After nearly 50 years of covering consumer marketing, I just filed my first-ever consumer complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. I hope it's my last one. I did it because I agree with the Biden Administration that "junk fees" are getting out of hand, and it's time for the federal government -- including legislation by Congress -- to take action to protect us from them.
As a consumer, I felt it was my obligation to help protect others by reporting it to the FTC, because it is our regulatory body protecting consumers, and because I believe the practice I reported violates the FTC's "bait advertising" regulations by advertising a product for a lower price, but then selling a different product at a higher price.
As a journalist, I felt it was my obligation to write a column chronicling my first-person account, because I think it is relevant for the advertising and ecommerce industries we report for, because those kind of deceptive and misleading practices harm the entire industry by eroding consumer trust.
The gist of the story is that I tried to buy a table from Pottery Barn at one price, but then it added a "White Glove" delivery service option to my purchase, which I did not need, and which added 20% of the product's purchase price.
When I called Pottery Barn's customer service department, they explained that it was their policy to ship all furniture the size and weight of dining tables by the "White Glove" delivery option.
While I was speaking to the representative, I went on Potterybarn.com and found a comparable dining table weighing 50 pounds more than the one I was trying to buy, which offered flat-rate shipping at about half the cost.
When I asked the representative to explain why that option was available for some of their tables and not others, she said: "That's our policy."
By policy, I infer her to mean it is Pottery Barn's way of charging consumers for something they did not want. In other words, junk fees, which in this case, explicitly violate the FTC's bait advertising rules.
I know we all have stories like this, but I'm only bringing this one up because I think bad actors like Pottery Barn -- and its parent company Williams Sonoma -- are hurting the reputations and trust consumers have for other major blue chip brands.
The irony is that the table I was looking to replace was one I bought from Pottery Barn nearly 40 years ago, which just goes to prove I am brand loyal. Up until now.
"Junk fees are those sneaky fees that are hidden from consumers when they are shopping for the best price, and sneak up on them when they have already made up their mind and are about to make payment," National Economic Council Director Lael Brainard said in March, while making a case for the Biden Administration's new junk fees polices, noting, "Each year, 'junk fees' cost Americans tens of billions of dollars."
How much they're costing the good will of the marketing industry may very well be incalculable -- at least in terms of brand equity.