Online Merchants: It’s Not Our Fault Our Customers Are Chumps

By  |  Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 9:43 am

Over at Cnet, Greg Sandoval has blogged about the post-purchase online marketing tactics that the U.S. government is currently investigating. These are the discount offers you get at checkout that involve you agreeing to a monthly charge that’s explained only in fine print. The “deals” are powered by marketing companies such as Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty.

Sandoval has quotes from three of the merchants–Orbitz, Priceline, and United Online–insisting that the offers are sufficiently explained and that the companies don’t pass on customer information to third parties without permission. Which reminds me of a famous piece of video, also involving corporate executives apparently believing that insisting something makes it true:

Orbitz, Priceline, and United Online seem to be saying that if any consumers get confused by the offers and sign up without intending to, it’s the consumer’s own fault. But as Sanodval says, if it’s really true that the companies involved insert these offers into the sales process for their customers’ convenience, and that consumers understand what’s going on, the fix here is obvious: Have the shopper enter his or her credit-card number one last time to confirm acceptance of the offer.

I’ve  already stopped doing business with Orbitz after it slipped items I hadn’t asked for into my shopping cart and later told me it was doing so for my convenience. But did I mention that I recently found myself a member of something called SavingsAce, which costs $24.95 a month–and that I’m not sure how I got signed up? (SavingsAce is a program run by a division of Vertrue, one of the marketing companies under investigation.) I’m about to waste some time calling SavingsAce up and attempting to get my first twenty-five bucks back.

As I’ve said before, I hope that these sleazeball tactics disappear from the Web, one way or another. Legislation would be fine. But so would the merchants in question deciding that they’re driving away customers by treating them like stooges.

 
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  1. heulenwolf Says:

    Harry,

    It appears that Congress is “taking action” on the only time scale they are able – years. Given that we’re already in the holiday shopping season, do you know of a repository of ALL the sites that use these deceptive practices? I think a ban by consumers of using those vendors would be far more effective, especially in the short term, it preventing their use. If the original vendors lose sales due to their participation in these deceptive practices, it would level the playing field against the attractive, easy profits they offer.

    Here’s an excerpt from the Staff Report “AGGRESSIVE SALES
    TACTICS ON THE INTERNET AND THEIR IMPACT ON AMERICAN CONSUMERS” on the topic, heavily quoted in the committee hearings:
    “Financial information provided to the Committee by the companies shows that Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty and their e-commerce partners have generated over $1.4 billion in revenue from Internet consumers who have been charged for membership programs. Of the $1.4 billion in total revenue, $792 million went to the e-commerce companies that partnered with
    Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty.”
    Full report available here: http://commerce.senate.gov/public/_files/111609STAFFREPORT.pdf
    At least the 3-page Executive Summary is worth reading for anyone who buys online.

    The point of the excerpt is that, on average, over 56% of the revenue goes back to the e-tailer. Any idea how we can setup a site that publishes exactly which sites are doing this and how? Perhaps user-submitted screenshots would help guide us away from these companies and we can shop at their competitors.

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