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Is This Really Free?

by Nyssa

Meanings of words evolve over time, sometimes subtly and other times greatly over the space of a few years or a decade or more.

Remember when not so long ago the word “swipe” meant “steal” instead of the act of moving your credit or debit card across a point of sale reader? Or when “gay” meant happy or joyous rather than describing a lifestyle?

It seems that the word “free” has now become a victim to this change of meaning in a very subtle manner. Or at least some vendors are ignoring or at least corrupting the real meaning to suit their own marketing efforts.

Consumers who are unaware of this shifting usage may be at risk if they aren't careful in their reading of terms and exceptions of advertised special pricing offers that claim to give you a product or service for free.

Being savvy consumers, we all understand when a bottle of shampoo or detergent is labeled “20% MORE FREE!” that you can't just ask to be given that 20% part that's free, you have to purchase the whole bottle.

Perhaps a clearer label would be “BONUS! 20% MORE!” or something similar, but at least it's understandable to most consumers as written on the container: We're getting a bit more product at no extra charge.

What's more disturbing are the advertisements and product listings that seem to claim a product or service is free when it really isn't. When free isn't really free.

I'll be using Amazon.com as examples of these practices since it's one of the best known online stores and familiar to most readers. Other stores and websites do similar things, as you may have noticed in your online travels. Or if you haven't noticed, perhaps this commentary article will make you more aware (and wary) of these practices.

Examples of these types of not-really-free listings can easily be found when dealing with Amazon's Prime and Kindle Unlimited offerings.

Bring up a page containing a Kindle book title that is part of Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program, and the display page will include the message “Read for Free” appearing near the box listing the price to purchase the book along with a big orange button inviting you to click.

The problem? No, you cannot read the book for free. You must first subscribe to the Kindle Unlimited program for $9.99 per month with limitations on the number of Kindle Unlimited books you can have on your Kindles at one time. Not only isn't it free, it isn't really unlimited.

If you are paying just under ten dollars a month for the program, reading that book is not free. Pro-rate that subscription fee over how many books you have checked out over the month, and that will be your true cost of reading that title. That cost is definitely greater than zero.

What that message should say is “Read this Kindle book for no additional charge with Kindle Unlimited.” That would be clearer and would certainly be a more honest and acurate statement.

But wording it more acurately is less of a catchy come-on to consumers who just see the word free without looking deeper into the real and on-going costs of the program's offerings.

Similar messages can be found with the “Get Free Shipping with Prime” statements sprinkled on many product pages and even when going through the checkout process. Again, if you are paying an on-going monthly or annual subscription fee for Prime membership, you aren't really getting your products with free shipping since, just as with the Kindle Unlimited program, you've paid up-front to receive that benefit. You're really getting that shipping at no additional charge. Understand the true costs of that not-really-free shipping.

If you're fine with that arrangement and understand the terms, it's all good. But what it is not is free.

The definition of that word has not changed. Yet.

Be an aware consumer. Understand all of the costs and restrictions, and how the store or website is using (or mis-using) the word free in their pricing and descriptions. If it's still a good deal, go for it, but understand the true cost of that not-really-free product or service and any continuing costs that it may incur before you click that link or spend your money.