Subscription Cancel Culture. Can We Have A Healthy Debate On Recurring Payments?

Subscription Cancel Culture. Can We Have A Healthy Debate On Recurring Payments?

Earlier this month, Lloyds Bank in the UK launched a new service that will allow consumers to participate meaningfully in a form of cancel culture. I shall return later to the specifics of why this new banking app is so useful.

But I’d like to start by pondering why the act of cancellation has created such toxic debate in the sphere of social media. I’d like to work out if it is still possible to hold nuanced positions between all-out support and full-on cancellation for stuff we might care about. Whether my interest is in a rapper or a comedian, a national leader, a brand of rice, or my preferred payment arrangements, I’d like to think that I can discuss a wide spectrum of choice without being mocked and tagged into a #LuIsOverParty group.

The phenomenon of promoting the “cancellation” of people, brands and services because of perceived offence from their statements, opinions and practices seems to be riding new waves. Despite feeling we’d passed a smouldering peak of cancel culture, the emergence of actual account cancellations in 2020 by Twitter may have fanned the flames. Despite such efforts to cut out genuinely offensive and hateful material, intervention to create a “kinder” social media could be creating arguments at higher temperatures.

I remain optimistic though that a #BeKind culture may have taken root in lock-down societies dealing with mental health issues, and extremism may subside. After all, if we “are all, all together” (as the UK government branded Covid public information campaign goes), we are more likely to cooperate with the fight against a common enemy, rather than finding common arguments. We still need to let off steam, but we might do it together with common sense, purpose and decorum, right?

This may be wishful thinking, particularly as signs of social togetherness are already under pressure as we lurch out of lockdown. Whilst governments try to steer wobbly economies toward recovery, citizens in varying geographies and circumstances find themselves facing in different directions. It’s like everyone has returned to socially-distanced supermarkets, but the only trolleys are the ones with jammed wheels that drive erratically, drawn magnetically too close to the next stressed-out shopper. 

One way of avoiding collisions and arguments in the aisles is to arrange for home delivery, such as from online-only Ocado in the UK. Mainstream supermarkets now find themselves in new strategic dilemmas; should they expand the big mega-stores as consumers have bought much more but less frequently during Covid, build more local stores, as people don’t want to travel, or work out how to accelerate home delivery options?

Judging by figures from Ocado there has been a significant shift to home delivery. Sales for the 6 month period to May 2020 were up 27%. Although this mirrored big growth in the online arms of bigger competitors like Tesco and Sainsbury, Ocado stood out as an online-only, shopping-as-a-service, platform provider with global aspirations.

Home delivery of regular groceries is only one facet of our new fondness for online shopping. With spare time in lock-down, we have also discovered a playground of subscription-based services, including online media from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and Disney+. Sports channels that initially showed football games from obscure leagues in Eastern Europe now thankfully screen Premier League matches, and many of us are still enjoying the benefits of the subscription box—the little pop-up window that offered a much reduced price for the first few months in exchange for registering with our credit card details. 

Followers of behavioural economics might be raising their hands now; haven’t they just tricked you with a classic tease, and a knowledge of a cognitive “present bias” – you need sport NOW and you are relatively indifferent to the impacts of future unnecessary spending? Aren’t they disguising a sizeable annual payment into a small monthly figure to hide the “loss aversion” and the pain of paying?

The Guardian Newspaper reported this month that one on ten Britons signed up for new subscription services during lockdown. Deliveries of gin were quoted, alongside artisan cheese, organic food and more general comestables, needed by those who’d discovered online shopping for the first time, only to find that supermarkets were no longer able to take new online customers. This demand was such that Ocado’s premium service was occasionally ridiculed (and probably often cancelled) when Smart Pass members found that no delivery times were available despite a priority guarantee provided by their £10.99 per month subscription.

The rise of subscription boxes – both physical, in the form of cardboard boxes delivered to the home, and digital, in the shape of behavioural nudges – is evident around the world, as venture capital-based, on-line startups tempt consumers with product from razors (Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club) to roasted coffee (Nespresso, and thousands of independents), from dating to porn, from wine sites like Naked Wine to fitness apps like Strava. They range from the celebrity-endorsed cosmetics and lingerie like Rihanna’s Savage Fenty underwear (apparently, it drops every month with no strings attached) to quirky charity programs like The latter by the way is not a joke and the founders deserve a medal for their fundamental cause of improving the situation of over 40 percent of the world population that lacks clean water and sanitation. They should also be recognised for solving the UK early lock-down toilet paper crisis for charitable subscribers who were hand-delivered their decorative rolls…who says there’s no such thing as karma for the kind? 

The Covid-led growth in subscription payment arrangements has added to an already large base of payment instructions handled by billers, payments companies and bank account providers. According to IMA Research “Home Services and the Subscription Economy: 2020” published in April, half of all American adults now have five or more subscriptions to services, with media streaming making the bulk of the Subscription Economy. Apparently over 20 million Americans subscribe to 11 or more services spending $200+ per month. The Subscription Economy is booming.

So this is where services like the new Lloyds Bank app comes in.

The app is similar to money management and data access platforms provided by newer “challenger banks” (like Monzo and Starling) that provide consumers with access to their spending habits via easy-to-use mobile apps. Lloyds though is the UK’s largest bank, and it has 11 million users of its mobile banking app, and its move into subscription management services marks a clear intent of putting mainstream consumers back in control of their finances and their payment arrangements.

The rationale is based on consumers occasionally getting carried-away with the excitement of a behaviourally-engineered sales offer, and entering into a recurring card payment arrangement, known in the UK as a Continuous Payment Authority. This kind of payment arrangement is an approval for the biller to initiate a payment for a variable amount from the consumer’s account, as though the consumer had left a pre-approved card behind at a bar. It’s certainly convenient and “frictionless,” but given the increasing number of subscription-based payment arrangements we are now leaving with billers, Lloyds have rightly spotted a need to help consumers to get a better grip on potentially over-exubarent spending.

This is a good thing. Even though I work in the world of digital payments, I do not wish for an untrammelled growth of digital payments volume unless it also meets the mutual and sustainable needs of both billers and payers. One might argue for buyer-beware, but when you add the extra seriousness of some unscrupulous billers—including payday loan providers—tricking payers into overpaying via small-print increases in the variable payment amounts, perhaps greater protection is needed for unwitting buyers.

Even if the bad end of the billing market is small and covered by general consumer protection law, billers should also see the benefits of a move to more transparent and controllable billing practices. I can cite several cases in my own experience—particularly in lockdown—where I have wanted to change a monthly payment to a service provider and found it impossible to do so. In one case I could change a donation amount down to a minimum level (£10 per month), but there was no way to change it to zero (or to cancel) other than by contacting a call centre (which is still not taking calls during the pandemic). My enthusiasm for these companies’ services, and my satisfaction with their sign-up processes, had been high. My subsequent discovery of a clunky, opaque payments management system left me feeling weary. 

The new Lloyds app will make it much easier to re-evaluate these billing relationships, and to support a useful dialogue with billers. It will also help me remember where all of my forgotten payment arrangements are too (hopefully it’s not just me who’s a bit disorganised!). If I’m still feeling uneasy, I might take advantage of the cancel button—3 clicks is all it takes apparently.

Lloyds will not be alone in seeing the opportunities to help both consumers and billers, particularly as new, open payment infrastructures and digital overlay schemes (like Request for Payment) are emerging as viable and more transparent options compared to traditional CPAs. Lloyds, after all, is making sure it is keeping up with its competition, including the challenger banks and Fintech companies than offer money management apps. Curiously, some of these are operated on a subscription-based model, so I may end up subscribing for a service that could cancel itself. But that’s too much recursive physics for now. 

Having reviewed my billers, I haven’t churned on any of them just yet—I do not subscribe that easily to cancel culture. I prefer common-sense, civil discussions. But it’s great to know that back-up support for a non-confrontational cancellation is available.

the GuardianGin, cheese and coffee: Britons flock to subscription services in lockdown

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