Shopping used to be mostly about one-time transactions: a replacement ink cartridge, say, for $20, a pair of jeans for $65, or $50 for a new video game. Today, we pay a $5 monthly subscription to keep the printer supplied, split the cost of the jeans into three easy payments and download the video game for free, only to be charged 99 cents for every extra feature. Our financial lives have become a series of recurring tiny payments.
A recent, egregious example is BMW’s BMWYY decision to slap a subscription on that coziest of car features: front-seat heating. In vehicles with the required hardware, the automaker is now charging a regular fee – roughly $23 a month in Britain – for customers in certain countries to activate seat-warming, according to information on the company’s website. While luxury automakers aren’t new to subscriptions for services such as driving assistance and navigation software updates, the heated seats charge triggered an international brouhaha.
Canadians need not worry about it. Heated seats “are standard equipment” on the vast majority of the company’s products in Canada, BMW Group Canada spokesperson Marc Belcourt said by e-mail. And “there are currently no plans to introduce subscription services such as this in Canada,” he added.
But the automaker’s move to demand a recurring fee for warming drivers’ bottoms is part of a phenomenon that goes beyond subscriptions. Small charges – you may call them micropayments – have become a steady stream of financial outflows that may make it easier for companies to woo customers’ spending but harder for consumers to budget and keep costs in check, academic research and anecdotal evidence suggest.
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In the United States, where subscriptions generate hundreds of billions of dollars a year, the average consumer now spends an estimated US$219 a month on them, according to a recent survey commissioned by market research firm C+R Research.
This kind of spending in dribs and drabs is hard to keep track of, some experts warn. Case in point: Americans who took the C+R Research survey initially estimated they were spending US$86 a month on subscriptions on average. In fact, the actual average monthly spend was US$133 higher.
In Canada a recent poll by the Bank of Montreal found that around half of respondents had at least one monthly subscription automatically charged to their credit card and around 20 per cent of believed they’d been paying for subscriptions they’d forgotten about.
But consumers now also have the ability to pay for something as inexpensive as a pair of shoes in installment payments with Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) apps such as Afterpay, Klarna, Sezzle and PayBright. That pair of sneakers for $150 is now three monthly $50 charges, another breed of small payments crowding out your budget.
Then there are in-app purchases and microtransactions in video games, which unlock features such as upgraded capabilities or premium content. Want a fancy spaceship to shoot down the aliens? That’ll be another $2.99 drip out of your bank account.
Companies, for their part, have plenty of reasons to love micropayments. Subscriptions, for example, provide recurring revenue, insights into consumer preferences and consumption patterns as well as an opportunity to foster brand loyalty, according to Amy Konary of the Subscribed Institute at Zuora, which provides businesses with subscription management technology.
Subscriptions can also serve to “smooth out business cycles in industries susceptible to seasonal dips and rises in demand,” Ms. Konary said in an e-mail. In the notoriously cyclical travel industry, she cites the example of Alaska Airlines, which in February launched a subscription-based service offering up to 24 roundtrip flights a year for a fixed monthly rate.
BNPL, meanwhile, makes consumers more likely to buy after browsing online – and place larger orders on average – and less likely to abandon their digital shopping cart at checkout, research by McKinsey and Co. suggests.
In-app purchases and microtransactions allow mobile and video games developers to extract revenue from users while often offering apps and games at no charge through the so-called “freemium” business model.
The micropayment trend has advantages for consumers, too. Paying with BNPL, for example, can come in handy for pricey, necessary and urgent expenses, says Toronto-based financial planner Jason Abbott. Imagine, for example, a student who needs a new laptop before the school year starts.
But business models built around micropayments pull psychological levers that generally make it easier to spend and, in some cases, harder to stop spending, according to experts.
Researchers, for example, have found that people tend to forget expenses they consider negligible, said Stephanie Tully, a professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business of the University of Southern California.
“If it’s like a 99-cent purchase, you go like ‘99 cents is nothing’ and it literally doesn’t register in your mind,” Prof. Tully said.
In a 1998 paper based on a series of laboratory studies, John Gourville, a professor of business administration at Harvard University, found that reframing the cost of a product as a series of small, ongoing expenses was an effective marketing technique.
In one experiment, for example, Prof. Gourville found that when a request to contribute to a worthy cause was presented as costing 85 cents a day, 52 per cent of those asked signed up. That compared with only 30 per cent agreeing to donate when the expense was described as an annual $300, which amounts to slightly less than 85 cents per day for a full year.
When it comes to in-app purchases and microtransactions, research suggests that becoming invested in the game raises the likelihood you’ll be ready to spend small amounts on digital add-ons, Prof. Tully said.
And subscription-based payments apply the principle of automated savings in reserve, Mr. Abbott noted. Setting regular transfers from, say, your chequing account to your retirement accounts can help you stay on track with your saving and make it easier to achieve long-term financial goals, research has shown.
It’s why some governments and employers have resorted to automatic enrollment in pension plans – with the option to opt out – to encourage retirement savings. Behavioural economists call this a “nudge,” a term commonly used to indicate something that makes it easier for people to predictably alter their behaviour in a positive way.
But nudges can work the other way, too. Subscriptions are, essentially, spending on autopilot, Mr. Abbott noted.
And cancelling a subscription often involves what economists have ironically termed “sludge,” something that makes a decision more difficult by creating friction.
“If we know what makes somebody likely to do something, we can make it harder for them to do the thing that they would like to do,” Ms. Tully said. “And then yes, we lose patience after being on hold for an hour trying to talk to somebody about cancelling our subscription and we let it go another three months until we have time to call again.”
If you’re noticing a growing mass of micropayments, try auditing your budget or spending plan at least twice a year, says Kathryn Mandelcorn, a cash-flow strategist at financial planning firm Spring Plans.
Ms. Mandelcorn said she regularly sees couples among her new clients who have duplicate subscriptions.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, we didn’t even know we’ve been paying two Amazon Prime’s for three years,” she said.
Sifting through your bank account and credit card statements will help you spot unused subscriptions, evaluate what recurring charges are still worth it and take stock of how much you’re really spending on easy-to-miss transactions like in-app purchases, she said.
And if calendar reminders and spreadsheets throw you off, you can try an app.
BMO, for example, recently rolled out a new feature that helps users track pre-authorized payments as part of its banking app.
The budgeting app Mint, provided by Intuit Inc., whose suite of financial management software includes TurboTax and QuickBooks, tracks subscription spending by spotting recurring payments in users’ accounts. The apps will also let you know if a subscription is new has changed in price or remains unchanged according to Ryan Steckler, who heads up Mint. PocketGuard, another cashflow management app, offers a similar service.
But both Mint and PocketGuard require users to link their financial accounts to automatically track and categorize transactions.
While Mint is completely free to use, it makes money “from carefully selected partner offers that help take Minters’ money further,” Mr. Steckler said in an e-mail. Those offers include credit cards and personal loans that may be appropriate for their financial situation, the company said.
PocketGuard, for its part, offers a premium product with added features that costs $139.99 in Canada. If that seems too high, you can also – you guessed it – pay a monthly or annual subscription.
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