Monday, September 14, 2009

The Fees, the Rule of Three, and Me

Twice in the same day last week, two companies I've done business with for a long time hit me with outrageous penalty fees that were (in my mind, of course) unjustified. One was United Airlines. I had made return flight reservations for the wrong day and had to change them; the fee to change them wasn’t much ($6), but without explanation, I lost our Economy Plus upgrades, which cost significantly more.

The other was the Bank of America, with whom I've had a love-hate relationship since college. My credit card bill was due on Labor Day, and I made the payment through online banking on the preceding Sunday. No, came back the reply, this won’t post until Tuesday. I'm confident there will be a $39 late fee for that (which, as a supposed valued customer, I will contest).

My rant, however, is not about these fees. It's that I feel powerless about protesting.

The most logical protest is to take my business elsewhere. But where? In economics, there's a concept called the "Rule of Three" (though I'll be darned if I can find who first proposed it). According to this rule, eventually competitors get whittled through attrition and acquisition until only three major players remain.

Take major American airlines. In my youth, you could chose from American, Delta, United, Pan Am, Eastern, National, and TWA for transcontinental flights. Today, only the first three remain. The idea of leaving United behind only brings back worse memories of the times I previously attempted to do so. Of the first three flights I booked on Delta, two were cancelled. The last time I flew on American, the gate agent tore out the wrong coupon from my multi-leg itinerary — and couldn't understand why I was so upset at the idea of arriving at my next destination without a ticket. (For you younger readers, this was when we still actually used tickets.)

Once upon a time, Macy's was our default department store. Retailers would supposedly kill for that kind of loyalty, right? No. After several bad-tasting episodes (one of which involving the receipt a grammatically incorrect, non-apologetic response from some assistant in customer service), we said hasta la vista, returning our credit cards sliced in two.

So what happened? Macy’s (then called Federated Department Stores) went on a buying frenzy. I think the only stores it currently doesn’t own are Wal-Mart and Nordstrom. I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I’ll shop at Wal-Mart, but I do patronize the latter. (To be completely truthful, though, because Federated bought Frederick & Nelson, we have been known to sneak into Macy’s and buy Frangos.)

The same obstacle applies to switching banks. I've never heard anyone say they were happy with their bank (though there have been times I’ve been happy with Bank of America, even after it was acquired by NationsBank). So what's the point of switching? No other institution is better; they've all risen to the same level of barely adequate.

So when you get to middle age, having tried most of the options available and found them lacking, you're stuck when it comes to taking your business elsewhere. There is no elsewhere. Besides, I've spent 20 years learning where all the Versateller machines are, and I'd hate to have to start over.

1 comment:

  1. SF writer Larry Niven uses a common theme in many of his books -- that of the Water Empire. Basically, you have an empire based on something; the empire never collapses until an outside force comes in [e.g. a foreign empire, a lone un-indoctrinated stranger] and destroys it.

    In one of his books, the main character points out that at a certain point in time, there was no longer an "outside" to the all-encompassing empire, which is why the empire was lasting so long. Later, the character realized that HE was the "outside force", and the book goes on.


    It sounds like there is no "outside" of the banking and/or airline industries.