Thursday, May 05, 2016

Reading the fine print, or, include me out

I grew up in a house of subscribers.

From the time we could read, the Rogers kids subscribed to magazines. Jack ‘n Jill. Boys Life. Calling All Girls. As we moved on up, the girls “took” Seventeen. As we became more sophisticated – thanks, Kath, for leading the way – The New Yorker. Not to be undone, I started subscribing to The Atlantic Monthly. We also were members of book clubs: one that sent a book about American history to our doorstep each month, another that sent a Catholic “Vision” book – lives of the saints, lives of prominent Catholics. We also got books from a series called “Children’s Classics.”

My parents had their own subscriptions: Newsweek (when, of course, everyone else got Time); Look (everyone else, of course, got Life). Catholic Digest, Reader’s Digest. Ellery Queen. A bunch of “women’s magazines.” On the dad side, we got the freebies from the American Legion (a group my father despised) and the VFW. Sports Illustrated. Sporting News.

We also got monthly books, at one time or another, from the Book of the Month Club, the Literary Guild, Quality Paperbacks, Yale Shakespeare, and a series that did grownup classics (nicely bound editions of books like Pride and Prejudice). A series on art. I’m sure I’m missing something here.

Bottom line: we were a house of readers, and all these subscriptions were required to augment our weekly takeaways from the library, the books the kids bought out of our allowance (literary works like Nancy Drew and Tom Swift), and gifts.

We also subscribed to record albums from Columbia House: a catalogue showed up every month or so, and my parents made their picks. (Mostly Broadway musicals and Sing Along with Mitch.)

Finally, for a while, my mother was part of some “foreign decorative item of the month” club. In my home office, I have a little Greek plate that came through our doors.

I’m still a subscriber: magazines only. (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Economist, Glimmer Train.) For a while, I subscribed to an excellent book service from Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway, but that was a long while back.

For magazines, subscribing is pretty much straightforward: you sign up for a certain number of months/years. You pay for it. When time’s running out, they send you a whole bunch of reminders to re-up.

I’ve mostly avoided those sucker jobs where you get an issue for free, and if you don’t explicitly opt-out, you owe big.

But other than that tchotchke club my mother belonged to, I’m not all that familiar with retail subscriptions. I do know that my mother was never duped into anything – now there was a woman who read the fine print – and she would have known exactly what she was signing up for: how many tchotchkes she was obligated to buy. (And now that I’m thinking of it, maybe this wasn’t a subscription. It may well have been something like an Avon Calling enterprise, where some woman she knew sold this stuff at home parties. Oh, well. Forget I mentioned it. Think subscription.)

Anyway, what got me thinking about subscriptions was a recent article on Bloomberg that talked about the increasing popularity of retail subscription services, the “future of online shopping, a business model that has in recent years attracted a billion-dollar bet from venture capital investors.” (Source: Bloomberg)

The article began with a bit about a woman who’d made a purchase on Adore Me, a lingerie site:

…without noticing that she had joined the retailer’s subscription service. After spotting the credit card charges in early 2014, [Hailee] Taylor called and says she learned she was paying $39.95 like clockwork each month to maintain her status as an Adore Me VIP Member.

You can buy bras and undies on Adore Me without signing up, but buyers are drawn in to the VIP service because it offers a fabulous discount on that first purchase. Adore Me’s not alone.

Adore Me is among a group of buzzy Internet retailers accused of sometimes placing customers into unwanted and hard-to-cancel retail subscriptions. Several of these companies have been hit with lawsuits alleging unfair business practices, including JustFab (apparel), Blue Apron (food delivery), and Birchbox (beauty samples). Adore Me is currently facing a lawsuit from a disgruntled subscriber. JustFab, which also owns ShoeDazzle and Kate Hudson’s athletic wear shop Fabletics, last year paid a $1.88 million fine as part of a settlement over allegations of deceptive marketing. likewise paid $2.5 million to settle a similar suit. (Blue Apron, Birchbox, and did not respond to requests for comment.)

“Buzzy” Internet retailers? No wonder I’m not in the know on these services, being part of that distinctly non-buzzy demographic: Medicare Boomers.

These retailers aren’t doing anything illegal. Which is not to say it’s all on the up and up, that these practices aren’t manipulative and borderline deceitful. Adore Me gets an F from the Better Business Bureau.

[Adore Me Founder and CEO] Hermand-Waiche insists his company’s subscription model is nothing like other services cashing in on murky recurring fees. “If you’re one of those players that try to scam people and put them into not-flexible systems where they get charged for things they didn’t order, these companies are born to fail,” he says. “They should. That’s not the way you build a business.” Adore Me, he emphasizes, doesn’t trick shoppers with its opt-out membership model: “It’s really people’s decision to go for one or the other.”

The beef against Adore Me is how difficult it’s been to cancel a subscription,which originally required a business-hours phone call. They’ve implemented a rather cumbersome new process, one that involves an email, a wait of several hours, and a link to instructions. “Four screens and one online quiz later, membership is deactivated.”

An online quiz? What could they possibly be asking? I’m almost tempted to join Adore Me, just so I can deactivate my subscription. But, of course, I won’t. I like being a subscriber. I like getting that New Yorker every Wednesday, and The Economist every Saturday. I like that there are no trick plays going on. And I know that, if I ever want to unsubscribe, I can just toss the reneal notice in the recycle bin. No fine print to read. But, believe me, I’m my mother’s daughter: if there were any fine print, I’d be reading it.

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