In an ideal world, there would be ample, healthy competition in every industry and consumers everywhere would have access to these numerous options. Additionally, every company would behave ethically and efficiently, respecting consumers and the law. But from what I’ve been told from people familiar with the situation, our world is slightly imperfect and sometimes we end up doing business with companies we’d rather avoid.
And since we do live in an imperfect, complicated, multifaceted world, there are numerous ways we end up standing at the cashier of some big box store, or giving our payment info to some anonymous website, wondering just how it is we got to that point.
We’re sure that readers will come up with more, but we boiled down the most common reasons that consumers give for continuing to work with a company they despise into five categories…
There’s a reason why Internet Service Providers are the lowest-ranked of all the industries in the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index, and why these same companies account for 11 of the bottom 12 names in the 2014 individual rankings. And it’s not just because they provide mediocre service at a high price.
It’s because most consumers have no choice of provider. Your ISP is often determined by your street address, much like you often have no choice for water, gas, electric or landline phone service. But unlike those public utilities, broadband is largely unregulated and the industry is doing everything it can to keep it that way.
Another company that gets your money whether you want it to or not is your mortgage servicer.
You spent all that time finding just the right loan from just the right company, only to have that loan sold to another company without any input from you. This can, and probably will, happen again and again, with a new name showing up on your mortgage statement more regularly than you buy new shoes.
Then there are some no-choice situations that exist because of one’s location. If you live far from a major airport, you’re stuck having to deal with whatever airline services the airport closest to you. If you hate that airline so much you won’t fly it, then prepare to drive even farther.
And if you live in a “food desert,” you’re either doing your grocery shopping at 7-Eleven or you’re traveling a far distance to the closest supermarket you might also hate.
You’d really like to buy your clothes, books, food, furniture, and video games at small, independent retailers that support the local economy. But in your town, all those things are so much cheaper to buy at the big box stores with their mammoth, characterless parking lots.
To some, the extra cost of shopping at the mom-and-pop stores is justifiable on principle. To others, a dislike for Walmart, Target, Best Buy or any other huge retail chain might not be enough to counter the temptation of deep discounts.
The same can be said of those who would love to patronize their local bookstore but can’t avoid the siren song of cheaper prices on Amazon or Overstock. Sure, Amazon gets into immature staring contests with publishers over a few pennies, but… $14.99 for a new hardcover!?
And while you might hate a particular petroleum company for its involvement in environmental disasters, unsafe working conditions at its refineries, or for receiving huge tax breaks from the government, it’s hard for some to justify filling up elsewhere if that company’s gas stations sell fuel cheaper than anyone in town.
As my grandfather never said (but I’m going to pretend he did), “Principles are for those who can afford them.”
You once again pull into the parking lot of the big box stores. But this time, it’s not because Walmart or Meijer is cheaper than what you can get elsewhere. Instead, you’re begrudgingly shopping there because you can get everything you want without having to drive all over town going from store to store.
The get-it-now convenience of a bricks-and-mortar store is another reason some people put aside their distaste for a retailer. The Super Bowl won’t wait for Amazon to deliver that new TV, so you suck it up and deal with the company you’d been trying to avoid.
On the flip side of that coin are people who have a dislike for online retail but turn to the Web in a pinch.
Airline-choice can also be a matter of convenience. Even if you live in a city serviced by multiple carriers, you might still end up traveling on an airline you despise simply because it has the most direct route to your destination, or because it flies at times that are most convenient for you.
We’ve seen this a lot in recent years with the fast food industry. Maybe you’re upset with McDonald’s over concerns about questionable employment practices, or maybe you weren’t pleased when Chick fil-A’s top exec shared his personal views on same-sex marriage — but damn if you don’t occasionally crave a Big Mac or a spicy chicken sandwich with a big cup of iced tea.
Perhaps you find out that the luxury hotel you’ve been waiting years to stay at is owned by a dictatorial despot from a country you’ve barely heard of. Do you cancel your second honeymoon on principle? If there’s no refund, it’s not like you’re doing any financial damage with your cancelation.
This tug-of-war between one’s deeply felt affection for a product and his abject disgust with the business behind that product is expressed elegantly in this John Oliver segment about trying to enjoy the World Cup while being fully aware of the unfathomable greed of FIFA:
Sometimes you can have all the principles in the world and it just doesn’t matter.
Not for lack of choice or because one company’s offerings are alluringly cheap, tasty, or convenient, but rather because any company you choose is probably a losing bet.
Take the wireless industry as an example. After nearly five years of posting about problems with ATT, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, and all the various prepaid brands, I’ve realized that a substantial percentage of customers of each of these carriers is convinced that their provider is the worst. Sometimes it’s because their current provider charges more. Other times it’s because the carrier has sketchy coverage in their area. And they all have problems with customer service and billing.
To many people, switching from one carrier to another is like jumping from the frying pan into a different colored frying pan. This is because wireless providers spend so much money throwing promotions at new customers.
Another example of this “no win” attitude is banking. Many people who only have basic checking accounts are, at best, mildly satisfied by their financial institution.
While consumers once had close relationships with their bankers, even if they just popped in once or twice a week to deposit a check or two, this connection has faded in recent decades as banks have encouraged customers to do all of their transactions online or via ATMs; it’s hard to relate to a bank when you have no interaction with it.
Combine that impersonal relationship with banks’ roles in the Great Recession and you’ve got a large chunk of the population that doesn’t really care where they bank because they feel like they’re getting screwed regardless.