"More consumers are paying through autopay on their credit card or through e-bills, so they're not looking at these fees as closely and may not notice these incremental fees that get added in," Breyault says. "The result is still the same -- consumers pay more through often dubious fees -- but they may not notice the fees as much. "
It's still a pretty dangerous game of chicken for a company to play, especially if the consumer can take his or her business elsewhere. Netflix lost roughly 800,000 subscribers last summer after it divided services and jacked up its fees. Netflix eventually regained numbers, but not before Disney (DIS), News Corp. (NWS) and Comcast's joint streaming venture Hulu Plus saw business increase 60% for all of 2011.
Meanwhile, a J.D. Power and Associates study found that not only did 10% of Americans change banks in 2012 -- with a lot of help from Bank Transfer Day in November -- but Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citgroup (C) lost 1.5% of their consumer deposits. Bank of America alone saw certificates of deposit and investment retirement accounts fall to $82 billion in the fourth quarter of 2011 from $96 billion in the quarter a year earlier. In the last three months of 2011, after the $5 debit card fee was proposed, closed accounts at Bank of America rose 20%. Even when companies try to introduce fees with more subtlety, Breyault says they're going to have to start taking potential consumer outrage into consideration before boosting the bottom line.
"If nothing else, I think their investors will demand it," Breyault says. "I think that if consumers are upset with companies, they have the ability to put their money where their mouth is and switch carriers in the case of Verizon, switch banks in the case of Bank of America and to cancel their Netflix accounts."
As Netflix discovered last year, even consumer good will lasts only so long. While consumer anger with banks and wireless carriers is well known and well voiced, the Netflix hate didn't reach full boil until customers began feeling betrayed by the company's new billing system. Though the high-speed economy leaves companies little time for market research and fully baking ideas such as fee additions, the recent economic climate has eroded their margin for error. Instead of lulling consumers into fee fatigue and masking the true cost of business, Breyault says companies that pile on the fees are ruining their chance of keeping consumers and a share of their reduced budgets. "It just feeds the sense consumers have that they're being nickeled and dimed to death," Breyault says. "I think consumers do have fatigue when they see these fees, but their opportunities to express their outrage in a meaningful way are increasing, so you're going to see more, not fewer, instances where consumers get outraged at fees." -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham.