Sudden Boycott: A letter to the FTC

August 8, 1997

Attorney Eugene Lipkowitz
Federal Trade Commission
150 Williams St.
NY, NY 10038

Dear Mr. Lipkowitz:

Thank you for your consultation on the telephone today. To recap our discussion I will list the details of my complaint.

Our company, Catskill Casket Co., Ltd. sells burial caskets, cremation urns, and burial vaults directly to the public. We began our business in April of 1996 as a casket distributor to funeral homes. We have for the past four months sold directly to the public. As I mentioned, we lost all of our funeral home accounts when we changed the focus of our business since they now view us as competitors.

Our troubles began in April when certain funeral homes tried to stop our factories from selling to us. Their message to the factories was "If you sell to Catskill Casket Co., Ltd. then we will make sure that no funeral home purchases your products." Of course, proof of this may be difficult, although possible. Nevertheless, we took a firm stand with the factories and they have agreed to continue to sell to us.

Recently we decided to sell burial vaults to the public. Our plan was to use the same vault companies that funeral homes use since there are very few vault companies and they tend to monopolize a territory. I mentioned Wilbert Vault Co. and Doric as the two main vault companies in the U.S.

On Sunday, July 27, we ordered a Monticello model burial vault with complete set up for a funeral for the Greenleaf family. The family had priced the vault through the funeral home who was going to charge them $995. We charged the family $699. Same vault, same vault company. Our markup, as with caskets, is less than funeral homes mark up. I told the funeral home (Bookhout Funeral Home, Oneonta, NY which is owned by the Hamilton Group) that the vault was all arranged through Keeler Vault Company.

On Tuesday, July 29, we received a call from the vault company, Keeler Vault Co., Inc. of Hudson, NY (a Wilbert Vault Co. franchisee) that he would no longer honor his agreement to deliver the vault because we were not a funeral home. I had clearly told him we were a casket company which sold to the public when I placed the order and his faxed agreement to Catskill Casket Co., Ltd. confirms this. He still insisted that he would not sell to us. We called our lawyer who advised us to call Mr. Keeler back and insist the agreement be honored. This time he told us that he would not honor the agreement since he had not received payment. We checked with the post office and the payment was in the system due to be delivered Wednesday morning. We offered to deliver payment in cash or certified check personally and immediately. We also offered to wire him the money or give him our credit card number. He still refused to honor his agreement and said that the deal was off.

When we pressed the issue, he became upset and said, "Don't put me in the middle of this!"

We called Doric Vault of Eastern NY in Claverack, Tim Keeler's competitor in the area, and they also refused to work with us stating that they would be boycotted by the funeral homes if they did.

We called two other Wilbert Vault franchisees that also refused to deal with us since we were not a funeral home. I called another vault company who previously had agreed to work with us, Chenango Valley Vault Company of Oxford, NY, but they have never returned our repeated calls.

We then called Wilbert Vault company's national headquarters. They stated that Wilbert Vault does not have a corporate policy which requires their franchisees to sell only to funeral homes. They state that they leave this decision to each franchisee. However, they were already aware of my current problem with Keeler Vault Co. Tim Keeler had called them earlier asking for advice about whether he could refuse to sell to us. They advised him that he had the right to choose his own customers.

At this point on Tuesday the Greenleaf family called us all upset. They stated that Bookhout Funeral Home had called them and told them that Catskill Casket Co., Ltd. was having trouble getting the burial vault. How they knew this, I don't know. Actually, I am sure that they knew because they initiated this whole problem. I told the family that I was handling this and for them not to worry.

I then received a telephone call from Wilbert Vault Company's lawyers from Chicago. They tried to harass me into backing down. I told them that I had an agreement with Keeler Vault and that if it was not honored that the family might sue us and we in turn would sue them. They said they had to confer and would get back to me.

After hitting many brick walls, I finally called Bookhout Funeral Home and told them I could not get a vault and asked them to arrange it. They told me to bring them a Catskill Casket Co., Ltd. check for $995. I did so. When I arrived at the funeral home, Wilbert Vault Company lawyers were talking to the funeral home and told them that they were donating the vault to the Greenleaf family.

At this point, we have lost two other vault sales because no one will sell to us. We are concerned about this restraint of trade and the power that the funeral homes and vault companies have over the market.

Please let us know if you are able to assist us further.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Joseph White
Vice-President
Catskill Casket. Co., Ltd.