Wednesday, July 9, 2014

IFIT Montessori Vendor Review

 When I first began researching Montessori materials, I was very interested in any reviews I could find on the various vendors available to purchase from.  The full set of materials are expensive and the "official" suppliers are VERY expensive.  But the "discount" suppliers have been plagued with bad reviews of low quality and poor customer service.  So what is a budget minded homeschooler supposed to do?  Ultimately, I went with price and bought from the cheapest vendor I could find, which in this case was IFIT Montessori Equipment based in Surrey, BC, Canada.  In the end, I am happy with my decision, but I did hesitate to write a review because I did have an unpleasant experience with their customer service in the end.  But last week I learned that, although they refused to fix my complaint, they are fixing the product for any future customers, so I do have to give them some credit for that.  (Note:  This review is very long and detailed, but as I said, this kind of information was gold to me when I was researching so I hope it will be of help to others as well).

Overall Assessment:  In summary, my overall experience with IFIT was a mostly positive one.  I feel like I got what I paid for and the quality in some cases is actually better than I expected.  There are a couple of minor problems with the items I received and one major problem causing the item to be unusable but given the large order size, that is not unexpected.  See below for more details on this.

Price: My order total was $392.52.  That included products costing $425.00 less a 25% discount of $106.25 and shipping of $73.77.  The discount was available to US customers for orders over $300, which is really what made this vendor shine over the others.  Before the discount, their prices were fairly "average" compared to other discount supplier like Adena Montessori, KidAdvance and Montessori Outlet.  A good quality supplier is Allison's Montessori, but for a much higher price.  And of course the "official" suppliers are Nienhuis Montessori and Gonzagarredi will be premium quality at three to four times the price.

Quality:  I was actually pleasantly surprised at the quality after reading so many really bad reviews about receiving broken pieces, chipped paint, flimsy knobs, thin materials prone to break and not true to design measurements.  So I was prepared for some issues and you can see in the details below what my issues were, but only one was really a deal-breaker, which I've talked about below.

Customer Service:  For me, this was a really great and a really bad experience.  Before placing the order, I contacted customer service with two questions.  First, there were 3 items that I really wanted but were out-of-stock at the time.  Given the 25% discount over $300, it was not an option to just buy those later.  Customer Service excelled in this area and informed me that the items would be available in a couple of weeks and they would email me when they came in, which they did.  Excellent!  Second, I had a missing piece from a Knobless Cylinder set that I received secondhand, but the piece wasn't listed in IFIT's replacement catalog.  I asked customer service if there was any way for me to buy just that piece.  At first they said it wasn't available, but I think my pending $400 order made them reconsider and a few days later they emailed me that they had one just for me for only $2.  Amazing!  But then... after the order had been purchased and delivered, I inspected all of the materials and decided everything was acceptable except for one piece of the Color Box #3, the darkest yellow tablet was actually orange.  I asked customer service to replace that one piece, but they argued back that is how it's supposed to be.  I replied back that was unacceptable and it made the Color Box not usable, so I'd like to return the box.  Again they said there was nothing wrong with a dark yellow tablet being orange, so I could not return it for a refund.  This left a very sour taste in my mouth and was the main reason I had hesitated to write a formal review.  However, last week I learned through the grapevine that the company has since marked their Color Box 3 as "clearance" with a note that some colors may not be accurate.  So, kudos to them for correcting this for future customers.  I'm assuming their non-clearance Color Box 3 no longer has the dark yellow tablet as orange.  I only wish they had satisfied my complaint by allowing me to return the product, so I could have purchased a proper box elsewhere.

Details - so what did I buy?:  My order included the following -
  • Color Box 3
    • This Color Box would have been just OK if the yellow tablets had been the correct color.  I was disappointed to have to buy plastic edged tablets because I had been given an Allison's Color Box with wood edges that was really nice, but was missing pieces.  But I couldn't justify the cost, so I settled for this one.  It was really unfortunate that I did buy this because by itself it is unusable.  My 2.5 year old son refuses to put the orange tablet you see below with the yellow set, even though this company insisted it was correct.  I made it work though by combining the Allison's set with this one though.
  • Geometric Cabinet, Demonstration Tray and cards
    • This material has already appeared on the blog several times including here and here.  I'm very happy with this product.  The pieces seem thick enough to withstand some toddler rough handling and the knobs are attached solidly.  A couple of the shapes are a little too tight in their insets so they're difficult to remove and replace, but that's not a serious problem.
  • Geography Puzzle Maps (World, North America and USA) with control maps
    • I'm also pleasantly surprised by these maps.  The discount suppliers have notoriously poor reviews for these maps with complaints of thin pieces, chipped paint and loose knobs.  But the maps I received have none of these problems and the colors are very vibrant.  I chose to buy only 3 of the 8 maps for now, so I'll be buying the rest from this vendor when the time comes.
  • Sandpaper Globe & Continents Globe
    • These items are not great, but I didn't expect them to be because the vendor had them marked as clearance with a note of poor quality.  But I didn't need really great quality since these globes are used for such a short time.  DJ is really finished with the sandpaper globe already and once he finishes with the continent globe, he'll move on to a more standard globe.  The main quality issues here are the globes are cheap plastic, that don't fit well together at the seam along the equator.  Also, the pin that holds the globe into the base eats into the wood of the base if you're not very careful, which isn't something you would expect from a toddler!  But, I got them at a cheap price, so I'm happy.
  • Sandpaper letters, double letters & numbers
    • These are adequate quality.  They are on sturdy wood, although not nearly as thick as some Nienhuis sandpaper letters I had, but I prefer that because the thicker wood made them heavy.  The one issue I have with these are the lead lines at the start of several of the letters.  Because they are in cursive, every letter that would start at the top has a lead line floating mid-way in the front.  I would prefer not to have lead lines at all but every supplier I looked at has them.  My main complaint is that several of the leads don't seem to connect well with the letter, they sort of intersect with the letter in a perpendicular way that is just awkward.  So I've decided to scrape off the sand on those lines.  They will still be visible, but the effect will be minimized.  Then I will teach DJ to start those letters at the top and will tell him that those faded lines represent the connection from the preceding letter.
  • Replacement Cylinders for the Knobless Cylinders
    • I had received a set of Allison's Knobless Cylinders secondhand for only $20 because there were 4 pieces missing.  IFIT Montessori has a replacements section of their catalog and 3 of the 4 pieces I needed were included.  As I mentioned when I asked them about the fourth, they made it available to me, for a total of $5 for all 4.  This set retails for $80 and was rather useless without those pieces, so this was a huge benefit to me.  And a bonus is that the color, shape and size matches my set exactly so you wouldn't know which ones are new.

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