Aspen retailers face legal retaliation over aggressive sales tactics
December 22, 2018
Five lawsuits have been filed against a group of downtown Aspen retailers over their alleged pushy sales tactics and overcharges since April, and the litigation started with Snowmass Village resident Macey Morris.
She remembers sitting on her couch in tears one day in December 2017.
“I felt like hell for a long time,” Morris said. “And I felt dumb.”
After returning to her Snowmass Village home, Morris wasn’t feeling right about her $3,000 purchase of skin cream from a downtown Aspen merchant, which at the time was called Aspen Kristals Cosmetics.
Her “impulse buy,” Morris said Friday, was precipitated by her being “sucked in” by the East Cooper Avenue store’s salespeople, who were offering passersby free samples from the shop’s doorway that day.
“They stand out in the doorway and they lure you in like vipers,” she said. “They’re trained like terrorists to come in and dupe you.”
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If Morris felt she’d been hustled, that feeling worsened after she and her husband called their credit card company later in the day to contest the purchase. Not only did the credit card company refuse to waive the charge — because the purchase was voluntary, the sale was final and the store did not accept returns — it reported to the couple that the total bill was actually $10,110.
Morris said she went to city attorney’s office, which suggested she sue the retailer.
In April she took Kristals to Pitkin County Court, where her complaint alleged that “I was pressured to buy products I didn’t want, which I was not allowed to return, and for which I have never signed a sales receipt in the first place.”
Kristals, which is part of a company based in Woodland Hills, California, didn’t respond to the suit. In the days leading up the trial, however, the company credited the money back to her account, prompting Morris to dismiss the case.
Even though Morris got a refund, she said the time spent getting the refund was stressful and exhausting enough, and she knows numerous other people with similar experiences.
Morris said the store she sued, as well as two other ones in downtown and owned by the same company, are a “black spot” on Aspen. That’s why she has volunteered to be a witness for Garfield & Hecht PC, the Aspen law firm that filed two lawsuits Wednesday in Pitkin County District Court on allegations that the stores violated the Colorado Consumer Protection Act by misleading customers with bait-and-switch tactics and other deceptive maneuvers.
One of the suits, filed by a Durango couple, contends employees at Aspen Beauty Boutique — which was called Kristals when Morris visited it — served them spiked Champagne and exploited their inebriated state by charging them more than $21,000 for products they thought would cost them $700.
The couple reported the incident to the Aspen Police Department, but their complaint was not available Friday. Their report was one of many, police said.
“Probably most every single officer has a report of shady business practice,” said Officer Ryan Turner, adding that “we’ve been getting a pretty large quantity of alleged fraud.”
Some of the alleged victims, Turner said, “come to our office in tears. They can’t believe what happened.”
So far, though, the APD has yet to pursue criminal charges against the stores — one is on East Cooper Avenue, and the other two on opposites sides of each other in the Hyman Avenue mall — on the basis that the cases are more suited for the civil arena.
“For us to investigate a case, it’s a little more clear than someone sampling cosmetics and then being surprised by the charge,” said Bill Linn, assistant police chief with the APD.
The company did not return repeated messages this week seeking comment, and its store employees in Aspen also would not talk. Two of the Aspen stores no longer have their business names on the facades. When an employee at the East Cooper Avenue location was asked earlier this week the name of the store — it goes by Aspen Beauty Boutique — she replied, “It’s complicated.”
Multiple limited liability companies are associated with the Aspen retailers, including Colorado-based Aspen Retail Management LLC, which was formed in November 2015, and Nevada-based NGH Retail LLC, which was founded in October 2013, according to incorporation documents in both states. Each LLC also lists Woodland Hills as their mailing addresses.
Encino, California, attorney David Beitchman, who has been the company’s legal counsel in some of the litigation against it, was unavailable for comment Friday.
An example of the company’s line of defense, however, is reflected in its response to a Fort Worth, Texas, woman who sued Kristals Cosmetics in Pitkin County Court in July.
The plaintiff, Olivia Kearney, sued on the grounds that she spent $11,341 at the store after being lured in by a sales person who gave her a free sample of skin cream. Kearney’s suit alleged she suffered a “severe irritation” from the cream sample and unsuccessfully tried to return the unused products.
In its written response to Kearney’s suit, store employee Ben Ariel said the company’s refund policy was clearly posted in the store, as well as in the “sale-closing document all customers review and sign prior to closing a transaction.”
“This is a classic case of buyers’ remorse,” the response said. “The Plaintiff left the store on her own and was under no obligation to return. After trying the products, learning of the price, and being satisfied with both, she left the store to get a credit card and voluntarily came back to make her purchase.”
Because Kearney couldn’t get her credit card company to waive the charge, she “is now seeking yet another attempt to invalidate the sale,” the response said, noting it had video surveillance of the entire transaction.
Court papers indicate the case was dropped in October. Contacted Friday, Kearney said she could not talk about the outcome because the settlement is confidential.
Another private settlement happened in the instance of retired Snowmass Village attorney Cynthia Lamar, who sued one of the stores in the Hyman Avenue mall in September, after being “aggressively approached” June 14, during the Food & Wine Classic, by a store salesperson. The store employees told Lamar, who was undergoing treatment for skin cancer at the time, that the skin cream was safe for her use.
Lamar later learned from her physicians that the cream was not safe because of her cancer, and she tried to mail the products back to the company but it rejected them and also charged her $10,483.
Like the other customers before her, Lamar had no luck convincing her credit card company to reverse the charge, prompting her to sue. Lamar said a confidentiality agreement precluded her from talking about the case, which both parties agreed to dismiss in October.
From the APD to the Aspen Chamber Resort Association to the city of Aspen, complaints about the stores’ business practices continue at a steady pace.
“We get calls all of the time,” City Clerk Linda Manning said.
The stores have hurt town’s reputation and repel visitors, said part-time Aspen resident William Beach.
“Disrespectful retailing will kill Aspen’s lure for many along with the landlords’ zest of greed,” he said.
Yet Manning said the city doesn’t appear to have any recourse at this time, despite the stores’ questionable tactics.
“I don’t think the city can or will do anything,” she said.
All told, five lawsuits have been filed against the stores this year; the two filed this week are the only ones pending.