Subscription shopping programs are popular for a good reason: They make it easy to get good deals on the products you want without the hassle of shopping around and paying shipping fees. Just hand over your credit card and agree to automatic billing, and you can score nice discounts, automatic shipments of things you use regularly and other perks, depending on the merchant.
On the one hand, these services can make shopping easier and more fun. “There are lots of great products you can buy this way, especially from small and start-up businesses,” says Kevin Brasler, executive editor at Consumers’ Checkbook, a nonprofit consumer group. On the other hand, subscription plans can be a drain on your finances. Once companies get you to sign up, they have the green light to bill your credit card indefinitely, and to raise prices, too. “Companies are 100 percent preying on our laziness,” Brasler adds. For example, having a subscription plan from one seller means you are less likely to shop around and check prices elsewhere, he notes. “They’ve eliminated the decision process.”
Another sign of what can go wrong: The Federal Trade Commission recently announced a crackdown on some subscription services, citing a surge of complaints about deceptive sign-up tactics, including unauthorized charges or ongoing billing that is impossible to cancel. So how do you decide if a subscription is right for you? Ask yourself these four questions before you enter your credit card info.
1. Will it make my life better?
Having cat litter automatically shipped to you on a regular schedule saves you the hassle of lugging heavy containers home from the store. And if you love coffee or trying new beauty products or recipes, for example, then a subscription plan can be a nice gift to buy yourself.
2. Can I trust the service with my credit card?
It’s always good to try before you buy, but beware of introductory offers that make it hard to cancel. Look up the service on the Better Business Bureau website (BBB.org)—poring over complaints, not just ratings. Read the company’s fine print for all of the costs, along with how and when to cancel. My husband had a terrible time trying to stop a popular meal-kit subscription service he bought for his mom, after what he thought was a $20 introductory offer ended up costing him $180. Once he realized his mistake, he had trouble finding a phone number or easy way to cancel on the service’s app. He had to endure a long online chat with a challenging customer service agent before he could cancel.
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3. What if I want to skip a month?
Look for flexible terms, though you might have to dig around to find them. Cleaning and personal care company Grove Collaborative lets you customize your order, for example. Misfits Market, which sells organic produce, emails you with a reminder that it’s time to put your order in—and if you don’t, you don’t receive anything. No pressure!
4. Is it a good deal?
Subscribe-and-save style plans make sense when they offer discounts on things you would otherwise buy at full price. Auto-shipments from Chewy, for example, net you 5 percent savings on your pet products. Amazon auto-delivery comes with discounts of up to 15 percent (you have to order five items to get the savings). It can be tricky, however, to figure out whether subscription boxes like HelloFresh or Birchbox are a good value. Apples-to-apples comparisons are almost impossible because of variations in models, sizes and other factors.
Even determining if fixed-item automatic shipment programs are cost-effective can be difficult. I had an HP Instant Ink subscription plan for a few years, which automatically sends ink when you run low. It was convenient, and HP claims its plan saves subscribers plenty. But there was no practical way for me to verify that I got a good deal. I ended up keeping the plan anyway because it was super convenient. The bottom line is that you generally do pay for convenience in one way or another.
Lisa Lee Freeman, a consumer and shopping expert, was founder and editor in chief of ShopSmart magazine from Consumer Reports.