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October 7, 2019

New Amazon 4-Star Stores Charge Full List Price to Non-Prime Members on Some Items

Filed under: Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:47 am

Amazon 4-Star StoreAmazon has begun opening small brick and mortar retail stores called “Amazon 4-Star.” The stores only feature products that are rated four stars or higher and that are new and trending or bestsellers. One just opened last week in Natick, Massachusetts, to join the ones already in Manhattan, Denver, Seattle, and Berkeley. So MrConsumer paid a visit to the new store.

The company installed electronic shelf tags that allow it to change prices on goods multiple times a day just the way they do online. Worse, they are using an unusual type of dual pricing on some of those tags – one price for Prime customers who pay $119 a year, and another price for the rest of us.

Here’s a book they had at the store.

Amazon in-store book

The electronic price tag shows a Prime price of $20.99 and a “price” of $34.95. The store says that non-Prime customers would pay $34.95.

Looking up that book at Amazon.com provides a surprise.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Amazon book on website

It shows that $20.99 was not a special Prime members only price, but a price that anyone could order it for. Worse, it says the list price of the book is $34.95 — exactly what the Amazon store was charging non-Prime customers. Since when does Amazon sell anything at full list price?

Here’s another example.

Amazon store instant pot

This Instant Pot is $79 for Prime customers only, and $99.95 for everyone else. But a quick look at the website reveals…

*MOUSE PRINT:

Amazon online Instant Pot

Everyone pays $79 online for the Instant Pot and it is not a Prime exclusive item or price. The $99.95 they are charging in their brick and mortar store is full list price.

A third example is here.

While many items in the store have this dual pricing system, most have a single price on them. That single in-store price appears to match the online price. The store will not price match Amazon.com’s web price for non-Prime customers.

We asked Amazon’s PR folks why they use a dual pricing system, and why in the world this famous discounter is charging full list price on some items to non-Prime customers. The spokesperson was not able to reply in time for publication, but we will post the response when it is received. And surprise, they did not provide us with a statement. But, we found an inconspicuous disclosure now on the Amazon website:

*MOUSE PRINT:

Amazon FAQ

The lesson here is not to assume you are paying the regular Amazon.com price at their retail stores. Do a quick check online to make sure you are not overpaying.




• • •

September 30, 2019

Tribune Newspapers Blur the Line Between Advertising and News

Filed under: Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:05 am

Several prominent newspapers in the Tribune family are now devoting entire sections of their websites to product reviews. Sounds great – a good consumer service. The problem is that the articles amount to a form of advertising because the papers get paid for each product sold, and they don’t disclose that fact to readers upfront.

Here is a screen capture of the product review section from the Chicago Tribune:

Chicago Tribune consumer reviews

Scroll down the list.

Some of what they cover are important topics such as “The Best Men’s Slipper,” “The Best Baby Bath Toy,” “The Best Nipple Pasties,” and “The Best Cake Pop Maker.” These certainly are the type of reviews that shoppers are clamering to read, MrConsumer opines sarcastically.

A full page of stories/reviews also appear in the consumer review section of the Sun Sentinel (Florida), the New York Daily News, the Baltimore Sun, and other Tribune newspapers.

Here is an excerpt of the men’s slipper story, as an example. Note that the links to the three “best” slippers all go to Amazon.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Chicago Tribune Slippers story excerpt

Scroll down the story to see links.

Those links are affiliate links where Amazon (in this case) pays a small commission if a reader buys any of those slippers. Hovering over the link reveals a “tag” used by Amazon to identify the affiliate so it knows whom to compensate.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Tribune affiliate link

That commission on each sale is shared between both the newspaper and the service that provided the reviews, BestReviews. Tribune Publishing is a majority owner of BestReviews. The review company says it strives to be 100% objective because it buys all the products it tests. But the company admits it doesn’t really test all the products it writes about.

*MOUSE PRINT:

“For some product categories we solely use research and consumer feedback to create the information in our review.”

If you didn’t realize that the newspaper publishing these stories makes money via those links, that is no accident. The paper only discloses that financial connection at the very end of each review.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Chicago Tribune disclaimer

Federal Trade Commission guidelines for both product endorsements and native advertising (where advertising looks like regular editorial content) require clear disclosure if there is a financial connection between the parties, and that advertising content that looks like regular articles be clearly labeled. Whether the Tribune has violated the law is up to the FTC to decide, but we think they could do a better job of disclosing at the top of these articles that both the company that wrote the stories and the newspaper that publishes them make money if readers make a purchase through the provided links.

We asked editors at the Chicago Tribune, the Sun Sentinel, and the Tribune entity that distributes these stories some very pointed questions about their review section. None of the three responded to our inquiries.

The use of affiliate links in traditional media stories seems to be increasing. So (unfortunately) you have to look carefully to see if a website posting a story about a particular product might also be recommending it because they have a financial incentive. If so, take that into account.




• • •

September 16, 2019

Dog Walking Company Sued Over Fine Print

Filed under: Business,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:52 am

This summer, three New Yorkers sued a California dog walking service, Wag!, for various alleged misleading representations.

Wag! maintains a website and app to allow dog owners to schedule local dog walkers and dog sitters on demand. Thnk of it as an Uber service for pets. The company says walkers go through an extensive vetting process and that each walk is insured and bonded, and they guarantee home insurance of $1,000,000 for “extra peace of mind.” Their website emphasizes “trust and safety” — “we treat your dog just like we’d want ours to be treated.”

Wag insurance
Composite Illustration

The lawsuit, however, points out that contrary to the great care promised, the company’s terms and conditions tries to absolve itself of most responsibility.

*MOUSE PRINT:

The Services includes a marketplace technology platform that connects Pet Care Providers with Pet Owners. We do not provide any pet care services and [we] make no representations or warranties about the quality of dog walking, boarding, sitting, … Wag! does not employ, recommend or endorse Pet Owners or Pet Care Providers, and we are not responsible or liable for the performance or conduct of Pet Owners or Pet Care Providers, whether online or offline. Wag! provides Pet Care Providers with access to third-party vendors that perform background checks and verifications. Wag! itself does not conduct background checks and does not independently verify information in the background checks. Wag! is not responsible or liable in any manner for the background checks. [Emphasis added]

These provisions and others were added recently to the company’s terms and condition statement after the lawsuit was filed.

Despite promises of a million dollars in insurance being provided, in Wag’s prior terms and conditions the company attempted to cap its liability at a mere $500:

*MOUSE PRINT:

IN NO EVENT SHALL WAG!’S TOTAL LIABILITY TO YOU IN CONNECTION WITH THE SERVICES FOR ALL DAMAGES, LOSSES AND CAUSES OF ACTION EXCEED FIVE HUNDRED U.S. DOLLARS (US $500).

A spokeperson for Wag! released the following statement:

“While we don’t comment on pending litigation, ensuring the safety and security of all those who use the Wag! platform is of utmost importance to us. Every day, thousands of pets are cared for using the Wag! platform. Accidents and incidents are rare, but we know the impact even one can have on the family involved. We are committed to the safety and security of our platform…”

Various media outlets around the country, but particularly in the New York area, have reported unfortunate incidents that have befallen dogs under Wag’s care, including some deaths.




• • •

September 9, 2019

NBC TODAY Show Caught Up in Diet Pill Scam

Filed under: Health,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:39 am

NBC’s TODAY Show has innocently gotten caught up in a diet pill scam that Consumer World discovered.

I was recently on a local television station’s website (CBS 19) and saw what might be an interesting story about Kelly Clarkson losing 105 pounds.

CBS 19 ad

Upon clicking the box, you are taken to what looks like the TODAY Show website where the story becomes even more intriguing because of the headline — “Kelly Clarkson Forced to Lose 105 Pounds by NBC Producers.” According to the story, producers of “The Voice” were requiring Clarkson to lose at least 50 pounds and if she did not she would lose her role as head coach on that program per the terms of her contract. Her lawyer was unable to negotiate a compromise.


View full size

Ellen DeGeneres apparently caught wind of the controversy and recommended a particular product to Clarkson to help her lose weight.

The TODAY Show writer of this story then describes her own test of that product. And with that, MrConsumer realized he had been duped. This whole story was really an advertisement for Keto 101 weight loss pills. But why had the TODAY Show become involved with something shady like this?

*MOUSE PRINT:

The answer is, they didn’t. The promoters of these diet pills apparently hijacked the format of the TODAY Show website and created their own phony story using the TODAY logo. The URL (Internet address) of the web page was diet.healthy-service.com rather than today.com. In fact, they even changed all the TODAY menu links to their own ordering page.

Pill URL

As with many of these product promotions, there was a long list of phony consumer testimonials near the end followed by a free trial offer of a 30-day supply of these pills. Just pay $4.95 for shipping, they claimed. But the ordering page had its own hidden gotchas.

order form

*MOUSE PRINT:

terms expanded

Only when you expand the offer terms section do you learn you will be charged $89.99 for pills if you don’t cancel during the trial period because you have been enrolled in a membership plan with automatic shipment of refills every month.

As if that is not bad enough, if one looks at the complete terms and conditions section, you learn that although they are sending you 30 days worth of pills, the free trial is only 14 days. And the free trial period begins on the day you place your order and not when you receive it. So it is possible that your free trial period could expire before you even get the product.

*MOUSE PRINT:

terms highlighted

We notified the folks at the TODAY Show about their website being appropriated by these pill pushers. They responded that “the problem is they are very hard to track down… [I’ll] send them to our legal department, so they could get some type of cease and desist action going.”

It should be noted that the above fake TODAY Show web page was just one of four variants that we found, all using similar tactics and slightly different pill names. What’s particularly bold about these fake sites is that they are using the real names and look and feel of actual TV news sites as noted in our main story, rather than made-up names like “Health News Today” as they used to.

Reader beware!

If you have been a victim of one of these look-alike major media sites, please tell us in detail what happened in the comments.




• • •

July 29, 2019

Cash Back Credit Card Correction;

Group Asks FTC to Investigate Prime Day Promotions

Filed under: Finance,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:05 am

CORRECTION AND UPDATE:

Before our main story, I wanted to advise readers that the PayPal 2% Cashback credit card mentioned here two weeks ago as a good substitute for the Citi Double Cash card which is dropping almost all benefits soon does NOT have the benefits referred to on its website nor as confirmed by its customer service agents with whom I double-checked. That card only has one benefit – ID theft protection — but not extended warranty, price protection, return protection, CDW coverage, lost luggage coverage, etc. contrary to the link from the benefits section of its website states. I apologize to anyone who applied for this card as a result of the recommendation. I will be cutting up my card shortly. Synchrony Bank, the card’s issuer, just provided us with a response that basically says they are going to correct their link:

…we are taking some action to help further clarify the specific benefits of the PayPal Cashback Mastercard when a consumer is looking on the web. Already consumers can see the two key benefits including ID Theft Protection and Microchip technology. Additionally, we plan to post a specific version of the guide to benefits that you can find here.


Last week, Public Citizen, a Washington-based public interest consumer advocacy organization, sent a letter to the FTC asking them to crack down on websites that promote the sale of products from Amazon.com without clearly disclosing when they have a financial incentive to tout those items.

The group pointed out dozens of instances of stories published two weeks ago on popular websites and through social media that spotlighted certain items as great deals during Amazon’s big Prime Day sale. In most cases, the affiliate relationship the publisher had with Amazon was either not disclosed at all or poorly disclosed. (We documented this very issue last December in this story.)

In an affiliate relationship, a publisher or even a person with just a social media presence can earn a small commission on the sale of products if a reader clicks a link from the website or post and actually purchases the item. Under the Federal Trade Commission’s testimonial and endorsement guidelines if there is a financial connection between an endorser and the product being touted, that fact must be clearly disclosed. Similarly under the FTC’s native advertising guidelines when advertising masquerades as editorial content, clear disclosure of a sponsorship relationship must be made.

As one example of what is going on, Public Citizen cited this story from the Today Show website:

Today Show promotion

The story recommended a couple of dozen items as “the best Prime Day deals.” What the reader didn’t know was that NBC had a financial interest in the sale of those items.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Only if the reader clicked the “read more” link (and they would have no particular reason to do so based on the content that was already showing), would they learn NBC’s little secret).

NBC Today Show disclosure

The program makes a small commission if a reader buys any of the items featured through the links provided.

The problem here was that NBC hid that fact instead of openly disclosing it. At least their specific choice of which items to highlight was an independent editorial decision based on merit. This is how Consumer World selects its Bargain of the Week (which very rarely contains an affiliate link).

Last year, we called out ABC and others for an even bigger problem — running entire “deal” segments on their morning shows, where the network was getting a cut of the sale of each item featured, and not clearly disclosing that fact at the beginning of the segment. See our story.




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