Consumer IQ

In 2014, Beware of the Word “Free”

Beware of the Word "Free" :: Mint.com/blog

How dumb do they think you are?

As the dust settled on the now-finished holiday shopping season, I couldn’t help but wonder.

One study concluded this holiday shopping season was one of the strongest seasons in recent memory, adding that more than 71% of shoppers said they plan to take advantage of “free shipping” offers, while nearly half (47%) expect “free” returns.

I nearly choked on my espresso when I read that. Did they just say “free”?

Right about now, half of you are saying to yourself: TANSTAAFL! That’s shorthand for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” and you’re right, of course.

Bonus points if you can tell me which Robert Heinlein book it’s from. (Yeah, I grew up reading sci-fi novels.)

The other half? “Grinch!” (Belatedly.) Or worse.

Maybe you’re among them. Maybe you want to believe that the shipping is free, that the returns are free. You definitely don’t want anyone to burst that bubble.

Allow me, please.

I’m not the only consumer advocate who has a bee in his bonnet about the way companies have twisted the word “free” to their own ends.

Just the other day, I was talking with a colleague — there are only about five other consumer advocates who do this kind of journalism, so we all know each other — and when I mentioned the little “free” problem, he rolled his eyes.

“Don’t even get me started,” he groaned.

There’s a sense, he explained, that corporate America has won on this issue. It gets to call something “free” when it really isn’t. Challenging the business world definition of “free” is like tilting at windmills, he suggested.

I agree, but I don’t care. I’ll stick with the dictionary definition of “free,” which is: something that costs nothing.

I’m not splitting hairs. If the shipping were really free, then you could go to the big-box store with your holiday presents and get them sent anywhere in the world without having to buy anything.

And “free” returns? Well, that’s impossible, because you have to buy something in order to send it back.

It’s more accurate to say shipping and returns are included in the price you pay. But free sounds so much better, doesn’t it?

The truth about “free”

When businesses use the word “free” to promote something, it doesn’t just mean they’re lying. It means they think you’re kinda slow.

So you should be doubly offended when someone offers a “free” airline ticket, says your kids will eat “free,” or promises that if you buy one item, you’ll get a second one “free.”

The last time I wrote about the way the word “free” was being twisted by companies, I received a ton of angry comments on my consumer advocacy site.

One missive that didn’t appear in the story came from a PR person who wrote to me because she was upset I’d mentioned one of her company’s “free” offers.

Why criticize such a good value?

I can’t dispute that this particular offer was a good deal, but that’s not the point. It’s that it was being called “free” when it wasn’t.

The truth? Nothing is really free. There are no free lunches, free tickets — no free anything.

What else are they going to do?

Think about it. A business that claims something is “free” is doing you a favor — it’s warning you.

An airline that offers a “free” ticket for signing up for its credit card probably won’t stop at misrepresenting just that one deal, now will it?

Chances are it’s truth-challenged in other ways, too. What’s more, odds are it will show no remorse when customers are misled and have to pay a higher price than they expected.

If the word “free” attracts a throng of unsavvy customers, it’s also the thing that drives discerning shoppers away. And rightfully so.

Next time you click on your favorite commerce website or visit the mall, pay attention to the word “free.”

Notice the kinds of businesses that use it. Are these quality companies with reputations for great customer service, or are they resorting to gimmicks to goose up their sales?

I’m willing to bet it’s the latter.

This year, do yourself a favor and stay away from “free” offers and the companies that offer them. You’ll thank me for it.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.