HMI Industries has one thing to offer the world, and it’s the Filter Queen vacuum cleaner.
Its distributor, Environmental Systems, is in charge of selling as many of those vacuum cleaners as it can. The two companies have developed an… interesting… way to do that.
First, Environmental Systems calls a potential customer. Anyone, really, is a potential customer at this point, even if they’re on the National Do Not Call Registry. The telemarketer tells the customer that they’re conducting an air quality survey. They’ll ask a few questions, like “Do you rent or own your home?” or “Do you think the air quality is getting better or worse in your area?” They’ll offer prizes for helping with the survey.
They will not disclose to the customer that they are selling anything.
Next, the telemarketer waits a few days and calls back any potential customers that fit the company’s criteria -- homeowners, namely. The customer has been selected to receive a prize, they say -- maybe an outdoor weather clock station, or jumper cables. All they need to do is “take a look at a new product” of theirs. It’ll probably last a half hour, or an hour, tops.
They still do not tell the customer they are selling anything.
Then comes the reveal. An Environmental Systems employee arrives at the customer’s home. They’re allowed inside, past the “No Solicitors” signs, ostensibly because the customer thinks they’re there to deliver a prize. Then the employee launches into a hard sales pitch on a $4,500 Filter Queen vacuum -- a pitch which could last more than four hours.
Hours of baffling, shifting numbers, and so-called deals. Hours in which customers’ children beg for attention and meals cooled, uneaten, sit until the dark hours of the evening. Hours they would never have agreed to give up if they'd known they were going to be pushed to buy a really pricey vacuum. A payment plan would be suggested for those who couldn’t fork over the cash right away -- without mentioning the customers would also be paying 18 percent interest on any of their “payment plans.”
All of this is according to a complaint filed by Attorney General Lori Swanson, who is now taking HMI to court on behalf of the state of Minnesota for using “false and deceptive tactics to gain entry to consumers’ homes” and aggressively selling them a price-inflated vacuum. HMI and Environmental Services didn’t respond to interview requests.
The telemarketer calls weren’t the only weapon in the Filter Queen arsenal. There were the voicemails, and the scratch-off postcards sent to some 40,000 Minnesotans a month, which promised $10,000 prizes and ended with an interminable sales pitch and, in lieu of the promised riches, a cheap BBQ set.
“I didn’t even have a grill,” a nursing assistant from Glencoe was quoted in the complaint.
This isn’t the first time HMI and Environmental Systems have been in hot water for pushing expensive vacuums under false pretenses. The complaint includes a litany of violations starting in 1993 and 1996, for which HMI and its downline distributors agreed to pay a penalty to the state and stop telling people they won vacations they’d never receive.
Unbelievably, this isn’t even the first vacuum company to invade Minnesotans’ homes under false pretenses and occupy them until they’re weary enough to buy.
But it’s the attorney general’s hope that it will be the last. If the state of Minnesota wins this one, HMI and Environmental Systems will have to pay restitution to those they’ve “injured,” civil penalties, attorneys’ fees, and most importantly, they’ll have to stop with the sneaky sales tactics.