By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/15/2010 6:46:38 PM ET 2010-09-15T22:46:38

If you’ve ever used Ticketmaster, you expect to pay various fees and charges on top of the face value of the ticket. What you don’t know, until you’re ready to check out, is how much extra you’ll pay for using this service.

Robert Burckhard of Northampton, Pa., found out about the “hidden fees” when he bought two tickets for a Jimmy Eat World concert to be held in New Jersey at the end of September. The tickets were $29 each. Ticketmaster’s fees for those two tickets came to $21.65.

Still room for
improvement

“That’s an astronomical price to pay to see a concert,” Burckhard says.

But his main beef is when all of those fees were disclosed. Ticketmaster’s website listed the per ticket facilities charge and convenience fee.  But it wasn’t until the point of sale that he spotted another charge: a processing fee of $5.15 for his order.

“How come I didn’t know about this fee up front?” he asks. “Consumers should be informed of all fees prior to beginning a transaction, so there are no surprises. Otherwise, you don’t get a good picture of what you’re going to be spending on a ticket.”

Charleen Chaman of Los Angeles is another unhappy Ticketmaster customer who has a similar complaint. A few weeks ago, she bought tickets to see the musical group Ratatat. She says was surprised to find a service fee of $5.65 on the last page of the order, right before she clicked "submit.”

“I think it’s unethical to hide the fees until the end,” Chaman says. “You wouldn’t feel so robbed if they let you know all the fees up front.”

Dan Turner, who teaches marketing at the University of Washington, tells me most people find it really annoying when there’s a mandatory fee that is only disclosed after a purchase decision is made.

“Prices that are not transparent, whether it’s some element that’s hidden, undisclosed or less obvious, are the kind of prices customers find to be unfair,” he says.

Ticketmaster says message heard
Three weeks ago, Ticketmaster changed its checkout process. CEO Nathan Hubbard called it “antiquated.”

“We get it — you don’t like service fees,” Hubbard writes on the company’s new blog called Ticketology. But he does not apologize for those fees. In fact, he says they have become “an extension of the ticket price” in the live entertainment business.

Hubbard admits the company has upset customers by not telling them the full price until very late in the buying process.

“And our data tells us this angers many of you to the point that you abandon your purchase once you see the total cost, and that you don’t come back,” he writes.

So now, for most venues, the website will immediately display the face value of the ticket and the additional fees. Hubbard calls it “the right thing to do.”

Consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, who runs the website ConsumerWorld.org, calls the new Ticketmaster policy “a great improvement that shows the company is finally listening to its customers.”

But Dworsky points out that the system remains flawed because it does not display Ticketmaster’s “processing fee” for that order until you are one click away from making the purchase.

As a test, I went shopping for a ticket to an upcoming Harry Connick, Jr. concert at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville, Wash. The Ticketmaster site made it very clear that the top price for a ticket was $109.75 — $99.50 plus a $10.25 convenience charge.

I selected a seat and came to the “billing” page where I had to choose the shipping method. Right above the shipping chart it said: “A processing fee per order is applied in addition to the delivery price per order listed below.” But the price of that processing fee was not listed. It wasn’t until I was on the “review your order” page that I learned the processing fee was $3.50.

Why can’t this be changed? I called and e-mailed Ticketmaster’s media relations office to find out, but my question was never answered.

Refunds: An unprecedented improvement
Anyone who buys concert or theater tickets knows the rule: All sales are final. But in a bold move, Ticketmaster now offers refunds at a limited number of locations.

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Buy a ticket for a show at any venue run by Live Nation (Ticketmaster’s parent company) and you have three days to return it, up until a week before the show.  Live Nation currently operates 89 venues across the country, from the House of Blues in Chicago to the Fillmore in San Francisco.

The Ticketmaster website says this “full refund” includes all fees, except UPS shipping or retail pickup charges.

“My hat is off to them,” says ConsumerWorld’s Dworsky. “This really is unheard of and certainly welcome.” 

Why do this? A refund policy, even a limited one, makes people more confident about making a purchase, which increases sales.

“We’re not pretending we have this perfect,” Hubbard writes on the Ticketology blog, “and the policy will probably be subject to some iterations and improvements. But we hope that at a minimum it encourages you to go ahead and buy those tickets, knowing that if your plans suddenly change … you can return what you need to within three days worry-free.”

My two cents
Ticketmaster’s two new policies are good for consumers. I applaud the company for making the changes, even though it took years of customer complaints for this to happen. The refund policy is awesome and I hope more venues that use Ticketmaster will start offering it.

What about those fees, which many people believe are excessive? I’ll leave that one up to the marketplace. 

But I do believe Ticketmaster can and should find a way to include the total price — including that “processing fee” — earlier in the transaction.

There’s an important lesson here: If enough people complain long enough and vote with their wallets, big companies, even those with a near monopoly-lock on the market, can be made to change their ways.

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