Friday, September 16, 2011


I read in The Week recently that a California man is suing Hilton Hotels for charging him $0.75 on his bill for a copy of USA Today that was left in front of his door.  He didn’t ask for the newspaper, so didn’t think it should be on his bill.  The complaint said that the unwanted newspaper represented an “offensive waste of precious resources” and that Hilton was contributing to “deforestation” by distributing the fish wrap.

At first glance over this snippet, I was sympathetic to the man’s cause.  There is nothing more frustrating than unwanted charges on a hotel bill, or any bill for that matter.  Secretly sticking dollar amounts on invoices for services never used and worse, never requested, seems like legalized theft, and thank goodness someone stood up for all of us little people.  It’s not the $0.75, it’s the principle!  Next, I hoped this nameless champion of the people would go after the phone company, the cable company, and the car repair shops.  “What’s a flux capacitor, and why are you charging me $14.87 for one???”  Power to the people!!!

At second glance, I recognized the crack pot nature of the lawsuit.  There would be a stronger case against Hilton for contributing to the moral bankruptcy of the nation by releasing young Paris into our midst (actually, that could be a very strong case…).  It is not clear to me from the story why this gentleman is staying at a Hilton in the first place.  Doesn’t the paving over of a patch of land to build a hotel represent a direct enough affront to plant life for this guy?  I would think that a youth hostel or a park bench would provide him with the self-satisfaction he seeks of personally changing the world, one restless night’s sleep at a time.  Of course, he would not be able to use a newspaper as a blanket while sleeping on that bench without contributing to deforestation, but I digress. 
While this nut case is making a mistake by pressing his baseless lawsuit, the real mistake belongs to Hilton.  No, not for allowing the plaintiff onto one of their properties in the first place.  Hilton’s mistake was not bundling the cost of the newspaper into the total hotel room pricing.  Had Hilton charged him $159 for the room, and provided a copy of USA for free, the gentleman would not have complained about his bill.  He might have complained about the bedbugs and the post-prom party taking place on the floor above him, but he would have paid for the newspaper without incident.

Not all goods and services need to be itemized for the consumer.  When you buy a box of cereal, there is one price.  That ‘bundled’ price includes the sugar cost, the shipping cost, the cardboard box cost, the advertising cost, and the royalty payments to Count Chocula for use of his image.  You can’t pick and choose which of those costs you would rather not pay.  If you believe that Count Chocula is overcompensated for his services as spokesperson, or that a drawing of the undead should not be permitted on the front of a child’s cereal box, fine.  Don’t buy it.  Just don’t sue General Mills for contributing to juvenile delinquency (teeth decay, maybe).  Just as you are paying for the entire breakfast cereal experience, so you are buying the entire Hilton experience once you rent a room for the night, and by the way, the entire Hilton experience includes a copy of the USA Today.

Providing transparency into the cost structure of a night’s stay was Hilton’s mistake, and it backfired.  This is why transparency sounds good, but often does nothing more than inspire the nut cases.  Then again, secrecy seems to inspire the nut cases, too. 
Maybe this former guest of the Hilton is just plain nuts, regardless of the circumstances.  Maybe he should have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

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