It's Time for a Shoppers' Bill of Rights

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Shopper bill of rights Mark Lennihan, AP
Mark Lennihan, AP
In the wake of a number of high-profile cruise ship disasters, the cruise industry announced this week that it had approved a passengers' bill of rights. The document, which the industry says will be legally binding, mainly concerns passengers' rights in instances where a ship has become disabled.

It resembles a similar bill of rights for airline passengers that the Department of Transportation drew up in 2011. Those rules concerned procedures for dealing with lengthy tarmac delays, lost baggage, and similar issues.

That got us thinking: If cruise ship passengers and air travelers have their own bills of rights, why shouldn't shoppers?

Sure, visitors to retail stores typically don't encounter situations as maddening as being stranded on a floating hotel where the bathrooms don't work, or trapped in a cramped coach-class seat while their flight sits on a tarmac for hours. But the shopping experience is still riddled with frustrations, and less-savvy shoppers are often taken advantage of by dodgy pricing, pushy salespeople and inconsistent policies.

We'd love to see a self-policing effort by the industry to assure shoppers that they can expect certain standards of treatment when they walk into a store. Here are a few things we would include in a shopper's bill of rights.

The Right to Reasonable Fine Print

When retailers run sales and coupons, they include fine print that limits what the deal actually applies to. In most cases, it's relatively harmless -- it defines the effective dates of the promotion, and may exclude select items like gift cards and jewelry.

But problems arise when retailers go totally overboard and try to exclude half the store. Department stores like Sears (SHLD) and Macy's (M) tend to hold sales that exclude dozens of brands from the discount, and earlier this year Guitar Center took some heat for a coupon that excluded more than 300 brands.

Sure, in a perfect world everyone would read and understand the fine print. But it's not unreasonable for someone to see "20 percent off everything" and assume that it applies to most of the merchandise in the store.

The Right to Fair Interpretation of the Fine Print

It's bad enough when there's a ton of fine print in the ad. It's even worse when store employees are inconsistent about applying those terms.

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The other day I was shopping at Banana Republic (GPS), which was having a 40 percent off sale. I found an item I liked and confirmed that it wasn't excluded in the fine print, but a cashier insisted that the discount did not apply. Only when I threatened to leave empty-handed did she check with a manager and apply the discount.

It's understandable that the price of certain big-ticket purchases -- cars, TVs, and so on -- will depend in part on your ability to successfully haggle down the price. But whether or not a store fairly applies the terms of a deal should not be contingent on your willingness to make a scene.

The Right to Uniform Application of Company Policies

It's not just the fine print on coupons that's often left to the interpretative whims of cashiers and associates. Corporate policies on everything from returns to price-matching are often poorly understood or selectively applied by front-line employees.

In our review of store price-match policies, we noted a report from Cheapism that found that some stores were inconsistent in their application of those policies. At Walmart (WMT), for instance, cashiers insisted on seeing competitors' ads to perform a price-match, despite a company policy that explicitly says that you don't need to show them.

We know it's not easy to educate every last employee about every last policy, especially at an enormous company like Walmart. But those policies don't mean much if the people who have to follow them haven't read them. Which segues nicely into ...

The Right to an Informed Employee

Retail employees also need to be informed about the products they're selling, so that they can give accurate advice to shoppers.

That means if you're buying a TV, you have the right to an employee who can tell you the difference between plasma and LED. If you're buying a bra, you have the right to a saleswoman who can properly fit you. If you're buying a computer, you have the right to a salesperson who can tell you whether or not you really need to pay for an antivirus program.

Having smart salespeople makes good business sense for retailers -- Best Buy (BBY), for instance, has realized that well-informed customer service is one of the few advantages it can wield over online competitors. But it's also a matter of consumer rights: If you're misled into buying the wrong TV, bra or software product and then find that you can't return it, that's money out of your pocket.

The Right to Say 'No'

"Is there anything I can help you find?" is no longer the only question you're asked at a retail store. Store associates and cashiers may ask you to sign up for store credit cards and rewards programs; upon checkout, they might also ask for your zip code and email address.

Of course, you have every right to say no to these questions. But sometimes they won't take no for an answer -- I have dealt with pushy associates eager to get commissions on credit card applications, as well as cashiers insisting that I reveal my email address.

But giving them your email address invariably means getting marketing emails, and your zip code can be used to locate you and send you catalogs. Meanwhile applying for a store credit card can temporarily lower your credit score. Shoppers should be notified of the downsides involved with saying "yes" to any of these questions. And salespeople shouldn't be allowed to pressure you after you've said "no."

The Right to Honest Price Tags

You're legally entitled to the price on the price tag. But there are still plenty of shenanigans happening in the background.

One trick: Creating the illusion of a discount by touting a high "original price" next to the ticket price. Kohl's (KSS) is dealing with a lawsuit claiming that it misled customers in this way, while J.C. Penney (JCP) was recently accused of fabricating prices to make its discounts look better.

The Right to Honest Bar Codes

And while we're at it, let's keep barcodes honest, too. Some retailers have dealt with barcode-scanning shoppers by covering the barcode on the box with one of their own creation; the custom code will confuse any price-comparison app. Retailers don't have to tell you all about the lower price you can get from a competitor, but they shouldn't actively hinder you from making an informed purchase.

Fight for Your Rights

There are a lot of things we wish retailers would do better. We hate having to wait in long lines at checkout, for instance. We hate that every retailer has its own return policy to pore through, with various exclusions and time limits. And we wish retailers didn't feel the need to hand us a mile-long receipt covered in promotions and surveys when we're just buying a pack of gum.

We left those grievances out of our proposed bill of rights, because this isn't meant to be a shopping wish list -- the focus here is on basic standards of fairness and honesty that will protect the shopper.

Still, we may have missed a few. If there are certain rights that you feel every shopper should be guaranteed, we'd love to hear about it. Give us a shout in the comments or send an email to Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

22 PHOTOS
The 20 Most Valuable Brands In The World
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It's Time for a Shoppers' Bill of Rights

Brand Value: $27.8 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 34%

What Happened: MasterCard's rank flew up nine spots this year to the 20th most valuable brand in the world, and Millward Brown VP Oscar Yuan attributes that ascent to "the growth of mobile technology." As consumers up their online shopping habits, brands like Mastercard and Visa reap the rewards for offering noncash payment methods.

Brand Value: $34.36 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 34%

What Happened: "They're really into the big data," Yuan explained of the German tech brand, "So [the increase in value] is reflective of a consistent storyline: The growth of mobile shopping." SAP has the big data solutions enterprise companies need.

Brand Value: $36.2 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 5%
 

What Happened: Walmart, however, has mastered the art of brick and mortar shopping. "You can't buy milk online," Yuan said. The retail giant has a large and loyal consumer base that is constantly growing - even internationally.

   ↵

Brand Value: $39.7

Percent Change v. 2012: -8%
 

What Happened: Vodafone's 8% drop in value can be attributed to O2 and Orange's recent success. But at almost $40 billion, it is still one of the largest mobile carriers in the UK.

Brand Value: $41.1 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: -1%
 

What Happened: While Americans might have never heard of the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, Yuan explains that in its home country, "the logo is ubiquitous." ICBC is the first of two Chinese brands in the top 20, a number which is largely due to the countries growing middle class.

Brand Value: $42.7 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 15%
 

What Happened: "I think a lot of the growth is really tied to several consumer trends - and I'm talking about the need for consumers to shop online mobile devices," Yuan told BI. Consumers need to get the products they bought on the internet somehow, and that's where UPS comes in.

   ↵

Brand Value: $45.7 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 34%
 

What Happened: It's almost impossible for brick and mortar shops to compete with Amazon's wide selection, low prices, and mastery of the mobile marketplace - easily allowing consumers to buy anything from anywhere on their phone or tablet. Recent acquisitions of Audible.com and Goodreads also show the company's determination to dominate all aspects of mobile book consumption and sharing.

"There's no stopping amazon as they go international," Yuan said."

   ↵

Brand Value: $47.7 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 20%
 

What Happened: After acquiring Wachovia in 2008, Wells Fargo successfully expanded from a California-based bank to a national name. Coming from California also helped Well's Fargo's image with consumers considering that it was one of the few banks to remain unscathed during the financial crisis. "It also started a major rebranding strategy expansion," Yuan said.

Brand Value: $53 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 8%
 

What Happened: Verizon got a boost after Apple opened its services to carriers other than just AT&T. While Verizon and AT&T's rivalry heats up, Yuan predicts that the competition will up both brands' game. "As data devices continues to proliferate, we will continue to see Verizon do well," he said.

Brand Value: $55.3 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 21%
 

What Happened: "GE ... continued to be one of the most well respected consumer and industrial brands in the world," Yuan said. And the public is starting to see that it makes more than just light bulbs. General Electric has dedicated major marketing dollars to making sure that consumers know it produces everything from airplane engines to wind turbines to medical equipment. Hammering in its dedication to innovation, a recent ad campaign even enlisted the help of famous robots.

"In terms of B2B, GE is one of the most well respected brands," Yuan continued, citing that it was often used in business school case studies.

Brand Value: $55.4 billion


Percent Change v. 2012: 18%

What Happened: China Mobile is the largest mobile carrier and brand in China, so it's a no-brainer that it's one of the most valuable brands in the world. "There are more mobile phone subscribers in China than in the U.S.," Yuan said.

Brand Value: $56 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 46%

What Happened: A key way to bolster global presence is to sponsor the Olympics. But that's not the only thing that upped Visa's brand value so drastically. As one of the most trusted names in non-cash payments, Visa has gained clout in the world of online shopping and mobile payments.

Brand Value: $69.4 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: -6%

What Happened: Marlboro is a top 10 regular, which goes to show that even though smoking is restricted in the U.S. doesn't mean that the rest of the world has laid off the habit. "Marlboro has consistently invested in the brand ever since its inception," Yuan said. "The rugged cowboy is very strong and consistent globally."

To put it another way, "about 25% of world's population are smokers, and they use it 5 to 10 times a day. I don't drink 10 bottles of water a day." That's getting your brand out there.

Brand Value: $69.8 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: -9%

What Happened: As a $70 billion brand, Microsoft is in great shape even in spite of a 9% value decrease. Microsoft is a powerhouse and has a reputation as one of the strongest tech brands in the business. But, Yuan notes, "with consumers, there's confusion as to where Microsoft fits." The company's fortune is largely tied with the PC business, but it has emerged on the mobile scene with the Surface and other devices. The company went through a major rebranding in the summer of 2012 to stay relevant.

Brand Value: $75.5 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 10%

What Happened: AT&T is another company to gain value due to the increasing U.S. consumption of mobile products. For a long time, the service provider had an exclusive deal with the iPhone, so it became synonymous with the new technology. What's really interesting, however, is that even when Apple opened the iPhone up to Samsung and T-Mobile, AT&T's value didn't go down.

Brand Value: $78.4

Percent Change v. 2012: 6%

What Happened: "What's consistently impressive about Coca-Cola is its ability to innovate," Yuan said. "People think that soda consumption is declining, but Coke is turning the business on its head." For example, this year Coca-Cola released a series of freestyle machines which allows consumers and retailers to mix their own flavors of the soda syrup to make their own individual Coca-Cola. The company is constantly innovating and staying fresh.

Brand Value: $90.3 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: -5%

What Happened: Yuan noted that one of McDonald's gifts was the ability to listen to consumers' sentiments and adapt, particularly to growing health concerns. "It has come out with a much healthier menu with apple slices, oatmeal, and a Chicken McWrap which has done well," he said.

McDonald's is also gaining a stronghold in the coffee space, which should be an interesting new endeavor to follow.

Brand Value: $112.5 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: -3%

What Happened: At $112.5 billion, IBM's three percent value decrease is not a substantial figure. IBM is known as a company that consistently delivers year after year, Yuan told BI. And it is particularly hailed in the B2B sphere.

Yuan also noted that its Ogilvy-made "Smarter Planet" campaign, in which the company explained its plans to help clients innovate and make the world a better place, inspired consumers to believe in the brand.

Brand Value: $113.7 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 5%

What Happened: Google has effectively taught consumers that it is more than just a search-based company. With maps, mail, shopping, and more, Google is integrated into everyone's lives. The company also made recent headlines about its new contribution to the hardware world in the form of Google Glass. "It will be interesting to see how Google Glass will contribute to the brand value, but now it's too soon to tell," Yuan said.

Brand Value: $185 billion

Percent Change v. 2012: 1%

What Happened: In spite of harsh Wall Street analysis and media speculation regarding Tim Cook's leadership capabilities, Apple continues to be a strong brand in the eyes of consumers - a major value measurement for Millward Brown. "Despite what the press says and stock market says," Yuan noted, "Apple in the eyes of the consumers is the gold standard."

In the last eight years, Apple's value has increased 1,045% - only topped by Subway's meteoric 5,145% rise. (Although Subway still hasn't broken the top 20.)

Those companies are constantly innovating to stay on the top.[Those companies are constantly innovating to stay on the top.]The gay pride Oreo, from Kraft's Facebook page.

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