On being … fee’d up

By Ingrid Sapona  

The other day I got an email from a theatre company announcing their 2023 schedule. One particular play sounded interesting so I clicked through to see the prices and dates. For that play, seats on the main floor ranged from $33.90-$146.90, with seats in the balcony ranging from $124.30-$146.90. Fortunately, there are special rates for previews: $27.12-$102.83 for seats on the main floor and $87.01-$102.83 for balcony seats. Given the odd prices, I assumed they included the 13% sales tax.  

Tickets had just gone on sale and they still had a couple of the $27.12 seats on one of the preview nights. With my credit card ready, I started to place my order. When I clicked on “Purchase”, the total that came up was $64.24 – not $54.24, as I expected. That’s when I noticed a $10 service charge was added. Frustrated, I cancelled the order.  

So, in effect, $27.12 tickets are really $32.12 tickets. I know – we’re talking a difference of only $5/ticket, which doesn’t seem like much. And really, $32.12 to see live theatre is pretty reasonable. Still, it bothered me to have that additional charge, especially given that they don’t even send out real tickets – they are electronic only. I stewed about it for a few days. Ultimately, I ended up shelling out the $64.24 for the two tickets. I rationalized the purchase based on my belief that $32.12 (the true cost to me) seems reasonable to see a live production of this company’s calibre. 

That said, I really don’t understand why they don’t just increase the cost of each ticket to include all their costs. Since they don’t really specify what services are provided for that service charge, why bother breaking it out? Heck, for on-line purchases they don’t break out the sales tax portion of the $27.12, so why not include the service charge in the on-line per ticket price too? Surprisingly, just yesterday I got a printed brochure from this company and it shows all ticket prices before the sales tax. So, the ticket I paid $32.12 for is really a $24 ticket, before the sales tax and before the service charge. I also read in the printed brochure that the service charge ($10) is per order, regardless of how many tickets you buy. But, there was no explanation of what the service charge is for.  

As a theatre patron, I assume there are all sorts of costs that go into putting on a play but the company doesn’t bother breaking out any other specific costs. I assume that running a box office, whether staffed in person or done using software, is just one of the many costs of doing business – it’s called overhead. To me, adding an itemized service charge just feels like a cash grab. 

The past few years I’ve noticed more-and-more purveyors of non-essentials are adding additional fees and charges for “services” that aren’t really adding value as far as the customer is concerned. The most galling example I’ve come across lately was a hotel restaurant that had advertised a $44 three-course Thanksgiving dinner that included turkey roulade, a vegetable, and a slice of fruit crumble – for take out or dine-in. 

A friend and I were going to celebrate Thanksgiving together and we talked about perhaps doing a pot luck. But, neither of us really felt like cooking a huge, traditional Thanksgiving meal. So, when we read about the $44/person menu we decided that ordering it to go would be perfect.

We figured we’d drive over together to get it and bring it back here to enjoy with a bottle of wine of our choice. I offered to place the order, which I had to do on-line, as they didn’t accept them on the phone. When I went to click on Pay, I was expecting the bill to total $88+tax (so, about $99). 

I couldn’t believe when $119.00 came up! On review, it showed $88 plus sales tax plus a 20% service charge. (20%!) What the …? I had no intention of paying $59 for a slice of turkey, a side, and a berry crumble that I had to go get. I emailed my friend to see how she felt about the whole thing, and she agreed. Both of us were quite incensed. You know, it’s not that she and I can’t afford – or are too cheap – to have a nice meal at a restaurant. And perhaps if we were at the restaurant and had seen the same three-course menu priced at $59, we might have been fine with it, even knowing full well that our final out-of-pocket costs would be higher because we’d add a healthy tip if we were eating there. 

But to price the meal at $44 and then charge a “service charge” of 20% for the pleasure of picking it up to take home. Come on…. Preparing the meal is a service, but at a restaurant you expect that to be included in the menu price. And with customers picking up their own meal, there isn’t even the cost of a server, or the cost of cleaning up after the meal. Sure, there are costs associated with “to go” containers and packaging and if they wanted to itemize those things and charge me, fine – but not 20% of the price of the meal! We ended up reverting to plan A and we made a turkey breast roulade for ourselves, which meant we had delicious leftovers, at no extra charge! 

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty fed up with these kinds of games. I resent being put on the spot at the end of the deal – after I’ve decided to make a purchase at a price the seller set and then advertised. It’s not fair to slap on additional fees over and above what the buyer expects to pay and it seems a bad business practice to me. When I see an unexplained or unexpected service charge tacked on, regardless of the actual amount of the charge, I end up thinking much longer and harder about whether to make the purchase. And, more often than not, I decide not to patronize businesses that charge such fees. Maybe if other patrons did the same, businesses might think twice about this questionable practice. 

© 2022 Ingrid Sapona


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