ST. LOUIS — Getting back to normal life in a post-pandemic world will still include masks for a while, so the global demand for masks remains huge.
Since February, a Clayton-based mask company has been capitalizing on that demand. The company's struggle to keep up with demand has left a trail of unhappy customers around the country.
Protection for students
"As a teacher and getting ready for school, I was trying to protect myself and my students," said Elizabeth Hoang, a Special Education teacher in the St. Louis area.
When some elementary schools opened up in the fall, Hoang wanted to be prepared.
"I wasn't so sure my students are going to be wearing a mask. Well at least properly," said Hoang. "So I wanted a mask that could protect myself from them and to protect them from me."
Masks — good, protective ones — have been hard to find.
Last summer, Hoang was excited to hear about a local company — Germless Products — which sold just what she was looking for.
The company sells several types of machine washable masks, as well as hand sanitizers.
It was a win-win for Hoang who was happy to support a local business.
"I know how many businesses are actually struggling," said Hoang. "So the fact that I could buy a mask that I needed and support a local business was huge for me."
Hoang placed an order for two masks, and she says she waited weeks without any word.
"I tried calling the company and I didn't get any answer. It went straight to voicemail, but their voicemail inbox was full, and I couldn't really find any contact information from them," said Hoang. "I was getting pretty concerned school was getting ready to start and I didn't have a mask of the time."
Complaints rack up
According to the Better Business Bureau, Germless Products has racked up at least 22 similar complaints for not shipping orders and not responding to customer emails or calls.
One customer complained on the BBB website, "Never received my order but did receive an empty FedEx envelope with just my receipt in it. No help from customer service!!!"
Another review read: "They will not reply to any emails on their website. They will not answer their phone calls. Nor will they allow you to leave a voicemail because the box is full. Shame on you Germless. I only hope that these reviews and reports to BBB continue to mount up until you rectify the situation and do what is right by your customers."
Mask quality questioned
The quality of the masks has also been criticized. One customer claims his mask strap "tore off ...when I first put it on" and another claims his mask "didn't even have the 'filter'."
"We scaled quick and we had to meet that demand," said Sam Kent, President of Germless Products, in a promotional video on his company's website.
We reached Kent by phone to ask him about the complaints. Kent told the I-Team he takes full responsibility for the delays and lack of customer service.
He claims many of the BBB complaints have been resolved. Kent said his company didn't have the systems in place to deal with the influx of orders that came in during the height of the pandemic. With more than 30,000 customers, he said he was doing the best he could.
"Most local businesses do a good job of taking care of their customers. Some find though, that due to the popularity of a product or other kinds of circumstances that they're just not able to keep up," said said Rebecca Phoenix with the Better Business Bureau.
Kent also stands by the quality of the masks, which he manufacturers locally with about 20 employees. He says marketing ads on Facebook may have unintentionally confused customers about what some masks may look like or be constructed of.
Kent told the BBB he planned to hire customer service reps in November.
Two months later, he told the I-Team he was looking to hire an additional 20 employees.
"By and large we are finding that the complaints are not being addressed," Phoenix said.
Complaints are still being posted about the company. The latest dating back to late December 2020.
Two months after placing her order, Hoang finally received her masks.
Her advice? Shop local if you can, but do your research so you're not left in the lurch.