Savage x Fenty, the lingerie line by singer Rihanna, is quite good at signing shoppers up for a $50-per-month “Xtra VIP” membership on its e-commerce site. The catch is that many of those shoppers don’t know that they’re signing up.
Vox reports that a number of members realized they joined only after discovering, months later, that they were being charged the whole time. The review site TrustPilot.com is filled with complaints about Savage x Fenty, several of which call the company a “scam” and demand refunds.
Technically, these shoppers opted in voluntarily. They fell for a particularly tricky example of what researchers call “dark patterns,” which are design and interface techniques shopping websites use to get customers to perform desired actions. They usually involve handing over data, money, or both. Read this Quartz interactive story to experience some examples firsthand (but don’t worry, we won’t charge your credit card).
The type of dark pattern that appears on Savage x Fenty’s e-commerce site, savagex.com, is one that researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago call “sneaking.” According to their description, it entails “attempting to misrepresent user actions, or delay information that if made available to users, they would likely object to.”
On savagex.com, putting any product into your shopping bag will automatically add the “Savage X Monthly Membership” as well. On the checkout page, it doesn’t list any cost for that membership in your total bill, since it isn’t charged right away. It only tells you how much you’re saving with Xtra VIP.
Under the membership, there’s a link that says “Learn More.” The terms of the membership also appear in a sidebar to the right, but they don’t mention the monthly cost until the final paragraph. Once enrolled, you have until the 5th of each month to skip paying for that month. Otherwise, the site will charge you $49.95, which works as a credit that you can put toward purchases from Savage x Fenty. There’s also no guest checkout option, forcing shoppers to create an account to make a purchase.
Tricks like this one are widespread on shopping sites around the internet. An extensive analysis by the Princeton and University of Chicago researchers found them on more than 11% of the 11,000 sites they studied. These sites often rely on people misunderstanding terms or not reading them carefully enough, allowing them to claim (somewhat) truthfully that they presented all necessary information upfront. “Nobody scammed me into not reading, I just don’t like to read, and when I’m buying underwear at work I have to do things quickly,” the author of the Vox story wrote.
Still, in this case, the site—not the user—adds the membership into the shopping bag. It’s not obvious to users that by not removing it, they’re agreeing to a recurring monthly charge. Savage x Fenty did not respond to a request for comment from Quartz, but a spokesperson for the company told Vox, “Customer satisfaction is very important to us and we strive to provide the highest level of service to hundreds-of-thousands of customers worldwide. While complaints are a very small minority, as a new company, we are always looking for ways to listen and improve.” It declined to comment to Vox on if it would change its practice of automatically adding membership to shopping carts.
For now, there’s nothing illegal about dark patterns. That could change, at least on social media. Lawmakers in the US have proposed a bill that would ban certain kinds that trick users into giving up personal data.