was a gift.

      Here's the deal--the company never did anything wrong, technically. Everything they did was according to policy. If I could PROVE definitively that the garment I was sent was used, I'd have no problem outing them, but since that's impossible to do, I decided to not make it explicit who they are. I was the one that didn't read the return policy. I was the one that didn't understand that they NEVER provide exchanges. That's my fault. As is often the case in life, they did a bad job, but never really broke the rules. And that's why the gear business is so great. Sal doesn't have to attribute the frame lock to Chris Reeve, but he does because he understands that there is a difference between merely following the rules and actually having integrity. Until they break the rules, they can hide in anonymity.

  2. When I am treated well, I recommend the store or business to others. I tend to buy nice stuff, not flashy, just nice quality, and people ask me where I get things. I am the customer sellers want. But when I am mistreated…….

  3. Funny you should mention Pebble in a piece about customer service...

  4. I'm not surprised to hear this. You ought to know that the treatment you get as a reviewer is different from the treatment I get as a regular dude. I ordered a Bionic from Brous Blade's website and I got an automated response that the order was placed. A week later I sent a friendly email asking if they knew when the knife would ship. I told them I was excited to get the knife. I never received any response. Later that day I got a click-n-ship notification from USPS that a package was on the way. They never replied to my email which made me feel that I was somehow bothering them to have bought their product. When I got the knife it had all the problems you mentioned plus more. The pocket clip has fallen out several times, the flipper is not smooth, the jimping and edges are too sharp. I am extremely disappointed with the Brous Blades experience. Should I write them again? They didn't seem to give a darn about me last time.

    1. Unless they looked me up, they had no idea I reviewed gear. It may not be representative but the experience was good.

    2. My experience was more like Noah's... I wrote an email to Brous in Oct asking about how stiff the flipper should be on my silent soldier flipper (a knife I found through this website, thanks very much, Tony) and crickets. Until last week when someone else from Brous (not Jason...) replied. He gave me good info, and my knife is not defective, but the LONG delay on a response does imply something different from your experience...

      I suspect Brous Blades knows EXACTLY who you are and responded accordingly. Your name is not a secret- I recognized it when I started reading AllOutdoor a couple months ago...

    3. I've been waiting a few months for my SS Ranger now...

  5. I've become severely disillusioned with the "gear industry". If you scratch the surface, it is just as nasty as any place where a lot of money is involved and everybody wants their share as quickly as possible. Maximum respect to the few exceptions, but the majority easily reaches the average greed-level of any other industry.

  6. Yeah, um, Tony, people know who you are.