Underhanded Selling Tactics That Work But Should You Use Them?

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With the economy in such bad shape, more and more establishments are resorting to underhanded tactics to extract additional money from your wallet. In just this past month alone, I’ve been deceived several times into paying a little extra for something that I didn’t even intend to purchase.

Sometimes these little extra charges go unnoticed, but now that I’ve fallen prey to these tactics more than a couple of times, I’m now more careful about scrutinizing my receipts and recognizing these methods. Have any of these things ever happened to you?

Getting Charged For Something You Didn’t Really Order


Photo By Toasty Ken

The other day my wife and I decided to dine at a semi-fancy restaurant that was highly recommended for its food and ambiance. It wasn’t a special occasion per se, but we wanted to treat ourselves for getting past a busy week.

While we were perusing the menu, our waiter came by to ask us what we wanted to drink.

Waiter: Would you like me to bring you some fresh water?
Me: Of course. Could we get 2 waters for my wife and I?
Waiter: Right away sir.

The water was delivered in a fancy tall glass but I didn’t think anything of it because it tasted like normal water. The food at this particular restaurant was on the spicier end of the scale so my wife and I drank many cups of water that night. Each time our glass was empty, the waiter promptly brought both us new glasses filled to the rim.

“Wow, the service here is impeccable”, I thought since the waiter was literally the fastest water filler in the west. Little did I know that he was fast for a reason.

By the time my wife and I finished our meal, we felt like beached whales since we both ate so much food. The bill was quite large too since we ordered appetizers, entrees, and dessert. I wouldn’t have even noticed the extra charges but something didn’t add up quite right in my head.

“Hey Honey? The bill is off by like 8 dollars. What did we order that was around 8 bucks? I can’t think of anything.”

Turns out that we got charged for some “european” imported water that was ridiculously expensive. The waiter didn’t even tell us we had ordered special water. This whole time we thought we were drinking tap. Even though it was only 8 dollars, I was annoyed at the deception. Apparently “fresh” means “imported”.

Super Size Me

My wife and I love ice cream. We especially like Cold Stone Creamery because they hand mix toppings of your choice directly into a delicious soft serve ice cream. The only problem we have with the place is that their serving size is too large. My wife and I can never finish an entire order and end up throwing the excess away in the trash. What a waste!

The other day though, I finally realized that I was being deceived into ordering more ice cream than I wanted to order. Their tactics are really quite tricky and I’ve fallen for it countless times in the past.

Me: Yes, I would like to order a coffee ice cream with Oreos mixed in please.
Clerk: Sure thing. Would you like a regular or a large?
Me: I’ll take a regular please.

Little did I realize that the “regular” is actually a medium. If you want a small serving, you have to explicitly ask for a “small”. Notice that that option was mysteriously missing from the clerk’s question. All this time, I felt bad for wasting all of this ice cream when I could have paid less for a portion that I could actually finish eating. Is that wrong or what?

Is This Service Really Free?

I usually hate shopping but during the holidays I brave going to the mall because I have to. The one advantage of physically going to a store versus ordering stuff online is that you can touch and feel the product before you buy. Not only that, many places offer “free” gift wrapping for those who are too lazy to wrap their own gifts.

I certainly fall into that category. I hate wrapping gifts and would gladly have someone else wrap it for me. In some cases, I specifically look for stores that offer this service.

So I walked into a bookstore the other day intending to buy one of my friends a book. I saw the sign for “free gift wrapping” so I was ecstatic!

Clerk: Would you like me to wrap your book for you?
Me: Yes, definitely.
Clerk: Which paper would you like?
Me: That one. (I pointed to the nicest wrapping paper on the wall)
Clerk: How about a ribbon and a bow?
Me: That would look nice. Thanks.
Clerk: No problem. Please take this receipt with you to the next counter.
Me: I’m sorry? I thought gift wrapping was free.
Clerk: The base gift wrapping is free. You have chosen premium wrapping paper. The ribbon and bow are extra as well.

What could I do? The book was already being wrapped so I paid the money. The cost of the ribbon and bow wasn’t that much and I gladly would have paid for it if I had known that I was going to be charged.

Does It Really Matter?

In the grand scheme of things, are these underhanded tactics going to stop me from going back to these places again? Probably not.

My wife and I really enjoyed the food at the restaurant despite paying an extra 8 dollars. We are addicted to Cold Stone and the bookstore I went to happens to have the largest most comprehensive book selection in town.

They didn’t alienate me as a customer so does that justify their underhanded tactics? If you can get away with it, should you use these tactics with your own business?

I say no. A customer shouldn’t have to tricked into paying extra money for something they did not intend to buy. These places have my business now only because they have something unique to offer. If I ever find a new ice cream shop, restaurant or bookstore, I probably won’t be going back.

Deception is definitely not the way to establish loyalty with your client base even if you can get away with it. What do you think?

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25 thoughts on “Underhanded Selling Tactics That Work But Should You Use Them?”

  1. Bleu Panda says:

    Steve, you must be a patient and forgiving man. I also splurge on fine dining once in a while, but like to be in control of what I spend or don’t spend. I would have been very annoyed at the waiter and said something to the manager about the principle of the matter so they’d know that I didn’t appreciate the deception. Then I would have given a smaller tip, which is an indication of how much you appreciate the rendered services, right? “Thanks for the deception, now here’s some more money”… I have waited on tables before, albeit not at any fancy restaurants, and if I had done that to my customers, they would have met me outside in the parking lot after my shift. I’m exaggerating but you get the idea.

    Was there a sign about the extra cost for the premium wrapping? I bet there wasn’t or that it was “conveniently” covered by an unrolled tube of wrapping paper. I would have unwrapped the gift when the lady handed me the receipt if I had been deceived.

    What’s more annoying is that for some socially related reason, we let it slide because 1) its not that much $, 2) we don’t want to look “cheap”, perhaps because its the “fine dining/high class” context or the fact that “its only $8”. Although one goal of a business is to try and extract the most consumer surplus (the difference between what a consumer values a product – i.e. the max he’s willing to pay – and the actual price he pays), doing it deceptively is not the same thing as doing it creatively through price discrimination. These days, “carbon footprint” is a popular buzz phrase used for calculating one’s carbon usage or waste. It would insightful as well if we were to quantify the dollars we throw away on other everyday wasted spending.

    Assuming your above gastro-ventures were all on the same day:

    Fancy Water: $8
    Tax on Fancy Water: $0.64 (assuming an 8% sales tax)
    Tip on Fancy water: $1.60
    Regular ColdStone serving delta: $2 (assuming a pricing of $5.50 for regular, $3.50 for small)
    Excess waste from regular serving not eaten: $.55 (assuming 10% waste)
    Premium gift wrapping with extra ribbon and bow: $3.25
    Total: $16.04

    $16.04?!! – damn, that’s two orders of fancy water!!

    1. Hey Bleu,

      Glad to know that you’re still with me. For a while there I thought that you had disappeared! The reason I didn’t make a fuss is because I wanted it to just be a nice pleasant dinner with my wife. In general, my wife hates it when I cause a scene in front of everyone. Kind of spoils the night you know? The same goes for shopping at the mall. My wife and I rarely have opportunities to spend alone these days because of our baby so we try to make the most of it whenever we can. When I was younger, I probably would have thrown a fit for both the restaurant and the gift wrapping incident. These days, I’m a little more mellow and try not to let things get to me as much unless I feel majorly cheated. Makes me a happier person in general.

      In regards to the waiter, you bet that he got a lower tip! About 8 dollars lower plus tax.

  2. Nick says:

    “Super Size Me”: this one I disagree with.

    Regular is widely known and recognized as a Medium size. Coldstone clearly displays their different sizes complete with their stupid names (like it, love it, really love it, or whatever they are) right in front of their ice cream displays; at least every Coldstone I’ve seen does.

    You can’t accuse Restaurants of conniving business practices if you’re too lazy to read the menu.

    1. Hey Nick,

      I don’t have a problem with looking at the menu. I just don’t like it when the clerk gives me the larger options as if they are the only 2 choices on the menu. McDonalds use to do this too, but I think they have stopped. Anyways, of the three stories, this is just a minor annoyance. Whenever I go to Cold Stone now, I just ask for small.

  3. Steve, I cant believe some of the stuff you put up with. You are very patient. My guy doesn’t take any mess like that. He would of pitched his classic East Coast (he’s from NYC) fit complete with slapping the back of his hand into the palm of his other hand while getting his point across. The water would have taken it OFF the menu, period paragraph.

    I’m not sure where you ate, but I do notice some European restaurants serve bottled water, but it’s listed on the menu or the server asks if you want tap or bottled.

    In terms of the serving sizes, I think it’s just a part of the whole super sized generation in this country. “Regular” in 2008 was humongous in 1988 unless you go to a place like Ici in Berkeley for example http://www.ici-icecream.com/ that serves normal sized scoops. You’ll pay $3.50 for it, but it’s a size that most people can (or should be able) to tolerate – not to mention made from organic, sustainable ingredients. I guess this is why I loathe chain stores, restaurants and malls.

    Anyway, I’m rambling!

    Good post!

    1. Hey Carla,

      I was born and raised in the east coast, but the west coast has mellowed me out:) As I was just telling Bleu, I try not to cause a scene when either my wife or kid is around. It takes a lot to piss me off these days, but when I lose it, it tends to be an explosion. We’ve actually been to this restaurant in the past and this never happened before. Perhaps it was a new waiter. Anyways, probably won’t be going back anytime soon, and if we do I’ll be prepared.

  4. @Steve – Good for you Steve! He has been here 20 years and you’d think he just got to CA yesterday. Then again, the Bay Area isnt as mellow as many people think either.

  5. Bleu Panda says:

    @Nick – I think the point of Steve’s post is about the integrity of service you provide to your customers, and not so much about what can be argued as “fair” only because its published on the menu. Ever asked a waiter for a recommendation and it seems like most suggestions come from the expensive section of the menu? Sure, one can argue that everyone is out to maximize their profits (business) or savings (customer), but most businesses are not one-shot games, nor should their practice make the customer feel like they had been nickel-and-dime.

  6. Bleu Panda says:

    @Nick – You have a point about the “regular” size, but the “fresh water” option from the waiter was stepping over the line a bit, don’t you think? First off, the question is absurd – “Would you like some fresh water?” – isn’t that a given? “No, please bring me some stale, old water”. Second, waiters typically distinguish between bottled or tap/regular water when they ask, and do bring out the bottle as well! Bringing out the fancy water in a glass does not help either.

    1. Hey Bleu,

      I think that Nick only disagreed with the “Super Size” me point. I believe he agrees with us regarding the water at the restaurant and the gift wrap as being completely wrong. The part I left out about the water was that I did see that the waiter was pouring the water from a special water bottle. But at the time I didn’t think anything of it. I just naturally assumed that the special water was served as part of the meal since it was a nice restaurant.

  7. So here’s something that happened to a friend of mine the other week. He was staying at a really nice hotel down in Los Angeles last weekend with his wife. When he pulled his car over at the front, they asked if he was staying overnight at the hotel. He responded yes and then proceeded to park his car in the parking lot (They have valet but he didn’t want to pay for it). When he checked out of his hotel, he was charged 25 dollars a day for parking.

    Most nice hotels charge for parking down in LA so it’s a well known cost but not to people who are from out of town. So is this any different than my water at the restaurant incident? If all restaurants charged for tap water, would it have been ok?

    Same goes with rice at a chinese restaurant. They don’t charge for rice and tea in most restaurants in MD so I was shocked to find that they did in California. If it’s socially expected, are these charges no longer deceptive even if you are not from the area?

  8. Steve,

    The way you handled yourself shows that you have a different mindset about money.
    You seem to recognize that the more important thing is to heighten your awareness.

    There are several red herrings in the comments: caveat emptor, social expectation (which you mention in the LA parking story). These are not germane to the topic of whether businesses should be employing tactics that, if uncovered, are bound to irritate their customers.

    My reply to your title question is this: “live by the sword, die by the sword.” In this case, you can stab your customers in the back and snatch their wallets but, pretty soon, you’ll run out of fresh backs!



    1. Hey Mitch,

      Glad to see that you came back for another visit! The fact that certain businesses and large chain stores employ these tactics indicate that they must work to a certain degree. I’m sure someone in corporate ran the numbers and came to the conclusion that the increase in profits outweigh the negatives. Even still, I believe these tactics will eventually catch up to them. Love by the sword, die by the sword indeed.

  9. Steve,

    I agree with you about these being deceptive practices, especially the water and gift wrapping ones. That is very, very uncool. The restaurant would lose my business, for sure, and at the gift wrapping place, I’d be very tempted to tell them to unwrap and give me the free wrapping paper, since I was not told that I would be charged for the “premium” paper.

    As for your comment about socially accepted charges that are not common everywhere, I think that’s OK. The locals know the charges, and they make up most of the business that area. Visitors would be expected to adapt to the social norms of the area while they are there. It may be a bit of a culture shock, but I don’t think it’s deceptive.

    The one exception is in the case of the hotel that you mentioned. Since most people staying in hotels are from out of town, it’s fair to expect they will not be aware of the parking fee, so I think the hotel should make an effort to inform customers that they will be charged for parking. Ultimately, they will probably have no choice—where else are they going to park?—but at least they will be aware of the added cost.

    1. I don’t actually consider the hotel parking charge a deception, but that’s probably because I’m used to it. At a high end hotel, it kind of breaks the high end image to tell a guest as they are pulling up what the parking charge actually is. But the gift wrap and water did piss me off, just not enough to cause a scene.

  10. Had the same type of experience with Tires Plus. My wife shopped around for two new tires. Turns out a Tires Plus that was in the next city over had the best price. I expected fees, but by the time I paid the bill, it was 125% higher than what I was quoted on the phone, after driving out of the way to get it.

    I understand there will be charges, but when you ask for a quote, give the whole thing over the phone. I have a warranty on the tires, but I am considering going to another store even when they are still in warranty. Just out of principle.

    1. Hey Stephan,

      Sorry to hear about your Tires Plus experience. I’ve had much worse experiences shopping for a car. I once drove close to an hour to go to a dealership where we had “agreed” on a price. When I got there, he said he couldn’t find the car, but there’s was another similar one available for just 500 more. I was pissed and it was one of the few times I lost it. I started pretty much yelling at everyone in the dealership. Wasn’t pretty and I don’t really like it when that happens. I tried my best to give this place bad reviews on the web, but I doubt that anything ever became of it.

      Most car salesmen are slimeballs. Clearly their tactics work otherwise, they would have changed their strategy long ago. I wish something could be done to change the way we buy cars.

  11. Bleu Panda says:

    @Stephan Miller – Sorry to hear about your Tires Plus experience. They didn’t even try to be deceptive, but blatantly wronged you! If you get a quote, that should be the price, otherwise that business doesn’t know what it’s talking about because it can’t make reasonable estimates! 125% higher than your original quote is ridiculous!

    @Steve – Yes, I think its does break the high-end image if a luxury hotel (or restaurant, etc.) tells a guess the extra charges. However, I bet they count on the fact that customers want to protect their high-end image more so and thus can get away with an extra charge. I have adopted the practice of simply asking whether a certain service includes an extra charge. And if they say yes, then I ask how much. Hotels should put up a simple sign about valet parking, etc. Imagine if they didn’t have a price list for the mini-bar in the room, but then charged people for the items. Folks would be pissed!

    Basically, I think things like this should somehow be communicated clearly. Doing it tactfully is the key to getting past the confusion of assumed expectations. I believe Oprah had a show about this, except the subject was tipping – How much do you tip whom?; and how do you keep from ending up tipping everyone, etc?

    1. Hey Bleu,

      I have adopted the same policy. I now ask whether there’s an extra charge for almost everything. Occasionally things catch me off guard like the water incident but for the most part, I’m much more careful now. Especially now during the downturn, I think we all have to be on the lookout for the secret upsell. It’s annoying but it pays to be a little more attentive.

  12. I’m not surprised but that’s ridiculous, if it were me- there’s no way I’m paying and would ask to speak with the manager about being concise and clear when interacting with customers about the difference between the types of waters. Anyhow, I have to closely reevaluate my monthly cell phone bill because they seems to add extra fees “accidentally.” If it were by chance, why does it keep occurring? If someone is trying to be crafty- I WILL NOT BUY! :)


    1. Hey Miguel,

      Don’t even get me started with utilities. A few months ago, I was on the phone for more than a hour trying to clear the charges off of my water bill. One of the pipes broke outside the house and our water bill went through the roof! I think utility customer support tries to wear you down with the indirection and the waiting. My water bill was close to 500 bucks!. I must admit though, if my water bill was only 20 bucks or so over, I might not have done anything about it. After all, is 20 bucks worth over an hour of my time? I have better things to do, principles or no principles. It these 20 dollar overages kept occurring though, there would be hell to pay.

  13. Hey Steve,
    As they say bold charges are written with the smallest font :), I go through that stuff a lot.

  14. I so agree with you man… I was tricked into a facial package that actually added some silly ampules or however they spell it. The difference is 2x the actual price I was looking to pay as advertised on the news papers.

    The facial sales consultant kept telling me that is the student package and as if I shouldn’t take it because it would make me look cheap or look like a loser. Well, I ended up taking the more expensive option which I’m still not so happy about when looking back because it really wasn’t necessary!

    Then a few sessions down the road, they sent a senior consultant or “senior sales girl” from Singapore to upgrade and close me on a bigger package. All this while having the original sales consultant beside her. It’s a sales training session I tell you.

    The had the guts to ask me to upgrade to something double the price AGAIN! So I had to inflate their statistics on failed sales cases. Hopefully they know that customers don’t like it. I just want to have a good weekend facial, is that too hard to ask?

    Well, hope this adds to your post on underhanded selling tactics. 8D

  15. There always seem to be a catch when it is advertised as “free.”

    I had a similar experience when shopping for a car where the agreed on price is a few hundred dollars more expensive when we showed up at the dealership. My husband and I complained, got two bottles of wine, and left. Then we came back 3 hours later, paid the price they wanted, but also got a $300 cargo cover. But we still end up paying $600 more than the agreed on price. But it was still cheaper than the other dealerships we called.

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