Why Consumers Fight Some Fees, Forgive Others

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Fees are the unpleasant little bumps that shake loose extra revenue in our increasingly high-speed consumer economy, but can we please get some national consensus on which fees are pebbles and which are potholes?

Consumers spent half a year spewing vitriol and lobbing insults at Netflix ( NFLX), which separated its DVD mail service from its streaming video offerings in July and effectively doubled the $7.99 fee it once charged for both. Meanwhile, Comcast ( CMCSA) has raised the average monthly cable bill in Boston from $58 in 2009 to $69 this year while increasing costs in Florida and Minnesota by an average of 5.8% -- and the impact scarcely registered.
Bank of America felt consumer wrath for its fee hikes last year, just like Netflix and Verizon, but some bigger increases stir less outrage.

Think it was any better for customers of telecom service providers? AT&T ( T) U-Verse has increased the price of its base cable package by $3 a month and its base broadband offering by more than $5 a month. A 4% rate hike by DirecTV ( DTV) this year spread the pain to satellite producers as well. Netflix, however, has two traits that several of those providers lack: a nationwide presence and a high profile that puts it in league with companies such as Bank of America ( BAC) and Verizon ( VZ).

"At the basic level, any fees that these companies put in place are going to hurt a lot more people and generate more interest and more controversy, so it's natural that people were upset about that," says John Breyault, vice president of public policy for consumer advocacy group the National Consumers League. "The cable bills, ATM fees and things like that tend to affect smaller chunks of consumers because not as many people are subscribers of Time Warner Cable ( TWC) as they are of Verizon, for example."

Though New York City and Knicks fans suffer when Time Warner blacks out the MSG ( MSG) Network in the middle of Jeremy Lin's star turn as point guard, Verizon heard boos much louder than those generated by the Madison Square Garden faithful when it tried to slap a $2 fee on its bill payers in December. Its "convenience fee" for one-time payments over the phone or online proved so unpopular in social media circles and among online petitioners that the fee was eliminated a day after it went public.

Bank of America took similar heat when it proposed a $5 monthly debit card usage fee for purchases. The furor lasted far longer in that scenario and Bank of America didn't back away from its fee until November, which made Wells Fargo ( WFC) follow suit and drop its pilot program for a $3 monthly fee. Yet for every bank fee that spurs consumer outcry and holds companies to public ridicule, there are countless others that take a similar bite without eliciting so much as a belabored sigh from customers.

The average rate that Bank of America and other financial institutions charge noncustomers to use their ATM machines has risen from $1.36 a decade ago to $2.40 today, according to BankRate. That includes a $3 fee from Bank of America that was not only not shouted down when it was introduced in 2007, but is slowly becoming the industry standard. The average combined fee for using an out-of-network ATM -- including your bank's fee and the ATM bank's fee -- is now above that bar at $3.81.

That's nothing compared with average overdraft fees, which have risen more than $6 in the past decade to $30.83. The Pew Health group estimated that consumers paid $38.5 billion in overdraft fees last year, even after the Federal Reserve made it easier for customers to opt out of overdraft protection.

"Unfortunately, there seems to be a disease among many companies in America that they'd rather try to hide the cost of doing business," Breyault says. "I think consumers want a simple price that they understand and, if it's more expensive to do business, just raise the price and see if the consumers continue to buy your product. "

The banks disagree, as do wireless carriers. Verizon was scared off of its convenience charge, but raised its monthly administrative fee from 83 cents per line to 99 cents without much pushback. Verizon's wireless competitor AT&T, meanwhile, earlier this month jacked its upgrade fee to $36 from $18 for customers buying new smartphones. That's after raising the prices of its minimum data plans for those phones from $15 and $25 a month to $20 and $30 a month.

Those incremental changes only register a response with consumers if they're noticed. They key point of the proposed Verizon convenience fee was to wean customers from one-time payments, which are more costly for the provider to process, and onto a more automatic payment system. Breyault says those automatic payments are the easiest way to sneak a fee increase past a consumer who may not be checking his or her bills as frequently. The old "out of sight, out of mind" cliche certainly applies when companies' fee structures start incentivizing behavior that saves them money.

"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.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.