This morning, I was standing in front of the Ensemble Collection furniture store in Ft. Lauderdale holding a sign with the word "THIEVES" in large caps (and I never type in large caps). It's a hefty accusation to make publicly.
So, how did I get here?
It was bound to happen at some point. While I've always had slow-paying clients, it would usually end after a few uncomfortable phone calls and then finally, a payment. One time, I had a client file bankruptcy with a $3,500 write off. But, for some reason that I will never understand, Ensemble Collection decided it was worth it for them to test my will to collect a bad debt. So for the first time in my life, I exercised my First Amendment right to free speech and picketed outside their store in order to collect a long-outstanding debt of $1,600.
It all started in late 2010 when I gave EC some very nice art pieces to sell on consignment. It was part of an effort to establish relationships with a few high-end retail furniture stores in hopes of selling artwork to their customers. Since EC carries top designers like Kartell, Eames, Stark and Saarinen http://bit.ly/kjZXPp I thought they were a perfect fit for my artwork.
For those not familiar with art consignments, both artist and retailer are equal partners (unlike a supplier relationship where a retailer can negotiate months to pay). After consigning two pieces, I received a call from an EC salesperson who announced that a customer was about to purchase one entitled "Water" http://bit.ly/mDNsu3 so after having to call multiple times to find out it had eventually sold, I invoiced EC in January 2011. When payment wasn't received by February, I followed up by sending a few polite emails and voicemails with no response. In fact, there was no response in April, May or June either. Internally, there were a few employees trying to facilitate payment but all of their efforts were falling on deaf ears at the top. Once, when I was lucky to speak with their CFO Kathy she told me the "check is going out tonight" and then rushed me off the phone. After 12 more days passed without payment and even more of my voicemails ignored, I suddenly realized they were making an effort to avoid paying me. According to our signed agreement, this money belonged to me "upon sale" and since they were refusing to forward my portion, I now considered this not a matter of late payment but matter of theft.
So, what's a recession-weary father-of-two supposed to do at this point? Call the police? Pay my lawyer good money to go after them? I decided on an interim step before legal action: picketing their store.
Ensemble Collection is located on a very busy intersection of Sunrise Boulevard and US1 http://bit.ly/iuzgYE and I knew that a regular weekday would have thousands of cars passing by. I cleared my schedule and planned to picket for two full days, 11am-6pm. I had some friends who offered to stand there with me but I figured I'd use them on the second day, if I had to. If that didn't work, I would then have my lawyer start the meter.
In a phone call with one sympathetic EC employee, I said that if their bosses brought me to the point of picketing, I would also use my 20+ years in marketing and my 5,000+ Twitter followers http://bit.ly/jx5LFI to make sure everyone knew that it was EC's choice to escalate this matter. The day before I planned to picket, I sent both store owner Joe Mirabile and CFO Kathy one last email in hopes either one would give me my money or at least respond to me in some way. Here is the final paragraph of my email:
I hope you understand I have done all that I can and have waited as long as possible before losing hope to be paid by EC. If you do not return my call today or a check is not received, I will be in the unfortunate position of having to collect this debt in court which will make it more expensive for both of us. Please don't force me to do this as I am only trying to be paid for my work.
Neither phone call, check nor response was received. Exactly twenty-four hours after that email, I arrived at the store with sign-in-hand and asked to speak with Joe in a last ditch effort to avoid publicizing this piece of dirty laundry. After all, it was Joe who I had originally met with face-to-face (yet was avoiding my calls and emails for six months). When store employees once again told me "There's no check here for you and Joe isn't available right now," I politely told them I would stand there with my sign until someone puts that non-existent check in my hand. It was 11:05am.
Over the next 20 minutes, I estimate 300-400 cars passed by with many drivers craning their necks to read my 4x3-ft sign. I had designed it in Adobe Photoshop CS5 http://adobe.ly/miCzHd using the store's logo and large, bold 900-point type (yes, 900 points) with a clean, black and white palette to match the store's sleek, modern inventory. The sign company http://instasign.com also had an 8-ft sign but I felt mine was plenty enough to do the job. As I was standing out there in the midday Florida sun, five or six store employees and a few curious customers seemed somewhat entertained by my willingness to right this easily avoidable wrong.
By 11:25, an employee came outside and said, "Well, it didn't take long. Here's your check." Feeling relieved, I immediately drove one block to BankAtlantic and walked out with my $1,600 cash-in-hand.
Well, not so fast. I take pride in having warned Ensemble Collection multiple times that I am a publicist by trade (in fact, it's basically my only marketable skill) and it's so gratifying that I was able to use my advertising, PR and journalism experience to bring justice to the situation. Every EC employee knows how hard I tried to avoid getting to this point.
Once I posted this story, my Facebook page lit up like a Christmas tree with words of support from family, friends, friends of friends and complete strangers. It's been retweeted multiple times and bit.ly shows it trending with 152 clicks in the first hour after posting. It seems everyone has faced something like this at one time or another and considering EC's 2-star rating on Google http://bit.ly/mCEe92 and 2.5-star rating on Yelp http://bit.ly/k5b5cz I'm not the only one unhappy with the way they do business. With the internet being the world's great information archive, your reputation in cyberspace becomes an organic, dynamic and permanent record of who you really are.
Ok, now, case closed.
UPDATE JUNE 22, 2011: Case re-opened. At 11:12am this morning I received a call that began, "Hi, this is Joe Mirabile." I immediately thought he was calling to sincerely apologize for mishandling this whole thing. Instead, he went on to say, "You mentioned in your blog that I'm the owner. Well, I'm not the owner. The owner is a company that might take legal action against you." After a stunned pause, I asked him, "After six months of ignoring my calls, that's what you called to tell me?" Then I hung up.
If Joe Mirabile is, in fact, not the owner then the owner must be really, really pissed at him right now. And, what's the first thing an incompetent manager does when the boss asks why some man is picketing outside the store on a hot summer day? Managers like Joe (and so many companies are filled with them) try to blame the victim (because he certainly couldn't have caused this himself, right?). I sure hope Joe's boss is smart enough to see through it. If not then any decent legal counsule should ask, "Why didn't you just give the guy his money to begin with?"