Ruling struck at reservations policy

By Alan C. Miller and Myron Levin
Times Staff Writers

June 25, 2007

U-Haul customers who have seethed over botched reservations were vindicated last year when a California judge ruled that the company had engaged in "unlawful and fraudulent business practices."

Ruling in a class action, Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Samuel S. Stevens struck at U-Haul's practice of booking reservations for trucks and trailers without knowing if it will have the equipment when and where customers need it.

Stevens declined to award monetary damages to U-Haul customers but ordered the rental giant to stop promoting "confirmed reservations" for one-way moves in California.

U-Haul agents are instructed to accept every reservation ? a policy known to employees as "just say yes."

Although the company almost always supplies the equipment, the customer may face a long wait or may have to travel a long distance to pick it up.

Dave Adams, a former senior U-Haul manager in the Bay Area, said in an interview that rental equipment was constantly overbooked and weekends could be "an absolute riot with the customers."

"My day at work would be absolute chaos, and for the most part, damage control. You'd hear, 'All my life possessions are on my front lawn. I need to move right now.' "

Traviss M. Cassidy, a college student who worked at U-Haul's reservations call center in Phoenix the last two summers, said he wouldn't return because of how U-Haul treated customers.

U-Haul was "concerned about making as much profit from each reservation and each customer, rather than giving them an experience that would make them want to come back," he said.

In a statement, U-Haul said it fulfills 98% of all reservations and has never had "a practice to accept reservations that could not be filled."

Under U-Haul's policy, customers reserving equipment online or by phone were supposed to be told that their booking was "confirmed" and that they would be informed of the time and place of their pickup late the day before their move.

This indirect warning of uncertainty often doesn't register.

If the customer learns at the 11th hour that a truck of the right size is unavailable or is 50 miles away, it may be too late to make other arrangements.

Judge Stevens said U-Haul used "the words 'confirmed reservation' in order to lock up customers as soon as possible and minimize the chances that customers are going to shop around."

"This is all part of U-Haul's business plan. Their marketing scripts and computer screens are designed to promise confirmed reservations and then, with less than explicit language, take it away," the judge said.

Since the ruling, U-Haul has made some changes, including using the term "finalized" rather than "confirmed." But plaintiff's lawyer Tom Cohen said the policy was still deceptive.

U-Haul is appealing Stevens' ruling and contends that its policy has always been fair to customers.