Trouble With Default Settings at Online Stores

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As an Amazon Prime member, I pay a yearly lump sum that entitles me to free two-day shipping for my many Amazon purchases. But six months ago, I noticed that small shipping charges were appearing on my bill at checkout; free two-day shipping was no longer the default choice on my purchases. Instead, a check mark ap­­peared next to the option for paid overnight delivery.

I hadn't told Amazon to send the items overnight, so why had the company made this my default? Regrettably, many of the default choices that Web sites make for consumers are good for them, but not for us.

Some cost a bit more, some install software that you don't want, some fill your inbox with newsletters and marketing offers. Sometimes defaults mysteriously change, in the company's favor. More than ever, it's important to review shopping-cart pages and sign-up options carefully when you set up an account, install software, or buy at Web sites.

Consumer-Hostile Decisions

Ed Kountz, an e-commerce analyst for Forrester Research, told me that he hadn't closely examined whether Web site defaults are getting less consumer-friendly. But such a trend wouldn't be surprising, he wrote, "both because of the potential for shifting costs to the consumer, and because of the im­­pact of the recession (when times are tough, wringing every last dollar from a relationship becomes more important)."

Some annoying defaults you can't change. For example, if you sign up for PayPal using a credit card as your funding source, after you spend a certain amount of money (PayPal says that the amount varies from user to user), you must link your account either to a bank account or to a PayPal credit ac­­count. After that, PayPal by default draws funds to pay for your purchases from the bank or from the PayPal credit ac­­count; you can't make the old credit card the default. That arrangement saves PayPal from having to pay fees for each transaction. You can use the old credit card, but you must manually switch the funding source for each purchase.

PayPal changes the default "because that is a more cost-effective transaction for PayPal to process," spokesperson Amanda Pires wrote in an e-mail. But, she added, "We also are currently testing some options for users to select a default for funding their transactions. Once the results of those tests are in, we may make some changes."

My unwanted Amazon shipping preference proved easier to remedy. When I e-mailed Amazon to ask why free two-day Prime shipping was no longer my default option, spokesperson Stephanie Robinett replied that Amazon never changes defaults on its own. However, she added, when you place an order that strays from your default settings, Amazon asks whether you want to make the new settings the default.

So, Robinett suggested, after I entered a new credit card number on an order for which I happened to want overnight shipping, I may have approved a change in the default method because I wanted the new credit card kept on file.

I found it easy enough to go into my account preferences to restore the original settings, once I knew what had gone wrong and what steps I needed to take to put it right. But Amazon should make each specific change in default subject to approval, as opposed to presenting customers with a package of unspecified changes. I still have no memory of approving overnight shipping as a new default.

Once you start looking around, you can find defaults that are unfriendly to users almost everywhere. Think of the boxes you sometimes have to uncheck when you're installing new software (do you really want the Google or Ya­­hoo toolbar that piggybacks on some programs?). Or the newsletters and e-mail offers you have to decline from online sellers that you buy merchandise from. Or the automatic renewals you have to remember to cancel a year later.

Defaulting on Privacy

Then there's the issue of Web site privacy options. These options are regulated (you must be able to opt out), but they often include default settings that allow a company to send you offers or share your personal information with partners (that is, with business customers who buy such data and use it for sales leads). Even when the services offered are online, you may have to telephone or use snail mail to request changes.

Forrester's Kountz doesn't expect that penny-pinching defaults will send customers running. "Some customers may be annoyed, but I doubt the extra clickstroke is enough, by itself, to alter things significantly," he wrote.

I agree, but you have to be paying attention to know that you need to make that extra clickstroke to set your own preferences. Look over invoices carefully before you click the submit button. Be especially vigilant in scrutinizing small fees that appear underneath the base price. Examine all prechecked boxes when you install software or sign up for an account online.

As Web sites focus on their bottom line, customers must look after theirs. And as usual, that means staying alert.

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