Message to the US Mint: Your Customers Are Not Happy
It’s not a secret that the US Mint has made many of their customers unhappy this year. The discontentment ranges from new customers who are having a bad experience with their very first coin purchase to long time customers of 30 or 40 years who are becoming fed up with recent issues.
When I first started this blog, I rarely wrote about customer service issues, policy changes, and complaints because there were few. In recent months, this has become a large portion of my coverage. I’ve mentioned many of the issues and discussed some of the issues from different angles. I wanted to write a single post which puts everything on the table. In an attempt to provide some balance, I will conclude with some of the things that the US Mint has done right and some of the challenges of the current environment.
Part One: US Mint Customer Complaints and Problems
Disastrous vendor changes
In January 2008, the US Mint changed providers for their online ordering system. Problems were encountered which resulted in the US Mint taking their entire Online Catalog off-line for more than one week. Customers literally could not place orders online and were met with long wait times if they tried to order by phone. The website outage coincided with the first major product launch of the year for the 2008 Bald Eagle Commemorative Coins.
In January 2009, the US Mint changed providers for their order fulfillment. In the midst of the changeover, the signature requirement was dropped seemingly for all orders. This resulted in packages containing thousands of dollars in gold coins being left on customer's doorsteps. These issues came amidst the launch of the 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle Gold Coin, one of the most highly touted US Mint products in recent history.
Questionable handling of platinum price decline
Last year the price of platinum declined from its peak price above $2,200 per ounce to less than $800. The US Mint suspended sales of platinum products as the price of the metal started to decline. After a multi-month suspension, the products were put back on sale at drastically reduced prices. Customers who had purchased the coins at the higher prices were not offered any refund or return option beyond the standard return period which had already passed.
While the Mint is not responsible for the losses incurred by their customers due to the decline in precious metals prices, they were not under any obligation to put the coins back on sale at such low prices. As a case in point, sales of the 10th Anniversary Platinum Eagle Set were suspended when the price was $2,649.95. After more than four months, the sets were put back on sale at $1,249.95. The secondary market prices instantly fell to match the new price level, and anyone who purchased the set at the higher price was put face to face with the fact that they had lost $1,400.00.
In the next five weeks approximately 1,500 more sets were sold before the offering was removed for good. I still receive comments from customers who remain unhappy about the US Mint’s handling of this situation. Was the brief relaunch and slight incremental sales really worth the long standing customer resentment that was created?
Inability to supply core products
Two of the most popular US Mint products unexpectedly sold out and were not available for customers to purchase. The 2008 Proof American Silver Eagle was not available for purchase after mid-August 2008. The 2008 Proof Set was not available for purchase after mid-December 2008. These "sell outs" caught many customers off guard who justifiably expected the products to be available for much longer. Other products such as the Gold Buffalo and Platinum Eagle coins also sold out before the end of the year.
While the unavailability of the silver, gold, and platinum coins could be explained by the ongoing precious metals blank shortage, the unavailability of the 2008 Proof Set is not so easily explained. Was this poor inventory planning? Or did the US Mint intentionally under produce the set so they did not have to transport the extra inventory to their new shipping facility following their change of fulfillment vendors?
Reducing collector favorites from the product line up
In mid-November, the US Mint announced that they would be cutting their 2009 Product line up by 60%. Deep reductions were made in precious metals numismatic offerings, including some collector favorites like the American Gold Buffalo fractional proof and uncirculated coins. As a testament to their popularity, the remaining 2007 dated Gold Buffalo coins sold out within one month of the announcement.
The 2009 Product line up is dominated by rolls and bags offerings for circulating coins and coins which the US Mint is legally required to produce such as the First Spouse Gold Coins. The reduced number of American Silver, Platinum, and Gold Eagles which the US Mint presumably will be offering are still missing.
Implementing policies with limited notice
The US Mint recently shortened their return policy from 30 days to only 7 calendar days. The policy was made public just one day before it became effective. The US Mint's official press release was issued after the policy had already been implemented. Not even considering the fact that the majority of US Mint customers feel the new return period is too short, some advance notice would have surely been appreciated.
Not following their own policies
In at least two recent instances the US Mint has not followed their own published or stated policies. The first instance relates to their pricing policy. Although their official notification in the Federal Registrar states that price updates would be effective Thursdays at 10:00 AM ET, the most recent changes took place last Wednesday around 2:00 PM ET. While the early change didn't seem to cause much distress, the implication that the US Mint has no qualms about breaking with their own published policies.
The second instance relates to their shipping policies. The US Mint sent an email to all customers who ordered the Ultra High Relief Double Eagle plainly stating that orders will be shipped on a first-come, first-served basis. Shipments of 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagles and 2009 Lincoln Commemoratives suggest that they have not followed this policy. In both cases customers who placed orders on the second or third day of sales have received their coins while customers who ordered on the first day are still waiting.
Not effectively communicating with customers
US Mint customers are frequently left in the dark about shipping delays, issues regarding products they ordered, policy changes, and serious security issues. The US Mint will often release statements only through selected outlets days or weeks after the issues first arose, if they release statements at all. Besides the automatically generated emails with incorrect shipping dates, the only communication broadly distributed to all customers who ordered the Ultra High Relief Double Eagle was the recent email notification, which seemed to raise more questions than it answered.
Customers who call the Mint are often not provided with any useful information. Even the numismatic press has difficulty obtaining simple answers from the US Mint on straightforward questions.
No clear options for customer feedback
If you are a US Mint customer unhappy with your experience, where do you complain? If you call by phone, you are put in touch with representatives who are not responsible for the problems and do not have authority to solve them. Oftentimes they do not have information about the current issues or refuse to disclose the information. For the average customer there is no email address or phone number readily available to voice concerns or complaints.
Many Mint News Blog readers have asked for some way to voice their concerns directly to the US Mint. I can provide the following address:
United States Mint
801 9th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20220
Andrew Brunhart is the Deputy Director of the United States Mint. Although this address is public knowledge, it is not often publicized. Writing to him might be the best way to have your concerns heard.
Part Two: What the US Mint has done right
As previously stated, I wanted to also list some of the things that the US Mint has done right and some of challenges of the current environment which complicate their business and lead to some of the issues.
Last year, the US Mint produced more than ten billion coins for circulation. Other than discussion of coin designs or the necessity for certain denominations, there are rarely complaints on their performance in this area.
Last year, the US Mint produced more than twenty million American Silver Eagles. This was an all time record number, which they managed to produce amidst a silver blank shortage which impacted all world mints.
The 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle was made possible by the efforts of the US Mint and Director Edmund Moy. This coin was not created through legislation, as is the case for most other coins. The coin was authorized directly by the Treasury of the Secretary under 31 U.S.C. § 5112(i)(4)(C), presumably at the request of the US Mint. The US Mint was able to recreate Saint-Gaudens' original design and successfully mass produce the coin.
The US Mint has implemented new policies in an attempt to deal with known issues. Some of the resulting policies are far from perfect, but the intentions are to fix problems. One of this year’s new policies allows the US Mint to adjust the prices of gold and platinum numismatic products are often as once per week in response to changing precious metals prices. While I did have some critiques on the policy after it was announced, the issues the new policy creates are lesser than the issues it resolves.
The US Mint is dealing with some of the highest demand for gold and silver bullion coins in recent history. In many cases they are competing with world mints for a limited supply of precious metals blanks. The US Mint is legally required to produce bullion coins to meet public demand. They also produce numismatic precious metals offerings, which they are often not legally required. The US Mint is sometimes forced to make choices and prioritize.
Even amidst the current challenging environment and perhaps the heightened expectations of a high profile coin release, there are definite issues which the US Mint needs to consider and address. I sincerely hope that I am writing this lengthy post at a turning point, when the various problems start to be addressed with positive change and more open communication.
As always readers are invited comment with their thoughts on any of the issues or anything I may have left out. I will do what I can to make sure the proper people at the US Mint read this post and all of your comments.
Labels: US Mint