Shelbree Buntain, right, with her husband Brock, stand in their kitchen with their $150 unused, and now unusable, Wheelhouse gift card on March 28. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Whitehorse consumers with gift cards out of luck after sudden closures

Whitehorse businesses shut their doors with little to no warning

Customers who bought or received gift certificates for Whitehorse’s shuttered Wheelhouse restaurant and Zen Spa and Salon are frustrated that the businesses abruptly shut down with little warning, rendering their certificates — some worth hundreds of dollars — useless.

And consumer advocates say that there’s little they can do to get their money back.

“It’s frustrating and it’s a let-down,” said Whitehorse resident Shelbree Buntain, who received a $150 Wheelhouse gift certificate from her mother-in-law for Christmas. Buntain said that she had heard rumours that the restaurant was shutting down, but both the restaurant’s website and Facebook page said the closure would only be from Jan. 1 to Jan. 23.

When she called the restaurant later in January, Buntain said she got a message saying the closure was being extended. She left a voicemail saying she had a certificate and requesting the restaurant to call her back when it reopened, and also sent a message to the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Buntain said she never heard back from anybody, and when she called the restaurant again, the number had been disconnected.

“It’s disheartening when things like that happen. It’s kind of like stealing, really,” she said.

Another Whitehorse resident, Michelle Leach, found herself in a similar situation after her husband bought her two Zen Salon and Spa gift certificates for prenatal massage and body treatment worth $325 for Christmas.

The salon abruptly announced on Facebook March 17 that it would be closing March 20, and that customers with gift cards or certificates could spend the value on store product before then. Leach didn’t find out about the closure until March 22.

“To us, that was it, it was $365 just, poof, gone like that,” she said.

“Nobody knows anybody else’s circumstances, so I don’t know why they went under, but what I do know is that they don’t know my circumstances — they don’t know that that was my husband’s Christmas present to me that he’d saved an entire year for…. I was just really disappointed and upset they just disregarded people’s financial situations.”

Leach added the experience has turned her off from buying gift certificates from local businesses.

“Shopping local is fine, because obviously you’re spending your money there and getting a product, but to purchase a gift certificate for someone else … it makes you think twice about doing that because you just think, ‘Well, how do I know that they’ll be able to spend that when they want to spend it?’” she said.

The News also heard from several people with Zen gift cards or certificates that when they tried to go to buy product before March 20, the doors were locked or they weren’t allowed in.

The News made several attempts to contact the owners of both the Wheelhouse and Zen Salon and Spa, including via email, messages on social media and making calls to phone numbers associated with the businesses or the owners. Neither had responded by press time.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) commonly hears complaints from customers about businesses going under before gift certificates can be redeemed, said Jeanette Jackson, director of communications and strategic partnerships for the BBB’s Mainland B.C. office.

“The reality is, there’s very little you can do unless you take them to small claims court, but the time and money you would spend to do that just doesn’t justify what you would get in return,” Jackson said.

Customers can file a complaint against former business owners which would flag their profile should they open another business, Jackson said, but that won’t help people currently out of money to get it back.

Yukon Party House Leader Scott Kent introduced a motion to the House March 27 urging the government to “introduce legislation in order to protect Yukon consumers who possess gift cards, gift certificates, or any other prepaid service or item which contain expiry dates or are unused at the closure of a business,” but the territory currently has no legislative protection surrounding gift cards or certificates.

“It’s just unfortunate,” Jackson said. “We feel bad for the businesses too, because I’m sure it’s not their intention. It’s just, their businesses aren’t thriving and they shut down.”

Several people the News spoke to, who purchased certificates on their credit cards, said they have asked their banks to do a chargeback. But Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada, said that isn’t a guaranteed way of getting a refund, either.

“(Banks) may in some cases provide a chargeback voluntarily, but they have to have something to chargeback, right? So, if on the other side of it, there’s no bank account to take resources from, the chargeback’s not going get people anything,” he said.

“If the company’s insolvent for all intents and purposes and there’s no money, then they’ve got no money to give back.”

Buying gift cards or certificates is inherently risky, Whitehurst added — the best way to guarantee you’ll get the service or product that you want is to buy it when you want it.

“I think what’s interesting is that lots and lots of people wrongly think that they will be protected against these kinds of risk on what are actually small amounts,” he said. “They may seem like significant amounts to the person who lost it, but in the scheme of things, they’re pretty small…. If people don’t want to lose these small amounts, they shouldn’t just turn them over to people. They should buy when they want to get service.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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