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September 15, 2014

Oh, Did We Forget to Say You Need a $50 Minimum Purchase?

Filed under: Electronics,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:28 am

  In the last few weeks, Staples.com appears to have begun misleading customers about the price of some of its back to school sale items. Here is one of their recent advertisements:

Staples ad

When one clicks on that thumbdrive, for example, it takes you to a page like this:

lexar thumbdrive

Wow, you think it must be your lucky day, it is actually only $7 instead of $8. You are promised “instant savings” of $12.99, so you add it to your cart.

Upon going to your cart to check out, you get a nasty surprise.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Staples cart

The price is almost three times what you expected. Why? It says you didn’t make the required $50 purchase. What $50 purchase? If you look carefully at the middle graphic above, you will see a box that states that the thumbdrive “special buy” only applies with a minimum $50 purchase. Where did that come from? It wasn’t in the original ad!

Similarly, the other paper items in the ad above are more expensive without the $50 purchase, as are a few others on its website.

That’s not all. Let’s say you had not seen the ad, but had just gone to Staples.com looking for a 16-gig Lexar thumbdrive. You search for it and find this product listing in the search results.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Lexar 3

You were even smart enough to click the “see details” link, and you’re told the item is $7 and there is no mention of any required $50 minimum purchase. So, you add it to your cart. And just as above, when you go to checkout, you will see that you are being charged $19.99, the full regular price, because you did not make a $50 minimum purchase that you were never told was required.

In our view, this practice is reprehensible, if done deliberately. We can only hope it was a careless oversight on Staples’ part.

Under Massachusetts law, sellers are responsible for clearly and conspicuously disclosing all material facts in their advertising the omission of which might mislead a consumer. “A disclosure is not clear and conspicuous if any material terms of the offer that affect the price of an item, impose conditions on acceptance of the offer, … are not disclosed in the advertisement itself, but require reference to an outside source..”.

It is certainly misleading in our view to fail to disclose upfront that a particular sale price only applies when a $50 minimum purchase of other goods is required.

We asked the company to explain why they created these misleading price representations and whether they would automatically refund money to customers who bought these items and unknowingly paid full price during the sale period.

Staples’ senior PR manager responded late yesterday:

“Staples works hard to ensure our customers have the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions. In the examples provided, the terms and conditions of our Less List offers were clearly displayed prior to the customer checking out.”

Staples indicated that it might update its comment today, so please check back here later today.

• • •

September 8, 2014

Honestly, Could They Make the Disclosure Any Smaller?

Filed under: Health,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:36 am

 While watching TV the other night, MrConsumer saw a tiny disclosure at the end of a baby products commercial for The Honest Company. (That’s really their name.) It went by so quickly, and was so small and faint in color, it was very hard to read:

The Honest Company
Click ad to see commercial.

Here is what it says about their “free” trial.

*MOUSE PRINT:

*Only $5.95 for shipping and handling. You’ll be automatically enrolled in our monthly service. Cancel the service at anytime.

Their website gives more details.

*MOUSE PRINT:

*With your Discovery Kit, you’ll be enrolled as a member of The Honest Company. You have 7 days following receipt of your Discovery Kit to cancel your membership at any time, for any reason. We will remind you about your membership options. If you choose to not cancel, you’ll be charged $79.95 /month for the Diapers & Wipes Bundle, $35.95/month for the Essentials Bundle, or $39.95/month for your Health & Wellness Bundle (plus shipping & handling).

Basically, this company founded by actress Jessica Alba offers (among other things) a book-of-the-month-type service for baby supplies, shampoo and detergent, and vitamins. You will keep getting automatic deliveries every month, starting after seven days following receipt of your samples unless you cancel.

While their website makes clear that this is a monthly plan with monthly charges for these packages of goods, why do their TV commercials hide that fact particularly when they call themselves The Honest Company? Their television ad also seems to run counter to what their statement of principles claims:

Create a Culture of Honesty

We are serious about honesty – both as it applies to the integrity of our relationships and in being true to you. And, it’s a standard we encourage throughout our staff, stakeholders, and customers. But, that’s just the beginning. In all we do, we want to make each day a little more fulfilling, inspired, and downright better.

Mouse Print* asked the company twice to comment about their use of such a small disclosure and on this seeming contradiction of their corporate philosophy. We are still waiting for their response and will post it here… honestly.

• • •

August 25, 2014

When Good Rebates Go Bad, Part 2

Filed under: Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:58 am

 At the beginning of July, we told you about a major rebate snafu at Newegg.com (see original story). In short, Newegg advertised a crazy low price (after rebate) for a reconditioned Samsung HDTV. The form for the $30 rebate, however, listed an incorrect UPC code for this television, which would likely mean that all consumers who bought the TV would have their rebate submissions denied.

MrConsumer swung into action, writing to the PR folks at Newegg, hoping that they would notify the rebate fulfillment house of the error so as to avoid the inevitable rebate denials that would follow. Newegg stepped up to the plate, and sent reassuring emails to all purchasers of this TV that their rebate would be honored despite the fact that the UPC code on their box didn’t match the number requested on the rebate form.

End of story.

In true Ronald Reagan “trust but verify” mode, MrConsumer submitted the rebate form, managing somehow to remove the huge UPS sticker the Newegg shipping department had placed over the TV’s actual UPC code. As expected, that UPC code did not match what was stated on the rebate form.

Several weeks later, the rebate fulfillment house sent MrConsumer an email entitled “Newegg Eligibility Confirmation.” Good news, right? Not so fast.

The email said that my submission had been processed and that I should receive their “response” by September 17. What do you mean “response,” don’t you mean your “check” was mailed? A call to the rebate fulfillment house revealed that the rebate had been rejected because the UPC submitted did not match the UPC requested on the rebate form. No kidding, but that was supposed to have been fixed, right? Not.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Newegg rejection

The customer service person at the rebate fulfillment house said she is getting calls like this every day, and instructing people to call Newegg because they will send out the correct UPC for resubmission. Both a call and a chat session with Newegg customer service was met with shrugs, with them not knowing anything about sending out a correct UPC. Enough.

MrConsumer emailed the PR guy at Newegg, explaining the situation, noting that Mouse Print* was going to do a follow-up story on the company failing to live up to its promised correction. Apparently that email sent shock waves throughout the company. By the end of the business day, Newegg explained what happened in a most candid way, and outlined how it was going to fix the problem, and put in place procedures to prevent its recurrence:

Your note really shook us up and we pulled together a number of teams to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Here is our plan of action and how we plan to never let this kind of thing slip through again. As always, we do appreciate your notes. Customer satisfaction is something we proclaim, so when we fall short, we like to know about it and get it resolved. In today’s process, we learned there was a critical communication gap between our product managers and our customer service team that led to this problem. Once we understood the problem (a technical way in which rebate codes get passed from product managers to customer service reps so the reps can validate them), which cut off about a third of the certificates that were being given to customer service–we set about making good for our customers and then updating our process so it doesn’t happen again. Here is our plan.

1. We learned that 3 rebate periods needed to be adjusted
* 5/20-6/8 $30
* 6/20-6/23 $30
* 7/4-7/21 $40

2. We will check the following for those periods
* Submitted rebate
* If rebate submitted with wrong UPC, honor rebate and notify customer of processing.

3. In the event that no rebate was submitted
* For those customers who have not submitted a rebate, we will contact them and have them submit it with the UPC code that they have.
* For those customer who state the shipping label is covering the UPC code or do not have a UPC code, we will honor the rebate either as a Newegg GC or credit back to original payment

We will make sure that all denied customers get their rebate.

Now to make sure this never happens again, our customer service team has set up a meeting with our product management team to review the proper application of rebates and how to make sure they appear in the customer service agents’ validation work flow.

This outline of steps is being put into action now. We are crafting the email being sent and it should go out this week. The new process and meetings should also take place this week. I will keep you posted on our progress.

Wow. In reply, we thanked Newegg for their swift action, but gently pointed out other related lapses they hadn’t acknowledged. We urged the company to incentivize their customer service agents to spot and report problems raised by individual consumer complaints that might be affecting other customers. That way a global solution could be implemented, and complaints reduced.

• • •

August 18, 2014

Is it a News Story or Is it an Advertisement?

Filed under: Business,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:48 am

 Every day, MrConsumer scours the Internet to find the 25 or so stories that we feature in Consumer World each week. And it should come as no surprise that Google News is a primary source. Last week, when searching for news stories one day, this was what Google News presented:

Google result

The very first result looked like a great story to bring to the attention of Consumer World readers — “10 Ways You’re Throwing Money Away Daily.” Upon clicking the link, one is brought to that story on the LA Times website:

latimessmall1
Click on picture to expand to full size,
click resulting picture if necessary to enlarge,
and scroll to the top.

It is a very long story offering all these tips, with appropriate graphics for each one. Tip #3 caught our eye, suggesting that money could be saved on eyewear by purchasing a vision plan:

eye tip

The link presented in the tip takes the reader to VSP — Vision Service Plan — where it purports to show dramatic savings on a pair of eyeglasses. And one can enroll in the plan right there.

Pretty clearly, this whole long story providing savings tips had a single purpose — to drive readers to this insurance plan. But it was a news story, right?

Scrolling back to the top of the page, the secret is revealed:

*MOUSE PRINT:

disclaimer

There it is. “Advertisement” in tiny letters (actual size). Did you catch it when you first looked at the full graphic above? Do you think that most people caught it?

This whole “story” that went on and on, page down after page down about eight times, was actually an ad, and not editorial content presented by the LA Times. This is called “native advertising” where the content is made to fit it more with the surrounding content on a webpage and appear less like an advertisement.

We wrote to the LA Times and explained how something like this could mislead readers. We asked some very pointed questions about this manner of presenting advertising with such a small disclaimer, how it wound up in Google as a news story, and if they were going to try to fix the problem. They responded:

“…the advertisement in question is clearly labeled as such and the only path for readers to find that content was intended to be via an latimes.com panel that is also clearly labeled as advertising. However, your inquiry brought our attention to the fact that although this ad – and others of the same ilk – is not included in our News SiteMap and the page has “noindex nofollow” directives, there appears to be a technical glitch with Google News. We are working with Google to find out why the content is indexed incorrectly and have the issue fixed as soon as possible. In the meantime, we have removed the advertisement from our site to eradicate potential for further confusion.” — V.P. Communications, Los Angeles Times

While we are gratified that the paper acted so quickly to remove the advertisement, they seem not to have a problem with such a small disclaimer at the top. We hope they will reconsider that position, and if they continue to display advertisements that look identical to news stories, that they will take further steps to more clearly identify and differentiate that kind of content.

• • •

July 28, 2014

New Program Trades Your Privacy for Rewards

Filed under: Electronics,Internet,Telephone — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:21 am

 With great fanfare, Verizon Wireless launched its new reward program last week called Verizon Smart Rewards.

You collect points for signing up, for being a loyal customer, for amounts paid on your bill, for signing up for paperless billing, etc. And those points can be used for discounts on meals, merchandise, gift cards, entertainment and more.

This is what the homepage for Smart Rewards looks like at launch:

Smart Rewards

It explains how the program works: you sign up, your earn points, and you redeem rewards. Simple. Oh, they left out just one thing. See that sentence at the bottom that we outlined in yellow?

*MOUSE PRINT:

May require enrollment in Verizon Selects, which delivers more relevant advertising using anonymized information about customer use of Verizon products and services, interests and demographics.

You have to enroll in some advertising program called Verizon Selects? Huh?

Well, delivering relevant advertising is the result of the program. What you really are agreeing to is to allow the company to observe your Internet surfing habits on your smartphone, where you shop, what apps you use, what your location is, where and whom you call, and more. In essence, in return for getting rewards, you are allowing Verizon to track you.

But it doesn’t say that there. What a silly (or very deliberate) omission. And when you go to the registration page, all the introduction says is:

Verizon Selects personalizes the content and marketing you may receive from Verizon and other selected companies.

Still, you have not been informed what this Verizon Selects thing really is. It tells you the result of their tracking — getting more relevant advertising — not that it is a program to track you. Only when you scroll down to the terms and conditions agreement section, do they spring it on you, and ask you to agree to it.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Verizon Selects
[size reduced to fit space]

It seems to us that Verizon should be upfront about the precondition that you must agree to be tracked in order to sign up for the rewards programs, and clearly disclose that on the first page of the offer.

Customers will have to decide whether they think the rewards they are offering are worth allowing the company to track your smartphone usage. Incidentally, Verizon tells us that once you sign up for the rewards program and the tracking program, you can cancel the tracking part and still keep earning rewards.

Note: Edgar Dworsky is a member of Verizon’s Consumer Advisory Board.

• • •
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