Monday, June 05, 2006

My annual wrangle with Time Inc.

A few habits from my childhood have proven impossible to shake off, and reading Time is one of them. My browser homepage is, which keeps me somewhat attuned to the daily news cycle, but I've never subscribed to a daily newspaper myself (though my parents had a WashPost subscription for as long as I can remember) -- I lack the time and discipline for that kind of reading. I rely on a weekly newsmagazine to make sure I don't miss anything huge. Time brand loyalty runs deep. Although it's gone through periods of being frustratingly fluffy, I've always stuck with the magazine. The idea of switching to Newsweek or U.S. News and World Report feels wrong on some sort of cellular level; my family is a Time family, and that's that.

Not that Time Inc. hasn't done its best to drive me away. My subscription has been running for close to ten years now, and I'm sufficiently addicted to the magazine that I don't want to have a gap between renewals. The sensible thing would be annual auto-renewal, right? Cheaper for them then trying to win my business afresh each year, and easier for me.

But why would a magazine publisher do the sensible thing when it can instead inflict pain and suffering on loyal subscribers?

Try the trick of eBaying your magazine subscriptions and you'll see that a year's worth of Time runs about $10. If I were frugal above all, I'd let the subscription die each year and eBay up a fresh one. But I'm sufficiently opposed to gapping my subscription that I'm willing to pay a bit more for a proper renewal.

I am not, however, willing to let Time Inc. blatantly hose me.

Go to and click on subscribe, and you'll see a year's subscription priced at $29.95. That's been the subscription price for at least two or three years.

If I click on the Renew button and log in, what rate does it want to charge me? $49.84.

So, Time wants me to reward my customer loyalty by charging me $20 more than a new subscriber would pay. This, of course, makes my inner consumer advocate go RAAAAAR. The one year Time managed to sneak through one of those automatic renewals it routinely gets legally smacked for, I recall the rate being even higher, around the $60/year mark. (I called, screamed a lot, and got the charge reversed and the automatic renewal cancelled.)

Because the renewal disparity offends me so much, I started writing in to Time's customer service to complain about it. And discovered that if you complain about it, they go "oops, sorry!" ... and agree to bill you the lower rate.

So Time Inc. and I now have this annual Kabuki dance each June, as my subscription comes up for renewal. They invoice me for the higher cost, I write in a scathing email pointing out that their renewal rate is $20 higher than the new-subscriber rate, and two days later, they email back the form letter offering me the lower rate. From this year's installment:

Please understand that testing different rates is a common marketing practice. The offer you mention is targeting new subscribers. The offer enables potential customers to review the magazines at that low rate to decide if they would like to continue with a subscription. Because we value your business, we will be happy to extend your current subscription with that offer, if you like.

You may visit our website and renew your subscription from there. Or, if you prefer, you may return this e-mail with your full name, complete mailing address (including city, state, and zip code), and account number. Please include your order and billing instructions.

We apologize for any confusion and look forward to hearing from you!

Exceptional customer service is our number one priority.

The whole wrangle is annoying enough that I regard magazine renewals the way most people do the annual trip to the dentist. It's June? Oh, hell, time to go fight with Time again.

Please, Time Inc., can we have a cease fire? I will give you the thing every marketer dreams of, my credit card number and a standing annual-renewal order, if you will please just promise to do one simple thing: give me your lowest subscription rate. It's been ten years, and I think we're ready for that kind of commitment. It's time for us to break this cycle of dysfunction.

If not ... well, I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but ... that Newsweek does keep filling my mailbox with some alluring come-ons.