Last summer, Courtney Thompson and his wife were enjoying a blissful European cruise aboard Celebrity Cruises‘ Millennium. While doing a little shopping during a port stop in Santorini, Greece, the Thompsons came upon Alexandros Jewellers. The store had some beautiful jewelry items that the Thompsons admired; it also displayed a sign stating that the shop was a member of Celebrity’s “Guaranteed Shopping Program.” The Thompsons purchased a necklace, bracelet, ring and several sets of earrings at a total cost of $24,000.

When the Thompsons reboarded the Millennium, the ship’s shopping director was horrified to see their Alexandros Jewellers shopping bag. You can imagine the Thompsons’ dismay when the director informed them that Alexandros Jewellers was no longer part of Celebrity’s shopping program because of complaints from past Celebrity guests alleging fraud. Indeed, Alexandros Jewellers was not listed on the shopping flier that Celebrity had distributed to its passengers.

Courtney Thompson says, “I had a shopping map of Santorini, but I left it on the tour bus. I saw the recommended shopping sign in Alexandros Jewellers’ store window. I didn’t think I needed it.”

The shopping director took the Thompsons to the ship’s jeweler, who confirmed the Thompsons’ growing fear: The jewelry wasn’t worth nearly what they had paid for it. Since the ship was in port for a few more hours, Thompson decided to run back to the store. But when he reached the store, it was closed — earlier than the closing time posted in the window. Thompson felt sick to his stomach.

One Hellenic mess

Realizing time was of the essence, Thompson made phone calls and sent e-mails from the ship to Alexandros Jewellers, Celebrity’s customer service department and Onboard Media, the company in charge of Celebrity’s shopping program. When the Thompsons returned home to Florida, they had the jewelry appraised. The certified appraisal value was $8,800, a far cry from the $24,000 the Thompsons had paid. The appraiser noted that Alexandros Jewellers misrepresented the carat weights and clarity of most of the stones. For the diamond necklace, Alexandros documented the weight to be 4.5 carats; the appraiser said it was 2.25 carats. Moreover, the quality of the gemstones was sub-par.

“The entire Alexandros paperwork was fraudulent,” says Thompson.

After trying unsuccessfully to resolve the issue with Alexandros Jewellers, the Thompsons contacted their credit card company, American Express. Unfortunately, because the purchase was made overseas, American Express could not resolve the issue. Indeed, the Fair Credit Billing Act does not guarantee you a refund if you have a problem with items charged outside the United States.

“We found out what the ‘American’ in American Express means,” Thompson says, ruefully.

The Thompsons then sent letters to Celebrity executives and filed a claim with Onboard Media. Celebrity denied responsibility and referred the complaint to Onboard Media. Onboard Media also denied responsibility, on the grounds that Alexandros Jewellers was not a member of its recommended shopping program. After many months of fruitless inquiry, the Thompsons contacted Tripso for help.

Celebrity and Onboard Media speak

I tried to contact Alexandros Jewellers but my calls were never answered. Celebrity and Onboard Media did get back to me.

Celebrity spokeswoman Lyan Sierra-Caro said, “It’s unfortunate that the guest purchased the jewelry from a store that was not part of our Guaranteed Shopping Program. It was unfortunate that the store owner misrepresented himself, but that is why we tell all our guests to visit stores that our “Discovery Shopping” guides discuss in their port lectures or in-stateroom video, and that are listed in our shopping maps distributed on board.”

I spoke with Sarah Beth Reno, vice president of operations for Onboard Media, who said, “Alexandros Jewellers does not participate in the Port Shopping Program and therefore our 60-day guarantee does not apply.”

When I inquired about the company’s former relationship with the store, Reno said, “Alexandros Jewellers was part of the program during the 2003 to 2005 Europe sailing seasons. During the 2005 season, there was some difficulty in getting the store to adhere to the customer service procedures on specific purchases. Even though all claims with Alexandros Jewellers were ultimately closed to the guests’ satisfaction, it was decided to discontinue the relationship with this retailer. From the Europe season of 2006 onward, the store was not part of the program.”

When I mentioned the Thompsons’ claim that the jeweler displayed a sign in the window stating it was part of Celebrity’s shopping program, I asked why there wasn’t an attempt to have the sign removed and why the passengers were not warned about the merchant. While Reno didn’t answer those questions specifically, she did state: “We do not interfere with a retailer’s business practices if they are not part of the program. If guests wish to shop in stores that participate in the program, we advise them to carefully review each shopping map to ensure a store is part of the program.”

Recommended stores: the real story

One of the major appeals of cruising is the opportunity to shop in tax-free port towns. In the early days of cruising, cruise directors were the masters of this domain. They had special relationships with many of the best shops and they often mentioned specific retailers in their “port talks.” In time, merchants came to understand the cruise directors’ power of influence and sought an advantage by paying them to be mentioned. In this way, port talks became shopping talks.

Today, particular merchants are still mentioned in the port talks and shopping talks, but now the merchant selection is controlled by the cruise line, which usually outsources its in-port shopping operations to companies that specialize in retail partnerships. Onboard Media, a division of LVMH (Louis Vuitton – Moët Hennessy), is one of those companies and has been working with Celebrity Cruises since 1992.

Onboard Media’s retail partners advertise their products on board Celebrity’s ships through television and magazine ads and in the shipboard shopping lectures. According to Reno, all advertisers pay an advertising fee to participate in the program and are required to offer a 60-day guarantee to buyers for any merchandise problems (the guarantee does not cover buyer’s remorse or customer negligence); in the event of a problem, Onboard Media’s customer service department assists guests and works with the retailer to resolve it.

Onboard Media also checks up on its current members. “There is continual quality control once a retailer is accepted in the program, which consists of secret shopping, tracking customer service claims, and meetings with the retailer,” Reno says.

How to prevent a trinket tragedy

So, how can you keep this from happening to you?

I’ve used onboard shopping programs for years with no problem whatsoever. The programs offer a measure of assurance, but you do need to keep your wits about you. Research the items you are looking to purchase beforehand with a local retailer and arm yourself with knowledge of quality specifications and price points. Use recommended retailers from the cruise line (carry that shopping sheet with you!) or follow the recommendation of trusted guidebooks. You can often find recommendations on places to shop posted by satisfied customers on cruise boards like Cruise Mates and Cruise Critic.

As for the Thompsons, they are no longer fans of the program or of Celebrity Cruises.

“They beat it into your head through the tour talks and through the cabin television to look for the sign and buy in confidence,” Courtney Thompson says. “I saw the sign, I bought in confidence, and I got screwed.”

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column.