A Workless Advance

   As if stone shops didn’t have enough to worry about with radon, now there’s the Case of the Disappearing Shop.
   Or shops, to be accurate, as when 15 locations of one company – Rock Tops Inc. – suddenly closed up tight last month. Employees, consumers and suppliers end up with a tough holiday season ... but the whole stone-countertop trade may end up taking a whack from this one.
   The details are still unfolding, as all parties involved with the Macomb, Mich.-based company try to sort out their options. Employees still aren’t sure when and how much they’ll get paid, as termination dates don’t seem to match up with the last days of work. Stone and machine suppliers may also find on-the-books sales in 2008 may end up as returned goods on the 2009 ledgers.
   The biggest concern, however, may be with customers in at least seven states waiting for countertops that aren’t coming. Sure, with shop failures, clients may need to push to get back deposits on stone purchases, but there’s a big kicker here.
   Rock Tops routinely came in as the low bid for jobs; local offices processed orders and did the installs, while the company centralized fabrication in Michigan. In return for getting those low prices, customers paid upfront – to the tune of 100 percent of the cost.
   The pre-paid and now-unfilled orders, according to one ex-employee, could easily amount to $2 million. Since the company hasn’t filed for bankruptcy, the full tally of consumer liability isn’t known.
   Those customers aren’t getting much help from their local authorities, where the prevailing attitude is that it’s a civil, not criminal, matter that’ll be mired in courts for years. It’s also confusing on where those countertopless customers need to seek redress; is it in their home state or county, or somewhere in the Michigan judicial system?
   It’s a sure thing some of them will end up at the same place as radon-minded homeowners: the local TV consumer reporter. Reports in Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis already feature upset customers, including one with no working kitchen when it came time to cook Christmas dinner.
   This is where the problem slops onto all of us in the stone trade, as customers get another reason to go gun-shy when it comes to granite. Never mind that the number of no-show shops likely rank at a fraction of one percent of all stone companies in the country; honest people don’t get on the local newscast.
   Nobody needs to tell fabricators to be honest. You may need to reassure your customers ... especially the ones hearing about the bargains that went bust.

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