11/10/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2015

That's the Ticket

Recently on a visit to family in Chicago, I bought a ticket over the phone for the quite wonderful Writers Theatre in suburban Glencoe, where they currently have the Midwest premiere of an intriguing-sounding play, Isaac's Eye by Lucas Hnath. Rather than their main theater, it's being produced in their original, small location (small as in, literally, the back of a bookstore) and sounds intriguingly staged.

I love the Writers Theatre, which is quite a treasure, often getting rave reviews from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal who make special visits to the tiny company. Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony Award as Best Actress in a musical this year for Beautiful, got her start at the Writers Theatre just a few years ago in 2010. The quality of the Writers Theatre is consistently great; the organization is terrific. After making the phone order, though, I was gnawed by something. It was such a small matter which is why it didn't strike me immediately -- the $5 handling charge on a ticket, which they're not even mailing out, just holding on to at the box office. Though I'd like to see the play, I'm really only going so that I can have dinner and spend the evening with my aunt, her husband, and my cousin. Otherwise, I may have called back to cancel it, regardless of its smallness, on general principle.

I did call back, though, to at least voice my complaint. I know it's now fairly common practice for theaters -- I see it in Los Angeles often, though hardly all the time -- but just because people accept it unthinkingly doesn't make it right. If a theater does provide an actual, special service for something, I can maybe see a handling fee -- but they're not. You're buying their product. If you went to buy groceries, imagine the store charging you a handling fee to bag them. When you phone in an order for Chinese food or pizza to pick up, imagine if they charged you for merely calling in. (They do charge for delivery, but... well, they have to hire someone who is actually delivering it.) The cost of mailing out a theater ticket is the stamp, envelope and a minute and 15 seconds to address it. A business should accept that sale as the cost of business and suck up the price. Or charge a buck. At the most, two bucks. But why on earth would any business charge customers for the simple act of buying your product? Yes, the arts are generally struggling and need the money -- but that's all the more reason not to have a handling charge and erect that barrier to making the sale.

Anyway, as I said, I did call back and asked to speak with the manager. The call went something like this:

Me: "I just called a few minutes ago and bought a ticket. It's including a $5 handling fee. And the more I thought about it, the more bothered I was. You're not even mailing out the ticket, just holding it at the box office."

Writers Theatre: "We have the charge because it helps pay for the cost of having the phone line for ticket orders, and to pay for the employee handling the phone order."

Me: "Excuse me, but with all due respect that's ridiculous. Every business has a phone line. And you'd be paying for that employee in the box office whether people called or not. If I buy a pair of shoes, they don't charge me a handling fee. If I buy any product, they don't charge for just buying their product. You're charging me for the honor of buying the product."

Writers Theatre: "We do make it free of charge for people who come directly to the box office."

Me: "That's great, but just to be clear, it's no more difficult selling a ticket over the phone than to sell a ticket at the box office. As I said, they're not even mailing it out, just holding the ticket. It's the exact same thing."

Writers Theatre: "I hear what you're saying, but this is a standard charge in the theater community."

Me: "I like supporting the arts, which need the income, so I'm glad that the money is going to such good groups who need it. And I understand that it's regularly done by many theaters. I know that. And they're all is wrong to do it. It's... well, it's offensive."

Writers Theatre: "One of the things about the charge for ordering over the phone or buying tickets online is that it allows us to keep our ticket prices lower."

Me: "Honestly, that's a far better answer than telling me that it's for phone lines and paying the employee taking the call. That's what you should tell people. That the fee helps keeps costs down, not that it's 'for the phone line.'"

Writers Theatre: Well, thank you, I'm glad you like that reason.

Me: "Just to be clear, I only said it's a better reason than the others. It's still a bad reason."

Writers Theatre: "I understand what you're saying, and I'll pass your thoughts along to the executives here. But it's just one of a list of reasons that we have."

Me: "I'm sure. And all those reasons would be wrong."

Writers Theatre: "I do understand, and appreciate you letting us know your thoughts. I'll let others know so that we can make future decisions."

As you can see, I didn't get anywhere. I'd have thought that after spending so much time calling to voice my complaint, and politely, no yelling or name-calling, the manager would have reversed the charge. Particularly since it wasn't just $5 on my end, but only $5 on theirs. But no. And at some point, though, you have to accept a losing battle, so I said goodbye...

Yes, it is a fairly common fee these days (though not standard), and my comments here refer to all such places, not just the Writers Theatre, which in almost all other ways is tremendous, but it's still wrong. And it's offensive as a concept, perhaps bordering on a scam -- because they're charging (most especially as in this case) for not providing any special added benefit, but just a fee to sell you their product, while positioning it as a "service." And the evidence this is totally useless, bordering on scam is that the best reason they can come up with to defend it is -- "We need the fee to pay for a phone line." You know if they had an actual, really valid reason they would have said it, first thing, not offered mumbo-jumbo.

(By the way, as for the "best" of their bad reasons, that it supposedly helps keep the cost of tickets down -- the reality is that in practice it really doesn't. I suspect that far, far more people buy their individual tickets over the phone and online, rather than walking up to the box office where there's no "handling fee," so the "benefits" of lower prices are almost non-existent.)

All this has always bothered me enough that there actually have been a few times when the fee for other events (not the Writers Theatre) was so egregious -- often 20 percent of the ticket cost, just for buying the ticket! -- that I cancelled the phone order on general principle. Sometimes I did still buy the ticket but went to the box office instead. But I have just ignored a few events completely since they were ones I was only moderately interested in, and the fee was offensive enough to make it not worth buying. Yes, it's a small part of the overall cost, but a part that's wrong and pointless and just jacking up the price, and sometimes "on general principle" does kick in.

Theaters are selling tickets to their shows. Whatever way they sell their tickets is up to them, But it's still "selling their tickets." And charging a customer for the right to buy your product is ridiculous. And wrong. Whatever "reasons" you come up with. Mailing out a ticket is not a "service' any more than the time, effort and cost of bagging up groceries or gift-wrapping a book. It's the cost of doing business and making a sale. And to suggest otherwise -- especially to the point of trying to explain it's for having a phone line -- is not only offensive, but (as I've noted) on the good side of scam.

And besides, selling tickets over the phone and especially online is as much a service for the theater as for the patrons. In fact it's probably a far greater service to the theater. Online selling lets the box office handle orders at its leisure whenever most convenient, and is much faster, eliminating long, time-consuming conversations about dates and availabilities and seat location. And most importantly, both services bring in money immediately, and make the sale before a customer has a chance to change his or her mind. No waiting and hoping until a potential customer can make it to the box office. And they charge you for what benefits them ? Seriously...?

(Of course, even if they were offering a service to make it easier for customers to buy their product -- isn't that what every business should be doing all the time?!)

As I said, if an arts organization which does struggle for money wants to cover the actual cost of a stamp and envelope, fine, I can grasp that. I think it's pennywise and pound foolish, but I get it. And if they do provide some actual, special service, fine, too. And if a third-party company is charging a fee for online orders because the theater isn't able to -- I get that, too, since selling tickets is their product, and the fee is their only source of income, much as I think they often vastly overcharge. But for a theater itself (which you'd think would be thrilled to get the money direct and immediate rather than go through a third-party) to try to make a profit on merely selling the ticket? To charge for actually just selling you their product? Indeed most especially when they just sell the ticket and simply hold it at the box office. Sorry, that's just wrong.

Yes, I know the amount charged to an individual is small compared to what a theater can accumulate from all such fees, which ultimately helps the organization more than it negatively impacts the individual. But then, that's true for most scams -- even the ones that are borderline and small. And how they count on getting away with it.


To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.