The Great Walmart XBox Adventure

This story begins with some house visitors who decided to permanently borrow a bunch of electronics and other things from my house. They impolitely opened the back sliding door with a universal key (crowbar) and then went shopping. I came home from shooting some awesome tulip pictures in the Skagit Valley and found the house in disarray (more than usual, that is) and stuff gone. Thinking such behavior was rather rude I called the Sheriff’s office and that’s where the story begins.

After making a list of missing stuff my insurance company instructed me to replace the stuff that was so rudely absconded with. One of the things taken was my son’s XBox. We bought the now stolen XBox at the local Walmart and they offered a 2-year extended warranty at a reasonable price so we decided to buy the next one there. That was our first mistake. So, we went to the local WallyWorld and bought an XBox. The cashier scanned the serial number bar code on the XBox and this number was printed on the receipt. The XBox box has a window cut in it to allow scanning of the serial number that is printed on the actual game console. We left and my son and his friend are excited to open it and get it set up. After all, he was XBox-less for about two whole weeks and was still having video withdrawal. We get the box home and the boys tear into it like a hungry woman tearing into a box of chocolates from Chocolate Necessities (www.chocolatenecessities.com but I digress). They try to plug the power cord in and it didn’t fit. That’s odd. I tried it and it still did not fit. I looked at the plug and socket and they were the wrong type. My son also noticed that the XBox had a scratch on it. That’s odd too. I examined the XBox and it appeared to not be new. So, we would just run back to Wally’s and exchange it. Or, so we thought.

We get back to Walmart to exchange it and explained that the power cord didn’t fit and that the XBox appears to not be a new one. They scanned the serial number and then said that they need to get a manager’s approval. As the guy was walked to see the manager I told him to take the power cord so that he could show her that it didn’t fit. We waited and waited. Finally the manager shows up and told me that she could not give us a new XBox. I said that we bought it about 20 minutes ago and the power cord did not fit and it appears to not be new. She told us that the serial number on the XBox did not match the serial number on the receipt. I said that we bought the XBox 20 minutes prior, tried to set it up, and then immediately brought it back. She then stated again that this was not the XBox that left the store and that she would not exchange it. I said that we bought the XBox 20 minutes prior, tried to set it up, and then immediately brought it back. She then told me that I purchased the XBox at Best Buy two years ago. I said that we bought the XBox 20 minutes prior, tried to set it up, and then immediately brought it back. I asked what recourse I had and she told me that I would have to take it up with Best Buy where I bought it. I said that we bought the XBox 20 minutes prior, tried to set it up, and then immediately brought it back (this became a common response). I asked if she was calling me a liar and she just looked me straight in the eyes and informed me that this was not the XBox that left the store. They then threatened to review the checkout tapes. I told them to review them and I was confident that this would prove my case. They came back after a long time and said that the serial number was scanned properly and that the XBox that I returned was not the one that left the store. I then tried to explain my point again with slightly increased volume but they did not budge at all.

At this point I was completely baffled and befuddled. We bought the XBox, got it home, tried to plug it in, and immediately returned it. What the horse-feathers was going on? I asked for a phone book and called the local police office because I did not know what else to do. They forwarded me to another police department and they forwarded me to county Sheriff’s office. I waited in the Customer Service area for a call from the Sheriff’s office and he gave me some generic advice but told me that this was a civil matter and they could not get involved. Well, I wasn’t expecting much but I didn’t know what else to do. I then told the Customer Service staff that I would start civil action and would file reports with the Attorney General and the Better Business Bureau. They seemed unimpressed. So, after about two hours in Walmart we left.

Out of desperation we went to the local Best Buy store. I asked for a supervisor and told her that she was not going to believe this story. I relayed what had happened and told them that this was not there problem but I was getting desperate and was trying to untangle this mess. They looked up the serial number and found that the XBox was built about two years prior. I was hoping against hope that maybe this box had an extended warranty on it and perhaps they could swap it for me. Alas, no such luck. They could not do anything here and I would not expect them to. After all, someone bought an XBox from them a few years prior, waited until it broke, scammed Walmart, Walmart did not check it in properly, and I was up the creek without a boat at this point.

My son was bummed, I was confused, we were out $400, we had just been burglarized, I was called a liar by a Walmart manager, it was about 9:00 pm and we had not eaten dinner yet, and I was having a bad hair day. My son’s birthday was in a week or so and that has nothing to do with it but somehow added to the bummer-factor of this trip down Main Street in Bummersville.

I then called Microsoft XBox Support to see I could get any clues there. I hated calling Microsoft because they normally use offshore support people who normally have little command of the English language. I called and the guy spoke pretty good English and I was impressed, temporarily. I am tying to recall the gist of the conversation and I am embellishing only slightly but the tone of the conversation went something like this:

Me I have a problem. I bought an XBox from Walmart and when we got it home the power cord did not fit and we then found out that there was a used XBox in the box. I am trying to get some more information on the XBox to figure out what happened.
Microsoft OK, so first give me the serial number of the new XBox and then the used XBox.
Me There is no new XBox, there was an old XBox in the box.
Microsoft What happened to the new XBox?
Me There was no new XBox there was an old one in the box and I am trying to get some information on it so that I can exchange it at the store. They told me that the serial number on the receipt does not match the serial number on the XBox so I am trying to do a little research.
Microsoft OK, so Walmart took out the new XBox and you exchanged it for a used one? What did they do with the new one?
Me No, a used one was in the box there was not a new one.
Microsoft Well, what did you do with the new XBox.
Me I did not get a new XBox. I bought an XBox that was supposed to be new but it had a used XBox in the container.
Microsoft OK, well what is the serial number on the new XBox.
Me There is no new XBox, there was a used on in the box.
Microsoft So you had an old XBox and you swapped it for a new XBox? Can you give me the serial number of the new XBox.

At this point this is starting to sound like an Abbot and Costello “Who’s On First” gag. What is so hard about understanding that I bought what should have been a new XBox but it had a used XBox in the container? I am realizing that Microsoft hired people who had little accent but could not UNDERSTAND English.

Me No, I bought what I thought was a new XBox. I took it home and opened it. In the container was a used XBox. I am trying to get information about this used XBox.
Microsoft Please give me the serial number.
Me The serial number is <such as such>.
Microsoft That XBox is no longer under warranty and it is not registered. I went ahead and registered it for you.
Me NO!!! Now the store will think that I bought it originally. Why did you do that?
Microsoft Your XBox was not registered so it is registered now but it is out of warranty.
Me I am trying to get a new XBox.
Microsoft Then just return it to the store, but this one is already out of warranty.

Is this guy comprehending ANYTHING that I am saying?

Me Look, we got a used XBox when we tried to buy a new XBox. The power cord that came in the box does not even fit the XBox.
Microsoft So, you need a new power cord and that will fix the problem.
Me NO!! We have a used XBox when we bought a new one.
Microsoft But if they put the wrong power cord in the box then if you get a new power cord then it will work.
Me No, the power cord is fine but the XBox is wrong because it is not a new XBox.
Microsoft Well, why did you buy a used XBox from Walmart?

At his point I realized that spending 20 minutes explaining what a native speaker would comprehend in 10 seconds. I wrap up the call the Walmart response line and leave a message. I then tried calling XBox support again with similar results.

Just as an aside to Microsoft. You are one of the largest and most successful companies in the history of the world. You profit from products that we are forced to buy that most people hate (i.e., Vista and Office 2007). Can you pah-leeze get people on the phone that can speak AND understand English? Is this too much to ask for? I spent probably 20 minutes with each of these guys when the entire conversation should have taken 2 minutes. Microsoft, would you PLEASE give your customers a break? Just people who can speak and comprehend English, is this too much to ask or expect?

So, what the hay happened here? I was clueless, Microsoft was no help at all. The Walmart comment line just let me record a message. I was out $400. We were just burglarized and I felt doubly victimized by the whole situation. I just slept on this (the situation, not the XBox – that would have been uncomfortable).

In the morning I had to figure out what went wrong. It just so happens that I worked in the bar code industry for over 20 years and I am very familiar with bar codes and bar code scanners. I just happened to have a laser bar code scanner and a protocol analyzer (thing that allows you see data on a cable). I thought perhaps the cashier scanned the wrong bar code. I scanned the bar codes on the XBox carton and those numbers were not even close to matching anything. I scanned the XBox serial number and it was different than the number on the receipt. What the whozit? That can’t be. First I thought that there must be fake serial number somewhere so I checked everywhere and found nothing. Then I started analyzing the numbers. The serial number on the receipt was xxxx93672205 and the number that my scanner read was xxxx93672905. Okay, that’s goofy. Wait a minute! Those serial numbers are identical except for the third digit from the right. The one number ends in 205 and the other ends in 905. Now I have something to go on.

I reconfigured the scanner to output symbology identifiers along with the bar code data. A symbology is like the “font” of a bar code. Products use the UPC symbology, cartons use I 2 of 5, etc. I read this back and the bar code is Code-39 with no check digit verification. Holy moose, that was the problem! Many bar codes contain check digits and these are a number that is calculated using the bar code data. Imagine if you wanted to bar code “12345” and a very simple check digit scheme would be to add the digits and take the last digit as a check digit. So you would calculate 1+2+3+4+5 = 15 and then add the 5 from the 15 to the end of the bar code. You would then print the bar code as “123455”. When you read the bar code your computer or cash register would then perform the same calculation and make sure that the last 5 (the check digit) matched what you calculated. If it did not match then the scanner misread the bar code. Real check digits are more complex than this but this gives you an idea of how they work. Well, the XBox serial number did not use a check digit and the scanner misread the bar code. This is fairly uncommon problem but it does happen in real life. It normally does not happen when you scan your groceries because those bar codes normally use the check digit to verify that the bar code was read properly. The mystery was solved so all I had to do was explain this to the Walmart manager and everything would be fine. Well, at least that line of reasoning sounded good at the time.

I called the Walmart manager and explained all this. I told him about the used XBox and how he had a Code-39 scanner misread and how the bar code did not contain a check digit and how it was a dense bar code that is more likely to misread. He listened attentively and then told me that the serial numbers do not match and that he would not exchange it. I then explained that the serial number differed by a single digit and that this was a called a bar code substitution error. He then told me that the serial numbers did not match and that he would not exchange it. I then told him to assume that I am complete liar and that I am trying to scam Walmart. I told him to imagine that I purchased the XBox from Best Buy 2 years ago and it broke. Imagine that I bought a new XBox from Walmart, took it home, swapped it for my theoretical broken XBox, and then tried to return it. What is the likelihood that a 2-year-old serial number would differ from the serial number of a new XBox by a single digit? Let’s then assume that it did vary by a single digit. Assume that the old XBox and the mythical new XBox serial numbers differed by only 700 (one ending in 205 and the other ending in 905). That would mean that Microsoft only produced 700 XBoxes in the last two years. I asked how likely this would be. I asked if this fictional scam makes any sense at all. He then responded by saying, “Well, that’s YOUR story.” Okay fine, reason and logic do not prevail. Now we go to the wall since I can now prove my case. I look up information on the State Attorney General. I left three more messages on the Walmart hotline and said that I will pursue this if I do not get a return call by the middle of the day.

I got a call from the Walmart District Manager and explained the situation including the bar code error. He then called the store manager and the manager of the electronics department. He called me back and asked when I can get to the store. I told him that I could be there in 15 minutes but I want results and I do not want any more Walmart mangers calling me a liar and refusing to listen to reason. He assured me that they would not. I got to the store and told them an abbreviated version of the story and they exchanged the XBox. I manually verified that the serial number printed on the receipt matched the serial number on the XBox console. After all this we noticed a little Walmart smiley stick on the original box. It had a date of 4/6 and this ordeal started on 4/29. Someone DID return that XBox to Walmart on 4/6 and someone at Walmart did not check the serial number when it was returned.

What I should have done was lookup the serial number printed on the receipt. I would guess that the incorrectly printed serial number would match some XBox somewhere that was purchased roughly two years ago. If it was purchased in the past then it could not have been purchased by me one night before. But, I thought of that after the fact.

Anyway, this was a hassle but I am glad it happened to me and not to someone else. What are the chances that the scanner would misread the serial number (actually about 1 in 4000)? What are the chances that we would get a used XBox in the carton? What are the chances that this would happen to someone like me with over 20 years experience in the bar code industry who just happened to have laser bar code scanners and protocol analyzers to diagnose the problem? Had this happened to another consumer then that consumer would probably be $400 lighter and have a dead XBox that could not be used for anything. Imagine if a kid has spent years saving his birthday money and allowances to buy his own XBox and this had happened to him. He would be out the money with little recourse. Anyway, I don’t blame the night manager because this was a “perfect storm” of a problem. I do take issue the day manager after I had analyzed the problem and he refused to listen to reason. What are the chances that a scam artist would call the police while still in the Customer Service section of the store that he was allegedly trying to scam? It would have been nice to at least receive an apology from Walmart but I guess that is against corporate policy or something. Anyway, we prevailed and my son got his XBox replaced. It pretty funny now but it was not so fun when we were in the middle of it.

©Tony Cataldo (5/2009)