'Buy buttons' everywhere can make debt too easy

The brave new world of buy buttons
The brave new world of buy buttons

Amazon wants you to think the future looks like a "Dash button." That is a device about the size of a USB flash drive, oblong, imprinted with the name of a brand and sporting a bright white button. Say you acquire a Dash button for Tide detergent. You could stick it on your washing machine and every time you pressed it, Amazon would ship you a container of the laundry soap.

Now picture a 4-year-old child – visitor, household resident, doesn't really matter – who loves to press buttons. How bored would that kid have to be before he'd notice the Tide button? How hard would he have to scramble to pull his little self up on the machine and reach it? How many times in a row could he press it before he made a serious dent in your bank account?

Welcome to the brave new world of buy buttons, where the bar for purchase involves little more than the ability to click on a screen image – or even, in the case of Amazon's latest venture, to press on a disc. This is good news for the retail industry: After all, the easier it is to get consumers to purchase, the easier it is for merchants to sell. And in one way, it's also a boon for online shoppers. Who enjoys entering name, address and credit card information on screen after screen, especially when those screens are palm-sized and fingertips are clumsy?

Consumer saving expert Andrea Woroch offers these tips on what to do when – or better yet, before – the spending urge hits.

  1. Delete stored payment information. The more trouble you have to go to get your credit card, the less likely you will be to buy something you don't need.

  2. Identify spending triggers. Impulse shopping will totally bust your budget and cause you to go into debt. So it's important to be aware of what's causing you to buy when you don't need anything.

  3. Unsubscribe from newsletters. When you receive an email alert for 20 percent off at your favorite store, the fleeting deal tempts you into shopping. However, more and more stores release such sales regularly so you shouldn't worry that you're going to miss out.

  4. Sleep on it. Give yourself a 24 hour rule before making a final decision.

But, experts warn, this latest online retail trend is also a hazard for consumers. After all, the easier it is to click and buy, the less time the buyer has to consider and, possibly, refrain.

"This is where people get tripped up," said Bruce McClary, spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "If there is no second step that gives you a chance to think about it before charges hit, someone could easily overspend."

That's what happened to Deborah Blum, a Los Angeles writer and homemaker, before she deactivated her Amazon 1-Click capability. She and her 10-year-old daughter were shopping online for things the child would need for sleepaway camp. After going back and forth over a number of items, they were scratching their heads over fans. Clip-on? Battery-powered? Single fan or double pack? Somehow, in the bleariness that descended, they one-clicked on the wrong fan, and didn't realize what had happened until it showed up at their door days later.

Not long after, she found herself clicking and ordering a book on Amazon. "That's when I turned off 1-Click," she said. "It was too easy. I could actually have gotten that book from the library. I didn't need to spend that $10 right then."

Amazon is only one of the quick-pay contenders. Purchasing screens are increasingly cluttered with quick-purchase buttons, from PayPal to Visa Checkout to AmEx Express Checkout to MasterPass from MasterCard. Consumers need only enter their credit card information into any of those systems once, and from then on, each time they're offered as a purchasing option, they're funneled through an alternate payment system that does not require the laborious entering of dozens of numbers.

All this buy button choice, though, presents a quandary for retailers. A merchant who doesn't offer any buy buttons at checkout – or the wrong selection of buy buttons – may send a busy or distracted customer to a rival, where the checkout process is more streamlined. However, a merchant who offers too many choices can confuse the customer, leading to the same result.

"I call it 'the NASCAR effect,'" said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst with Aite Group, a Boston-based research and advisory firm focused on business, technology, and regulatory issues and their impact on the financial services industry.

Peterson was referring to race car drivers who endorse so many brands that their uniforms become a dizzying clutter of logos. "I wouldn't want to have four or five buttons at the bottom of my site," he said.

The click-and-buy options don't end there. Last summer, Google debuted its "Buy Now" button, which directs customers to advertisers directly through the search engine. Apple Pay and Android Pay allow users to purchase at the store with just their phone and a tap of a finger. And last fall, MasterCard announced it was teaming up with an array of industry partners to enable credit card payments from an array of household objects, including jewelry and key fobs.

Andrew Lipsman, for one, isn't sure any of this is wanted, or needed.

"With a lot of these things, you could argue that there's a solution in search of a problem," said Lipsman, vice president of marketing and insights for comScore Inc., a Chicago-based company that measures consumers across platforms. "You ask many consumers, they'll say that pulling a credit card out of my wallet and swiping is not a problem that needs solving."

One buy button that's stood the test of time is iTunes purchases – much to the sorrow of parents around the world. At least, those parents whose children have access to their accounts.

My story
Five years ago, when my son Liam was 11 years old, iTunes receipts started cluttering up my inbox. But there are lots of things cluttering up my inbox, and the receipts got lost in the deluge. Then my credit card bill came. Turned out, back in those pre-Netflix, pre-Spotify days, he'd spent $250 on music, movies ("Ironman 2") and TV episodes ("Modern Family," "The Simpsons"). I must have given him my sign-on information -- definitely my bad. I also apparently failed to explain to him that each time he clicked to buy, that actually cost me money. Happily, Apple refunded me the money, and Liam stopped his mad clicking-and-purchasing routine.

Things got a lot worse for Mohamed Shugaa, an English father. According to The Metro, Shugaa's 7-year-old son Faisall racked up $5,800 in charges playing the game Jurassic World on his father's iPad (Shugaa had given his son the code to unlock the iPad, but had no idea his son had memorized his Apple ID password). Faisall made 65 charges over six days in December, upgrading his dinosaurs using the game currency Dino Bucks, without realizing actual money was involved. Apple eventually agreed to refund Shugaa his money.

"I was so mad," Shugaa said. "I'm 32 years old. Why would Apple think I would be spending thousands of pounds on buying dinosaurs and upgrading a game?"

See related: 6 ways to safeguard cards when shopping electronically, Push notifications: the future of bank communication

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Updated: 01-17-2018