Which Is the Most Painful Shopping Experience of All?

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Marketers are always trying to convince consumers that shopping is fun. Some consumers even consider shopping to be something of a sport, perhaps even the modern-day national pastime. So why is it that, even in an era when we have access to more information than ever about products and prices, shopping for certain things is inevitably a confusing, frustrating, and all-in-all painful experience?

Below are a few contenders for the title of Most Painful Shopping Experience. But first, let me clarify: All of these things are actually quite easy to buy, provided you have the money handy and don’t mind paying more than you need to. If you don’t want to get ripped off, however, prepare yourself for some pain when trying to make a purchase.

With most products, the listed price actually means something. Neither sellers nor buyers ever expect a new car to be sold for the sticker price, however. So why is it there? I suppose it exists as a starting point for negotiations in which, as I’ve quoted before, “Customers are liars, salesmen are bigger liars, and sales managers are the biggest liars of all.” What we have—by the design of auto manufacturers and dealers, who could sell the cars however they want—is a system in which there’s almost a complete absence of trust from the beginning. When you walk into a car dealership, it is unwise to accept much of anything as the 100% honest truth—not the sticker price, nor an invoice price, nor claims of anyone’s “best offer,” nor the financing promotions laden with fine print, nor all of the extras salespeople try to talk you into buying because they’re “pretty standard,” and on and on. Shopping for a new car is painful because you must be vigilant at all times, because it is impossible to always know what’s true and what’s a lie, and because there’s a significant amount of money at stake here.

Cell Phone and Wireless Plan
Exactly how well with the provider’s service work in a given area? Why is one shiny, sleek, cool-looking handset any better than the shiny, sleek, cool-looking one next to it? What the heck is a megabyte, and how in the world am I going to be able to tell how much data I need to pay for month to month? Am I going to feel really stupid buying a phone today that’ll be on sale for half the price in two weeks, or that will seem like an outmoded dinosaur in six months? These and many others are questions most consumers can’t answer, leaving them at the mercy of salespeople, their own guesswork, and their own sense of which shiny cool object is the shiniest and coolest. And oh yeah, there’s one more question that neither salespeople nor customers can answer for sure: What will I really be paying for this thing? Meaning: Exactly what will my bill come to each month? Unless you opt for a prepaid plan or a pricey unlimited plan, there’s no way of telling how much a phone will really cost you. And if your wireless bill explodes? Well, that’s painful.

TV-Phone-Internet Bundle
There once was a concept that rewarded customer loyalty. If you gave a company your business, over time you could expect better customer service and perhaps even discounts as signs that your business was appreciated. This is not remotely the case with the providers most of us use for in-home TV, phone, and Internet service. Instead, after signing up for the service at a fair introductory price, your bill steadily rises once the intro period is over. Essentially, rather than there being a discount for longstanding customer loyalty, you can plan on paying more and more the longer you give the company your business. The only way a customer can expect better customer service is to call up and complain about the company’s bad customer service and demand some kind of compensation. Overall, rather than rewarding customer loyalty, thereby giving incentive for customers to stick with their provider, the business plan here banks on customer inertia as the main reason customers won’t cancel their service. And the truth is this strategy is working, for now at least: Most people just can’t quit pay TV. The main reason people stick with their providers is the assumption that the competition isn’t much better. When a consumer finally manages to get off the couch and shops around with the idea of switching service providers, he’s presented with confusing numbers and claims, including Internet “speeds up to” figures that are meaningless.

The NY Times’ Haggler column tackled the confounding process of buying mattresses recently, with the help of Consumer Reports, which stated plainly: “Shopping for a mattress can be a nightmare.” Mattress manufacturers sell all sorts of different models at different stores at different price points, and there doesn’t seem to be any legitimate way to tell them apart unless you slice them open with a machete, and this, sadly, is a practice frowned upon by most retailers. Also, in car sticker price fashion, there never seems to ever be a reason to pay retail on a mattress. There are always deals with substantial markdowns—discounts so huge (50% or more) that it’s hard to tell what anything is truly worth. The Times’ conclusion:

The more the Haggler looked at the mattress market, the more he came to conclude — reluctantly, because the Haggler is not naturally inclined to cynicism — that the players in this business are trying to make it confusing.

Medical Care
What with countless variables involving deductibles, co-pays, networks, and HSAs, choosing a health insurance plan is confusing and frustrating enough. Now, with the increasing popularity of high-deductible plans, it behooves the cost-conscious consumer to also shop around and check prices at doctors and hospitals before seeking medical care. This often proves frustrating—because medical care providers rarely list prices in restaurant menu fashion—and it can also prove impractical if, say, you are losing so much blood that it is difficult to dial the phone. Yet people are finding themselves in predicaments like one recently faced by a Star-Tribune columnist, whose 4-year-old son needed stitches:

Three thoughts crossed my mind when my son cut his head open at school. Was he OK? (Thankfully, yes.) How much would it cost to stitch him up? And was there time to call around for price estimates?

Absurd? Of course this is absurd. Even more frustrating is that even if she’d had the time to shop around for the best price on stitches, she wouldn’t have gotten simple answers:

There is no single price. There’s the cash price, or sticker price, and there’s the discounted cash price you might get if you ask. Then there are the 30 different prices that 30 different insurers negotiated with that doctor’s office. Call around and chances are you’ll be quoted different prices. Repeat the process until you suffer from exhaustion or exasperation.

So which shopping experience is the most painful of all? Personally, I really hate the games at the car dealership. But at least at the end of the process, at least you get a new car, new car smell and all. Shopping around for urgent medical care involves actual physical pain, and at the end of the experience, all you get is the satisfaction that the bleeding has stopped, along with a bill.

Read more:
What Is the Most Useless Baby Product of All?