If we're going to be sold extras, we should at least be asked if we want them first

Should we really have to read all the T&Cs before signing on the dotted line?

The other day, I went to the supermarket.

As I stood by the till, searching for my card, the checkout girl slipped a number of extra products into my bags. She was chattering away at such a pace I couldn't make sense of what she was saying. When I came to pay, the bill was much larger than I had expected and I realised that my bags were filled with items I didn't need or desire. I complained to the manager but she said it was my fault. If I didn't want the extra products I shouldn't have allowed the girl to sneak them into my shopping in the first place.

Does that sound fair to you? No, no it doesn’t, does it? Well, that is more or less what happened to me the other day only, I wasn't at a supermarket...I was at an Avis car depot in Central London.

Before I get started, here is the statement from Avis. Read it carefully and in a silly, high-pitched voice...

When an Avis customer arrives at a rental station to collect their vehicle, a full contract review takes place whereby the agent talks through the contract with the customer, highlighting the Optional Services available to them, including Premier Cover and Fuel Up Front. Should customers wish to take out any of these Optional Services, they are asked to initial the corresponding area of the contract to confirm they agree to this. Based on Mr. West’s paperwork, the Station Leader has advised that a contract review took place and that the agent followed standard procedure.”

The agent did not talk through the contract in full, she hurtled through it like a hysterical jibber-jabber. Nor did she highlight 'Optional Services', she sneakily added them to my agreement without making it clear what she was doing. The only thing she highlighted was her hair. I was not clearly asked whether I wished to take out optional extras because, if I had been, I would have said no.

 

Now, I shall tell you what really happened.*

I rented a car for the New Year. I had to get from London to a cottage near Stone Henge (my favourite henge). I was extremely nervous because I have a terrible habit of getting lost on the simplest of journeys. I once got confused trying to exit my garage and ended up in the fridge. So, I arrived at the Avis car rental office near Victoria Station feeling a little nervous. I was met by a young lady with a foggy accent who smiled sweetly and took my booking details. She informed me my car was waiting and that it was a Peugeot. A Peugeot. It gets worse.

You see, the woman then performed an incredible transformation into a sort of customer services Ganesh: all arms and biros. Two forms were thrust across the counter towards me. I became lost in a whirlwind of diagrams and bullet points. Suddenly, a pen was in my hand and I was being ordered to sign things! Quickly! Faster! Here, here, here, here and here! I signed the forms. I signed the ceiling! I signed my own bottom! I initialled a bit of paper. I marked a cross where the treasure be buried and I sealed a scroll with wax. She ruffled a deck of cards in front of my face and asked me to pick one. Was there a clown? Who am I? What's happening?

Suddenly, the girl whipped a highlighter pen from her scabbard and scratched short, lurid stripes over seemingly random phrases. The luminous yellow and black forms glared back at me like a cross between the Haynes Manual and Cyndi Lauper. Then, the woman folded the sheets of paper up and handed them to me with all the dextrous manipulation of a master magician. It was done. Oh, reader, it was done and all was lost.

In my innocence, I collected the car and enjoyed a very happy New Year in the cottage. Corks were popped and a cushion had to be washed. 2013 would be splendid. Goodwill to all!

Well, perhaps not quite. It seems that in my confusion at the Avis office, I had initialled a part of the form which gave the company permission to charge me for additional Premier insurance cover as well as windscreen protection. In total, I was going to be charged £37.20 on top of the £57 I had already paid.

I know some will say that I should have shouted 'STOP!' And then taken the forms to a quiet area with a sangria and just…lost myself in them, but the point is this: I never realised at any point during the pick-up procedure that I was being sold anything in addition to what I had already agreed to purchase. At no point did I understand that I was being offered additional products. At no point did I realise that someone was asking me directly if I desired additional products. At no point – and this is crucial – did I consciously agree to buy any additional products. Was I stupid? Perhaps. Naïve? Certainly. But if you are going to sell me something, shouldn't you at least be sure that I have said, clearly enough, whether or not I want it?

I thought I was agreeing to return the car in one piece and to confirm that I wasn’t a murderer. But you can't invite customers to initial things without  being sure that they have clearly understood what it is they are signing up to. In this case I was buying unnecessary insurance. I might just as easily have agreed to own a pet gorilla.

Avis have repaid me the extra charges as a gesture of goodwill. Thank you, Avis, though your goodwill should not be something apparently begrudgingly meted out to customers as placation, it should come as standard.

Perhaps I was unlucky. Perhaps the girl behind the counter had overdosed on energy drinks. Perhaps she gets commission? Perhaps you have used Avis and had a wonderful customer experience. I'm sure many, many people have. I however, will not be recommending them to my friends and will not be using them for any future jaunts.

*In the interests of fairness and to avoid confusion for those devoid of humour, the girl did not have many arms like Ganesh, there was no literal whirlwind, I did not sign my bottom or the ceiling, there is no treasure map, no card trick was performed and she did not keep her highlighter pen in a scabbard. I was, however, expected to drive a Peugeot. That bit is absolutely true.

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