Retail Revolution   /   July 22, 2020

Why call-to-cancel policies are an accessibility nightmare

The FAQs of contact lens subscription company Hubble include a question which should have an obvious answer: “May I cancel?” Hubble’s response is in chirpy DTC-speak: “Yes, of course – you’re in control.” 

But that isn’t entirely true. Though customers can sign up for a Hubble subscription at any time of the day or night, canceling the policy requires picking up the phone and calling a specific number — but only between “9AM and 5PM EST, Monday through Friday, and 1PM and 5PM, Saturday, excluding federal holidays.” 

Customers hate call-to-cancel policies. They’re fiddly, time-consuming and inconvenient. And for people who may be Deaf or hard of hearing — approximately 15% of the population — they pose still more challenges. Meanwhile, some of these practices walk an extremely tenuous legal line.

In the midst of the pandemic, when customer service teams have been stretched to their limit, cancelling subscriptions or services has become still more challenging, sometimes involving waits of an hour or more. Car sharing company Zipcar has become an online target for irate customers who have been placed on hold for hours at a time while trying to cancel the service. It is not possible to cancel a subscription in any other way. (Zipcar did not respond to requests for comment.)

In some cases, it has been literally impossible for customers to cancel services at businesses such as 24 Hour Fitness, with service lines unstaffed for weeks or months on end. Customers have sometimes opted to cancel credit cards outright to end a subscription service, after being repeatedly cut off or unable to reach a salesperson. 

An extra burden
For Deaf people who communicate through sign language, videophones can help to bridge the gap. Here, customers are connected to a video relay interpreter, who interprets the customer service representative for the Deaf person. “We carry the conversation like hearing people would do on the phone,” said Philip Mecham, a Deaf artist based near Washington, D.C. Because his videophone works through the television, these calls can only be made from home, making it hard to resolve issues if he’s out and about. “I prefer to be able to click on something online. It’s faster and easier.” 

But not all Deaf people do sign, especially those who may not have grown up with a close connection to the Deaf community or who may have lost their hearing later in life, rendering these services irrelevant. 

Caroline Bailey lives in Austin, Texas, and uses a cochlear implant — a small electronic device that can give people with more severe hearing loss a sense of sound — to help her have conversations in person. But using the phone is more of a challenge. While some Deaf people use captioning devices that make it easier, “those don’t really work for me,” she said. 

A few years ago, Bailey signed up for a subscription with the athleisure retailer Fabletics. Then — as now — the company’s cancellation policies stipulated that customers had to ring up to cancel the subscription outright. To avoid calling in, Bailey would instead cancel her selection online for that month, every single month. “Sometimes I forgot and would get charged,” she said. 

After a few months, she reached out to see if there was a workaround. The company agreed to allow her to cancel over email instead — but not until she reached out and asked for the option directly. 

For people with disabilities, challenging encounters with companies that fail to consider accessibility are all too common. But for the brands themselves, they’re a missed opportunity to do better by the roughly 20% of Americans with permanent disabilities, as well as the countless others who may have a temporary or situational impairment. 

Ignoring accessibility comes at a cost: more than 2,000 companies, among them Domino’s and Target, have faced digital accessibility lawsuits over their failure to comply with accessibility laws. On top of that, this group of more than 68 million people has some $490 billion of disposable income — which they won’t spend with brands who won’t make an effort to meet their needs, according to a recent report from marketing firm Nineteen Insights. 

The legal standing
Since 2018, call-to-cancel policies have been rendered illegal, due to California Senate Bill No. 313, which covers “any business that makes an automatic renewal or continuous service offer to a consumer in this state.” That’s, in short, anything involving a subscription. The law states that if customers can opt in to the subscription online, they should be able to opt out online too, putting an end to tedious hours waiting to speak to a customer service agent. Though the ordinance is state-specific, it could theoretically benefit dissatisfied customers regardless of where they are in the US. Instead, DTC subscription companies such as Hubble and disposable underwear brand Willow provide an email address for cancellations — but stipulate that it is only for California customers. (Neither Hubble nor Willow responded to requests for comment from Modern Retail.) 

The practice is also common among media businesses, particularly newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, for example, gives California-based customers access to a click-to-cancel link, but tells customers based elsewhere to call in to end their subscription. Others, like the New York Times, have a chat function that is only sometimes available: “When chat is available, click the “Chat” button to the right or bottom of this page.” (It is not explicitly stated anywhere when chat might or might not be available.)

The Times now faces a class action suit from a customer in California, who alleged that the newspaper renewed her subscription without telling her, and made it deliberately difficult for customers to cancel by employing a so-called “dark pattern” in its cancellation procedure — ”a process design that requires several complex procedures to do simple things.” 

In a statement to Law and Crime, a Times spokesperson defended its practices: “We are confident that our marketing and subscription practices fully comply with California law and the laws of other states,” said Danielle Rhoades Ha, a Times vice president for communications. “We take seriously our commitment to deal openly and fairly with our subscribers and to provide effective customer service.”

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