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Welcome to the App-athy Economy

When cancellation is too painful

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

A little over a year ago I finished a spin class, retrieved my phone, and discovered a concerning number of missed calls from an unknown number. “Holy shit,” I thought, “a family member is dead.” I called back and encountered a weary voice. “Everything is fine,” she told me, clearly annoyed. “You had an appointment with Handy but no one answered the door.”

After apologizing profusely to the woman who spent 20 minutes of her afternoon with her finger on my buzzer, I hung up confused. I had used Handy — an app that allows you to schedule house cleanings and handiwork — only once a few months ago, when I stumbled upon a (very good!) deal that offered a two-hour cleaning for $40. Later that evening, in a Memento-esque investigation to understand the mix-up, I realized I hadn’t read the fine print. By accepting the discount, I had agreed to sign up for a Handy subscription — something that, at the time, I thought I could dodge by deleting all the recurring appointments they’d automatically scheduled for me. It turns out that clicking a few “cancel” buttons wasn’t enough to eliminate all my future appointments. The only way to do that was to dial an 800 number and speak to an actual human being. And those human beings were available to talk only during the hours I worked.

Bored yet? Want to check your Twitter mentions? That’s what companies like Handy are banking on. Though the startup has since made its cancellation process fully digital, it began like so many smartphone-centric services do, with a site designed to exploit the short attention span of spoiled digital natives like me. For every luxury that you can summon with a few taps on your smartphone — Fresh razors! Preplanned meals! Someone who will scrub the grime out of your bathtub! — there is an intentional and rage-inducing labyrinth to cancellation. These systems are designed to exploit the passive nature of the smartphone-addicted who have become accustomed to easily opting out of human interaction. We can ignore a work email, slow-fade from a relationship, and drunkenly order a pizza at midnight, but when it comes to wringing money from the hands of Kate Hudson’s athleisure company, we must put in unpleasant, time-consuming work and communication.

The Difficult Cancellation™ is not unique to the app economy. Companies like AOL and Comcast perfected the art long ago, and have since contributed to a steady feed of harrowing and absurd customer-service tales. The specifics vary, but it usually goes like this: You hate your service and don’t want to pay for it anymore. There is no way to cancel your service online. You set aside some precious time in your life, a Saturday afternoon maybe, and you call. You likely sit through a phone tree, and maybe a particularly offensive amount of hold music. A customer-service professional makes declarations of loyalty and service to you. Then you are transferred several times. Every time that happens, the history of your past conversations with previous customer-service agents is mysteriously erased, as if every agent’s hippocampus has been removed from his or her brain. Sometimes they just hang up on you. Eventually you are dissed into submission. You probably don’t call back. You’re probably still their customer.

The subscription-based apps we use on a day-to-day basis tend to be more duplicitous than their predecessors. Everyone knows that dealing with a utility company is a necessary evil, but the selling point of subscription-based apps is the snappy convenience of offering to do something that would otherwise be minorly inconvenient to do yourself. No need to drag a sack of dirty clothes to your local laundromat, wait in line, and — ugh — speak to a person. Just tap your phone’s screen between texts, scan your credit card number, and wait for someone or something to show up at your doorstep.

Like utility companies, startups know just how unwilling that people — specifically, those weaned on cell phones — are to fight for, well, anything but a spot at a surprise Kanye concert. And those startups have developed their own way to exploit that. The process varies, but it’s basically a smartphone version of the previously documented cancellation process: There is no way to cancel your service via the app. Even if you delete the app, the company still keeps your information. You set aside some precious time in your life, a Saturday afternoon maybe, and you search the website for cancellation guidance. Maybe there’s a link to it buried at the bottom of the page in text that’s smaller than a baby bird’s eyelash. Click on it, and you learn that, actually, you must email someone from the support staff. Or maybe you need to call a customer-service number that is staffed only from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. (Remember, it’s Saturday.) You probably forget to email. You probably forget to call. You’re probably still their customer.

Newborn startups live or die by subscriber numbers, so it’s common for otherwise legit businesses to trap users into a cycle of indifference. Handy did it. Spotify once did, too. A lot of companies are still doing it. There are many bitter Reddit threads dedicated to the difficulties of abandoning premade food delivery services like Blue Apron. If you pay for Tinder Plus, the auto renewals are hard to squash. Birchbox forces yearly subscribers to contact the company “directly” to opt out. Lingerie subscription app Adore Me has been accused of scamming its customers in this area. The music-streaming service Tidal was caught reactivating and charging the accounts of people who had made it through the excruciating canceling process. And JustFab, an e-commerce startup that’s home to Kate Hudson’s Fabletics clothing line, has faced scrutiny for running unauthorized charges on customers’ accounts and deceiving users into signing up for monthly subscriptions. (Been there. Hi, Kate.) Google an app’s name alongside the word “cancel” and you’re likely to find a rage-filled message board of people describing their long and agonizing journeys to freedom before you find a path to dumping the service.

The Better Business Bureau has encountered plenty of complaints about these practices, and holds firm that, rather than passively charge customers, businesses should ask for subscribers’ consent before automatically renewing their plans.

“Negative-option sales have been around for decades, but there is an ever-increasing range of products available, from clothing to razors to gourmet foods,” a Better Business Bureau spokesperson told me via email. “The seller must not assume a consumer’s silence or lack of action is approval of future orders. Consumers must proactively consent to the subscription, either online, on the phone, or in person.”

Nevertheless, tracking these charges has become so difficult that it has spawned subscription services to address subscription services. Apps like Trim, Truebill, and Prosper Daily scan your bank account to warn you of any recurring monthly charges that seem sketchy, or just unnecessary (Cough, LinkedIn Premium.) Startups like Recurly exist to help companies set up and manage subscription-based billing. (Their clients include Sling and Twitch.) Their existence is proof enough that subscription-based services are here to stay. “We have observed significant growth in subscriptions from both traditional companies as well as new businesses alike,” Recurly CEO Dan Burkhart told me over email, explaining that the appeal is that customers can “adopt the service without having to contemplate large, up-front purchase prices to ‘own’ a product, when instead they can ‘pay-as-you-go’ via subscriptions.” According to Truebill CEO Yahya Mokhtarzada, a recent survey of more than 10,000 users shows that the average number of subscriptions per person has doubled over the past 18 months.

“What’s very clear is there is a number of goods and services that we use to purchase as an upfront basis that have now migrated to subscription,” he told me. “Ten years ago, we might have gone and bought CDs. Five years ago, we might have bought songs on iTunes. But today everyone I know has a Spotify subscription.”

Mokhtarzada can relate to my harrowing tales about Handy and Fabletics (a service he says people are constantly asking Truebill to cancel) because he has one of his own. In September 2015, he noticed a $40 in-flight Wi-Fi charge on his credit card bill, but hadn’t flown anywhere for months. Once he did some research, he realized that he’d paid for the service 14 months ago, and had been tricked into a monthly subscription. After hearing a similarly frustrating story from his brother, he started his company the following month.

Mokhtarzada believes we’re in the middle of a “paradigm shift” happening in the world of subscription services, in which some companies are willing to streamline their cancellation processes and others are holding on to deceptive practices as long as they can. Ultimately, however, he sees the problem of recurring fees as a generational one.

“I remember growing up, my parents would sit down once a week and balance their checkbook,” he said. “Back then you had to know how much money you had in your account, because there was a fear of overdraft and people were paying with checks. Our generation’s just much more disconnected from our money. We don’t know how much we have in the bank. In a lot of cases we don’t have to know, because we just sort of swipe our card and it either goes through or gets declined.”

Subscription apps are about to get even more incentive, too: According to a new report from The Verge, Apple is going to give more money to apps with a subscription model that can keep their customers for at least a year. This could easily cause developers making just another app to turn it into a subscription and catch more consumers who don’t read the fine print. Apple says, though, that it wants these apps to be user friendly, for instance by providing a prompt to opt out should the price of the subscription go up.

No one should be surprised that modern businesses have adopted the long-practiced method of exploiting laziness and repackaged it inside an app icon to live on our smartphones. What’s trickier these days is that the sheer privilege of our app-based spending is often enough to keep us from being outraged. When I canceled the ultra-shady Fabletics subscription last year, my anger wasn’t directed at the company. More than anything, I felt shame for paying an app to send me clothes when I could’ve taken a 10-minute subway ride to buy my own. The fact that I’d been tricked into shoveling over a fee every month was only salt in the wound. The excessive bourgieness of these services breeds a special kind of guilt, one that tends to cloud any blame I harbor for the company. That’s what’s so brilliant about exploiting apathy as a business practice — it tends to breed self-loathing rather than outrage.

That said, when news broke that Cleanly, a New York–based laundry-delivery service, would be offering free 30-day trials to its new subscription service, I couldn’t help but sign up. Don’t worry; I set a calendar alert to remind me when the period is up. Hopefully I’m not in the middle of a spin class when I get it.