America’s Test Kitchen sleazy sales tactics

I’m a fan of America’s Test Kitchen. I watch the show regularly, subscribe to the magazine and recently purchased the 2006 DVD set and accompanying book (I got the book for with the DVD purchase).

Several months ago, another ATK book showed up, one I didn’t recall ordering. I didn’t really pay it too much attention; I figured it was a mistake (and I had a suspicion as to what kind of mistake), and I’d eventually get around to sending it back.

Four months later, I received the late notice. I finally called them to find out why I received a book I didn’t order, and indeed, my suspicion was correct: when you order from America’s Test Kitchen, they automatically add you to their book club, in an opt-out manner. They sign you up to receive books every so often, bill you for it, and then leave it to you to return the book and not pay the bill if you don’t want it.

I find the practice sleazy and deplorable.

When I spoke with their customer service today, I was informed that I “agreed” to this when I purchased the book, that it was part of the long set of legalese I was presented with when ordering.

Of course, upon returning to the site, I can’t find any such agreement. I can’t get very far in their site without giving them my credit card number. I’ve sent them email asking to receive a copy of or a pointer to the agreement.

My take is it’s a big scam meant to get people to buy books they never ordered. People get the book, plan on returning it, forget, get three or four bills of increasing urgency, and just write a check so they don’t have to deal with it. One member of the ATK public forum did exactly that:

I must sheepishly admit that I have fallen victim to [Cook’s Illustrated]’s less than noble tactics. I received a preview copy of The Best Light Recipe and decided I would read through it to see if there was anything I liked, but would most likely send it back. I had 3 weeks, right? After about 2 weeks I received a “friendly reminder” notice that I hadn’t paid for the book yet. The notice said that the original date (from whence the three weeks supposedly ran) was 6 weeks prior. I KNOW I didn’t receive the book that early, but felt that if I tried to return it now they wouldn’t accept it. So I paid for a cookbook I really didn’t want. I just didn’t want to try to fight it, and I know that is what they are after by sending out these “preview” copies.

I’m sure the general uptake is large enough otherwise they wouldn’t continue doing it; paying for shipping both ways for books people don’t want can’t be cheap. This was all but confirmed on the same forum thread above when Lindsay McSweeney, the web editor wrote

Regarding the book continuity program—the complaints have been heard, but the bottom line is that it is a very effective and legal way to sell books….

(An aside: She then goes on to say, in effect, “just be glad I’m not censoring you”:

There’s no posting I could make that would give you satisfaction, and since I obviously would like these postings to disappear as they are critical of the company, I’ve been trying to avoid what would continue an unconstructive discussion. Rather I hoped you appreciated that while I obviously have had the ability to erase all these emails immediately as posted (and I could make a pretty good argument that I should since the company is essentially paying for harmful comments to be posted), I have respected our Chat board members enough to allow you to express your dissatisfaction.

Oh my. They host a public forum, and then suggest that we should “appreciate” that critical posts haven’t been deleted? Very thoughtful. Companies who don’t get that negative comments will be made regardless of their desire must not yet realize the power of the internet. One day. One day. End aside.)

I still enjoy the ATK show, and the methods they use in the test kitchen to come up with their recipes and such. However, I won’t be buying their DVDs, books or subscriptions via their website. If I want something they are selling, I’ll go to Amazon or my local bookstore.

More likely, I won’t buy anything else from them. When my current magazine subscription is up, I’ll have to strongly consider if I wish to continue supporting a company that does business in this way.

What do you think about the tactics? Should I continue to support ATK? Any suggestions for alternatives?