Web Informant #319, 11 March 2003: Bait and switch




As a consumer, I hate it when a merchant does a bait and switch on me: trying to sell me one thing, only to replace it with something else at the moment when I am my weakest, caught up in the moment of shopping frenzy, having convinced myself that I absolutely have to have the item and can't go on living one more nanosecond without it. "Sorry sir, that item is out of stock, but I have something similar in black."


On ecommerce sites, bait and switch used to be common practice several years ago, back when many popular web sites charged for shipping or tacked on exorbitant last-screen fees that shoppers either ignored (in that moment of consumer frenzy) or else put up with. I thought this was all a thing of the past until I read this morning's USA Today story on how sites have begun to tack these "handling fees" back on to purchases.


Amazon.com has had fr** shipping (sorry, the asterisks are needed because this phrase is often picked up by mail scanning programs) for years now on purchases for more than $25. This cost the company $30 million in their last quarter, which translates to one percent of their sales. It adds up, but it also brings repeat business, and helps to raise customer satisfaction and positive word of mouth about an online retailer. Others have followed along, and now there are almost 200 web sites that don't charge for shipping at some purchase level. Obviously, in these tight times this freedom is probably the first thing that retailers will consider eliminating as margins continue to be squeezed.


What makes these fees suspicious is that in several cases, site operators removed the fees or changed their pages when contacted by editors at the newspaper. Buy.com, for example, promises free shipping but had a $5 handling charge before USA Today brought it to the attention of the company's COO. Later that day, the charge was gone.


What Buy.com did brings bait and switch to a new level of nastiness. Who knows how long this fee will remain banished from their web site? Perhaps in a few months, when the news about this dies down, they'll add the fee back to their site and see if there is any traction, or even any discussion. Or maybe they'll call it a handling fee or a restocking fee (the latter is charged by many merchants when you return merchandize, even when you return unused merchandize).


One of the challenges about covering the web is that it constantly changes. The site that I see today is completely different an hour from now, by the time you read this, let alone next week or next year if you pick out this column from a search site or dust it off from your archived mail.