It's Time for a Shoppers' Bill of Rights

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Shopper bill of rights Mark Lennihan, AP
Mark Lennihan, AP
In the wake of a number of high-profile cruise ship disasters, the cruise industry announced this week that it had approved a passengers' bill of rights. The document, which the industry says will be legally binding, mainly concerns passengers' rights in instances where a ship has become disabled.

It resembles a similar bill of rights for airline passengers that the Department of Transportation drew up in 2011. Those rules concerned procedures for dealing with lengthy tarmac delays, lost baggage, and similar issues.

That got us thinking: If cruise ship passengers and air travelers have their own bills of rights, why shouldn't shoppers?

Sure, visitors to retail stores typically don't encounter situations as maddening as being stranded on a floating hotel where the bathrooms don't work, or trapped in a cramped coach-class seat while their flight sits on a tarmac for hours. But the shopping experience is still riddled with frustrations, and less-savvy shoppers are often taken advantage of by dodgy pricing, pushy salespeople and inconsistent policies.

We'd love to see a self-policing effort by the industry to assure shoppers that they can expect certain standards of treatment when they walk into a store. Here are a few things we would include in a shopper's bill of rights.

The Right to Reasonable Fine Print

When retailers run sales and coupons, they include fine print that limits what the deal actually applies to. In most cases, it's relatively harmless -- it defines the effective dates of the promotion, and may exclude select items like gift cards and jewelry.

But problems arise when retailers go totally overboard and try to exclude half the store. Department stores like Sears (SHLD) and Macy's (M) tend to hold sales that exclude dozens of brands from the discount, and earlier this year Guitar Center took some heat for a coupon that excluded more than 300 brands.

Sure, in a perfect world everyone would read and understand the fine print. But it's not unreasonable for someone to see "20 percent off everything" and assume that it applies to most of the merchandise in the store.

The Right to Fair Interpretation of the Fine Print

It's bad enough when there's a ton of fine print in the ad. It's even worse when store employees are inconsistent about applying those terms.

The other day I was shopping at Banana Republic (GPS), which was having a 40 percent off sale. I found an item I liked and confirmed that it wasn't excluded in the fine print, but a cashier insisted that the discount did not apply. Only when I threatened to leave empty-handed did she check with a manager and apply the discount.

It's understandable that the price of certain big-ticket purchases -- cars, TVs, and so on -- will depend in part on your ability to successfully haggle down the price. But whether or not a store fairly applies the terms of a deal should not be contingent on your willingness to make a scene.

The Right to Uniform Application of Company Policies

It's not just the fine print on coupons that's often left to the interpretative whims of cashiers and associates. Corporate policies on everything from returns to price-matching are often poorly understood or selectively applied by front-line employees.

In our review of store price-match policies, we noted a report from Cheapism that found that some stores were inconsistent in their application of those policies. At Walmart (WMT), for instance, cashiers insisted on seeing competitors' ads to perform a price-match, despite a company policy that explicitly says that you don't need to show them.

We know it's not easy to educate every last employee about every last policy, especially at an enormous company like Walmart. But those policies don't mean much if the people who have to follow them haven't read them. Which segues nicely into ...

The Right to an Informed Employee

Retail employees also need to be informed about the products they're selling, so that they can give accurate advice to shoppers.

That means if you're buying a TV, you have the right to an employee who can tell you the difference between plasma and LED. If you're buying a bra, you have the right to a saleswoman who can properly fit you. If you're buying a computer, you have the right to a salesperson who can tell you whether or not you really need to pay for an antivirus program.

Having smart salespeople makes good business sense for retailers -- Best Buy (BBY), for instance, has realized that well-informed customer service is one of the few advantages it can wield over online competitors. But it's also a matter of consumer rights: If you're misled into buying the wrong TV, bra or software product and then find that you can't return it, that's money out of your pocket.

The Right to Say 'No'

"Is there anything I can help you find?" is no longer the only question you're asked at a retail store. Store associates and cashiers may ask you to sign up for store credit cards and rewards programs; upon checkout, they might also ask for your zip code and email address.

Of course, you have every right to say no to these questions. But sometimes they won't take no for an answer -- I have dealt with pushy associates eager to get commissions on credit card applications, as well as cashiers insisting that I reveal my email address.

But giving them your email address invariably means getting marketing emails, and your zip code can be used to locate you and send you catalogs. Meanwhile applying for a store credit card can temporarily lower your credit score. Shoppers should be notified of the downsides involved with saying "yes" to any of these questions. And salespeople shouldn't be allowed to pressure you after you've said "no."

The Right to Honest Price Tags

You're legally entitled to the price on the price tag. But there are still plenty of shenanigans happening in the background.

One trick: Creating the illusion of a discount by touting a high "original price" next to the ticket price. Kohl's (KSS) is dealing with a lawsuit claiming that it misled customers in this way, while J.C. Penney (JCP) was recently accused of fabricating prices to make its discounts look better.

The Right to Honest Bar Codes

And while we're at it, let's keep barcodes honest, too. Some retailers have dealt with barcode-scanning shoppers by covering the barcode on the box with one of their own creation; the custom code will confuse any price-comparison app. Retailers don't have to tell you all about the lower price you can get from a competitor, but they shouldn't actively hinder you from making an informed purchase.

Fight for Your Rights

There are a lot of things we wish retailers would do better. We hate having to wait in long lines at checkout, for instance. We hate that every retailer has its own return policy to pore through, with various exclusions and time limits. And we wish retailers didn't feel the need to hand us a mile-long receipt covered in promotions and surveys when we're just buying a pack of gum.

We left those grievances out of our proposed bill of rights, because this isn't meant to be a shopping wish list -- the focus here is on basic standards of fairness and honesty that will protect the shopper.

Still, we may have missed a few. If there are certain rights that you feel every shopper should be guaranteed, we'd love to hear about it. Give us a shout in the comments or send an email to Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.


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148 Comments

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bornfree8

What about the 2.3% added federal sales tax to certain items such as hunting, fishing, and other items to supplement the Medicare (Obamah care) problems! Along with the Ohio state and local tax where I live this makes my total tax for some items at nearly 10%!
This new Obamha Medicare tax of 2.3% started in January of 2013!

June 02 2013 at 2:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Cindy

I always say no to clerks who want my zip code. I don't want to be on their store's mailing list.
I am the type who buys what she needs when she needs it. I will not buy because something is on sale.
My rule is when I buy a piece of clothing, I have to give away another piece of clothing so my closets aren't too cluttered. If your closet is too cluttered, you can't see everything you have and you can not freely choose what to wear.

June 02 2013 at 9:39 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
newhmartin

give any zipcode ,or fake email address ,works for me

June 02 2013 at 7:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gizmoprof

Make up a zip code.... make up an email address. The clerks don't know or care if it legitimate.

June 02 2013 at 7:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
hattie54

If I have to use my " zip code ",I used the post office box one as its for bills mostly.Less mail to to my house mailbox.I just got back from Europe and they have those new credit card thingys.You don't swipe the card,you stick it in and type in 4 buttons ( # ) but we don't have that here and won't.They plan to make us use a cell phone for that and some of us don't have cell phones.I had to tell the cashiers I am American so they were forced to hit the green " authorization "button and accept my credit card.

June 02 2013 at 7:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
chcanoel

Its funny the author mentioned JCPenney and said their prices were marked way up to make their sales seem better. Remember--JCPenney lowered their prices way down instead of having fake sales, and customers hated it. They wanted to be lied to, so the company jacked the prices back up. Customers are flocking back to the store. Retail employees lose their jobs if they don't meet a quota for opening store credit accounts- it falls under customer service. If your goal is not met you are not providing good customer service- a reason to no longer be scheduled (they don't actually fire anyone- that's too expensive. Employees work on an as needed basis, and therefore can be dropped from the schedule without the hassle to the store of having to fire someone).

June 02 2013 at 7:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Denileriverafter

As a 27 year veteran of Retail, I feel the need to speak here. When I first started, retail was fun! Over the years, "marketing" has taken over in an effort to increase sales, with the adverse effect of RUNNING OFF ALL THE CUSTOMERS!!! I worked for Kmart 20 years ago, and it was my favorite job. Last year, I went back, and was very happy about it, until they stuck me on the register and left me there..alone..with NO WAY TO CALL FOR HELP!!!, AND 5 hours of "training" on the register!! THEN, they told me I had to administer the "Spanish Inquisition" to EVERY customer! "Do you want a warranty on that?" "Do you have a Kmart reward card?" "Would you like one?" "Do you have a Sears card?" "Would you like one?" "Do you have an email address? " THEN, if they use a credit card, they get a "survey on the card machine!~! As a cashier, we were requred to keep track of how many emails we got, how many rewards cards we got, how many Sears cards we signed up, etc..And if we didn't get a certain amount, we were in TROUBLE!!! If it happens too much, you get written up!! Needless to say, I get the heck out of Dodge as fast as I could, and refuse to EVER shop there!! And as the hundreds of customers yelled at me for asking all those questions, and yelled at me "WHY don't you call for help? (like I ENJOYED being screamed at for having a line!) When you are the only register open, and HAVE to play "20 Questions" with EVERY person in line, it doesn't take long before you have a line! And with no way to call for help, I would have to run down to the Courtesy Desk for change or help!! And 9 times out of 10 they would tell me there was no one to help!!! MARKETING has RUINED the shopping experience!! The days of friendly banter are gone. Consider yourself lucky just to get through the line in less than 20 minutes!!! I don't see it ending until EVERY one boycotts the big stores who practice these TORTURE sessions! And make sure they KNOW why you're not there any more!! And don't forget to mention those "outside vendors" INSIDE the store, who jump on you when you get inside the door, trying to sell their crap!! For us, it was the city paper, in a desperate attempt to increase their sales. In Walmart, it's Direct TV. If you're in a hurry, DON"T even THINK about Kmart, cause you will be in a LONG line of people getting mad about being asked all those questions!! Now, tell me again about those "pushy cashiers". If they don't do it, they're fired! Thanks to "marketing", retail has gone to hell in a hand basket! I used to love meeting people, learning where they're from, laughing, and helping them. Can't do any of they any more! I believe it's the death of retail, it'll all be online in a few years.

June 02 2013 at 6:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ironmonkee72

Re: The Right to Say 'No'
If cashiers come across as pushy with all the questions it's only because they're being pressured into producing results by their corporate overlords. Where I work if your customers aren't using or signing up for loyalty cards, you get a talking to.

June 02 2013 at 6:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Frank

Right to whine

June 02 2013 at 6:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tommy

Don't be stooped ....... just make it up each time.

I have so many made-up emails that I can't even remember them.
Its okay to give your zip code .... like, who cares.

June 02 2013 at 4:15 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply