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User-Unfriendly Online Ticket Sales

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Co-authored by Alan Daley

So, you want to attend a concert featuring one of your favorite performers? Why not buy your tickets online and use the convenient venue seating charts? Well, comparing prices between online vendors can be difficult and time-consuming. And, many online vendors like it that way, as we will explain.

When it comes to buying event tickets online, there is often a lack of upfront transparency that makes comparing vendors a real challenge. Yes, with patience and scrolling through the search results for a venue, you can find tickets for sale by the primary vendor and resellers. However, it is unlikely that you will know the final cost of your tickets at this stage, because few vendors reveal an "all-in" price that includes everything they expect you to pay. It is that lack of transparency that can lead consumers to not having all the information they need to make good buying decisions, and some online vendors have no incentive to make it easier for you to compare these prices.

Here is what we found in analyzing prices for a recent Beyoncé and JAY-Z concert in New Jersey. After reviewing the primary vendor's (Ticketmaster's) offerings, we felt the prices seemed a little high and decided to compare prices for ten popular ticket resellers, like StubHub, Easy Seat, TicketsNow, RazorGator and others. While we considered some different sections and rows, the seats we considered were about equidistant from the stage, had similar elevations, and had similar stage-viewing angles (some slightly right, some slightly left). Overall, the comparisons seemed to be fair. The choices were always good or, at least, so we thought.

We began comparing prices on reseller websites by selecting similar sections and rows where tickets were still available. We immediately found some vendor prices that were substantially lower than other vendor prices. However, even after selecting seats and putting them in the shopping cart, we still did not know our final costs.

Only at checkout did we finally discover the price of the tickets often include "service fees" for each seat, as well as "delivery" or "handling" charges for the entire transaction. In fact, the primary seller and eight of the ten resellers that we analyzed charged these service fees later at checkout, whereas TM+ and StubHub included them in the upfront price. In some cases, these late-revealed service charges increased the early-stated seat price by more than 30%.

What we found was that going through each vendor's selection and checkout process was tedious and quite time-consuming. In our sample of ticket vendors, we found high-priced vendors sometimes selling tickets at nearly one-third the cost higher than low-priced vendors for the identical section and row. Of course, you will not be alerted to this unless until you work your way through each of the vendors' tedious selection and checkout process. In the meantime, you feel under pressure to buy your ticket quickly, as a shot clock could expire and force you to start over from the beginning. If price comparisons are important to you, we found the lack of "all-in" pricing to be not consumer friendly.

In our sample, five of the ten resellers charged extra (usually $7.50 extra) for electronic delivery of the tickets. That seemed excessive, considering that electronic delivery is most efficient and produces little direct cost for the ticket vendor. Parking at the event was priced at $64.95, which also seemed outrageously high.

In other words, simply comparing upfront ticket prices does not provide consumers enough information on the final costs of the purchase. The reality is that some online vendors offered cheaper ticket prices upfront, but then tacked on higher fees at the end. It worked like a bait-and-switch tactic -- where consumers are enticed to buy cheaper items only to be charged more in the end.

What could the reason be for user-unfriendly online ticket sales? The confusing process gives sellers better information than buyers. That, in turn, means that buyers do not have sufficient information to make informed buying decisions. Confusion favors sellers, and it often leads consumers to pay more for event tickets than they would have if only they had better information been available to them. In other words, many online ticket sales websites are set up to make ticket price comparisons tedious and time-consumers, and they encourage consumers to make snap decisions while facing a shot clock. They are designed to be user-unfriendly and potentially cause consumers to overpay, but it does not have to be that way.

In the airline industry, there are plenty of intermediaries (Priceline, Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz and Kayak) that search and provide reliable fare information that saves time and money for consumers. Ideally, for online ticket buyers, there should be "all-in" price data too, but industry standards are missing and, therefore, policymakers need to push for more upfront transparency. The online ticket sales business is ripe for an infusion of upfront honesty in its pricing.

In short, public policy needs to focus on giving consumers better information in order to empower them to make better buying decisions. Requiring online ticket providers to show the all-in price before taxes would provide that information and heighten market competition. That regulation would be virtually costless to the industry and it would have immense benefits to consumers.

That would be a public policy long overdue.

Alan Daley and Steve Pociask write for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.