When 16-year-old Bella saw that an outfit she liked was on offer for £22, she wanted to snap it up. She has a PayPal account and used it to pay for the item through the website. But in her excitement over the purchase, she didn't really notice she had signed up for what looks to me a nefarious scheme that snatches £44 a month from the accounts of unsuspecting teenagers.
Fabletics is a sports brand, co-founded by the Almost Famous actress Kate Hudson. It is online only at the moment but plans to open its first "bricks and mortar" stores in the US this autumn. In other words, it's a successful and growing business offering activewear that is highly attractive to teenage girls and young women.
But I'm uncomfortable with the way it is growing its business – an approach that seems designed to lure unsuspecting customers into committing a £44 payment every month for a "subscription".
Here's how it works – as explained by the company to me (although I've stripped out all the hyperbole): "Fabletics is a fashion subscription service and membership site. We give members a personalised shopping experience where they receive their customised boutique on the first of every month. If a member checks her personalised boutique and the other special collections offered on our site every month, and finds she just doesn't want to make a purchase, she can use the 'skip the month' feature by the 5th of the month and not be charged."
Does that all sound fair and reasonable? Then here's the killer part: "If a member doesn't use the 'skip the month' feature, then she will be charged a credit of £44 that she can use at any time, redeemable for items on the site."
In other words, anyone who signs up to the service also signs up to having £44 taken from their account every month, unless they remember to go on to the site to 'skip the month'. Would you remember? Do you think a 16-year-old would? In fact, Bella didn't even know she'd signed up to the commitment until she realised her PayPal account was completely empty – because Fabletics had taken £88 out of it.
Her father wrote to me this week about the company's actions. "I don't think 16-year-old girls read all the small print that I'm sure Fabletics would point to, but they [Fabletics] are happy to take their money. I think it's disgusting," he said.
I looked at the company's site and there is a good deal of exhortation to snap up an item at the bargain price of £22. But then you have to go through what seems a convoluted process to do so, which mainly involves answering a series of questions about what kind of clothes you like.
By the time you get to the payment and the obligation to sign up for VIP membership to qualify for the discount, you could be forgiven for not grasping that you're signing up to spend £44 each month – or so it seems to me.
And it isn't just Bella who has felt tricked into the monthly expense. On Twitter, anger has been growing about the firm's practices.
Several tweeters have complained, with Christine F telling me: "Same thing happened to my 16-year-old daughter. Pathetic company!"
The business model smacks to me of unscrupulous inertia marketing. That's when firms take payment for goods and services supplied to consumers who have not actively refused offers. In short, if you are offered something and you don't refuse it, the firm takes that as an agreement to buy. It clearly isn't. If a street trader offered you some fruit with a cheery "bunch of grapes?" – but then demanded a couple of quid – you'd tell him or her where to go.
The problem with the ease of online payments and services such as PayPal is that companies can simply take cash out of your account without your knowledge, which stinks.
When I contacted Fabletics about Bella's plight, it said: "As a goodwill gesture we have downgraded Bella's membership and refunded the two amounts of £44 back to her PayPal account."
But here's a warning to anyone thinking of buying from Kate Hudson's company: don't – unless you're prepared to spend £528 a year on the activewear or be active enough to cancel payment every month.
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