Christmas billing mix-up turns to charityWritten by Danielle Stanton | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The billing snafu that lost Whitehouse Christmas Tree Farm $9,300 this past season was “just a mistake” that owner Duke Wheeler is turning into a blessing for veterans and military families.
Wheeler is still missing $5,723 after an employee mistakenly refunded hundreds of Christmas tree and wreath purchases while using a new credit card app, Square. The employee thought he was practicing with the app, but made 352 actual refunds totaling $9,300 on Dec. 30, Wheeler said.
A media storm on television, radio and Facebook notified customers and 27 percent of those who were mistakenly refunded returned the money, totaling $3,577, Wheeler said. The remaining amount he is owed he plans to donate to Heroes in Action, a local nonprofit that serves military members and their families.
“We’ve reached more of them. Some customers are from Fremont. One customer took a tree back to Chicago,” Wheeler said. “It was a mistake. No question I was upset in the beginning. Yes, [our employee] is still going to be working for us next year.”
When media first heard about it, Wheeler’s customers hadn’t even gotten their statements yet, so they were not aware. He was by then closed for the season. Then, his Facebook page had some 80,000 hits and he received 95 checks.. He’s still working on getting the word out to those remaining 73 percent of customers who haven’t returned the money.
Wheeler said he doesn’t believe it’s a matter of dishonesty that more than half of his customers have not returned the proceeds.
“The families that come to our farm are very special and they are very honest. I believe if we are able to reach them we will [get] 100 percent [back],” he said. “The ones who are not honest probably stole their Christmas tree in the first place. My rationale is that not everyone is on Facebook. They’re not aware.”
Wheeler held a contest on Facebook that ran for a few weeks in February. The person who guessed the percentage of how many people would return the money won a free Christmas tree this year. One person guessed the closest at 25 percent. Second place won eight Butterfly House passes and third place won passes to the corn maze, both of which Wheeler owns.
“It’s more a hurt of pride than hurt of finances,” Wheeler said. “I’ve lost money before in the stock market. We’ve all made mistakes where you lose money. It’s more that I was embarrassed.”
Once the word got out, Wheeler said he received $2,000 in check donations from as far away as Florida and Los Angeles from people who did not buy a tree. He said he returned the checks because he didn’t believe it was appropriate to accept the charity. Then he got the idea to team up with an agency and contacted Heroes in Action.
The Toledo-based organization sends letters and care packages to service men and women overseas and also helps military families at home with services and donations.
Checks can be mailed to Wheeler or directly to Heroes in Action, Wheeler said.
“Our volunteers are the core focus of our continued success. This extends to our community events, fund raisers and individuals such as Mr. Duke Wheeler,” Heroes in Action director Dawn Heisler wrote in an email to Toledo Free Press.
“If we can generate some money it will go toward that charity and it will help them and help me establish that my customers are honest,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said he doesn’t plan to use the app, Square, next year, but will go back to his older and more familiar method of a standard credit card machine. Square is a small, white device that is plugged into an Apple phone or iPad, allowing a credit card to be swiped and information read directly into the phone.
Wheeler said the swiping device is convenient on the tree farm, but the only problem is it doesn’t leave a paper trail, so he couldn’t track his customers.
The app company did give Wheeler the last four digits of the customers’ credit card numbers. He considered publishing an ad with that information, but wants to protect his customers’ privacy at the same time.
Despite the snafu, he feels the past season was a success with the number of families that came through, the wagon rides, the hot chocolate served, and all the fun that was had.
“It was a great year at the farm. I don’t even consider this a big problem. One year an employee killed 4,000 trees, 4-foot tall. He sprayed a wrong chemical. That was a bad year,” Wheeler said.