What everyone tempted by joining a subscription service should know – a warning from Streetwise

Sarah Kirby from Denvilles who had problems with an online book club. 'Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (240419-2)
Sarah Kirby from Denvilles who had problems with an online book club. 'Picture: Ian Hargreaves (240419-2)
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There’s nothing Havant reader Sarah Kirby enjoys more than a good book.    

But when she signed up to a monthly book club subscription with Reading in Heels Ltd, only two books arrived as promised, and when the third didn’t turn up the firm’s reaction to her complaint sparked a bitter war of words.

Sarah became the victim of a new subscription gift box marketing craze, which first swept America and soon took hold over here.

For a regular monthly subscription buyers are supplied with goods or services catering for everyone, ranging from pet owners, wine connoisseurs, men’s shaving supplies and jewellery.

Sarah explained that she’d read about the book gift box firm in a national newspaper, so last December decided to give it a go after she Googled it on the internet.

She said: ‘It appealed to me because I could get a paperback book every month and get a gift box of goodies on the way. I thought it was a smashing idea.

‘You could get Artisan tea or coffee or even make-up goodies. It sounded like a bit of fun, so I decided to give it a go.

‘I went for a monthly subscription rather than an annual one because I thought if there were any problems, don’t like the books, or I’m not enjoying it, I could cancel at any point and for me was an ideal win-win, solution.

‘I decided to give it a try for a couple of months and if it was okay I’d carry on with it or if not I could just cancel.

‘I must admit the first book I got was a bite dire and a friend I share books with said she just couldn’t finish it.

‘The first two books arrived with absolutely no problem, but after my payment was taken on the first of March, no book and gift turned up.’

‘It seems it was all down to their payment cut off date which in my case was the 31st of the month.’

The 48-year-old primary school teaching assistant complained to the firm, insisting it wasn’t the money, it was the principle of paying for a subscription book box that hadn’t been delivered.

Reading In Heels abruptly got back to her claiming it was all her fault because her bank hadn’t complied with the firm’s automated payments schedule – end of story, put up or shut up.

The only way they’d consider sending her the March box she’d already paid for was to pay again. They’d then roll over the payment to April.

An astounded Sarah soon found herself locked in a rancorous battle of words with the firm after they point blank refused to back down despite four days and 22 increasingly angry emails flying back and forth.

She found it somewhat economic with the truth to keep insisting she hadn’t paid her March dues when it was as plain as a pikestaff they’d received the money.

At the end of her tether, Sarah decided to bring the battle of the box to an abrupt closure when she cancelled her subscription and requested a refund.

But Reading in Heels Ltd stuck to their guns and continued to give her short shrift.

Her mum and dad reminded her about Streetwise, so she called us in after she was getting nowhere.

We first headed to the company’s website and found it attractive and chatty. There were a list of FAQ’s about the service, but crucially, no terms and conditions of sale.

We were concerned the omission left it open to the firm to make up their terms and conditions of trading as they went along. Customers couldn’t be held responsible for terms of business they knew nothing about.

Our reservations were amplified after we elicited the statutory requirement to display their registered office details were also missing from the site.

We traced the firm’s London address from Companies House records to a flat in Rotherhithe.

A sole director was listed as 35-year-old Alice Dobson.

Matters took a down turn when we discovered the company had only been up and running for 16 months, and had just been shut down by company regulators for failing to produce accounts.

However, there was nothing to stop it from continuing to trade as a private company.

Further unflattering disclosures came to light when we searched the internet for online reviews just to be sure Sarah’s complaint wasn’t just a one-off and could be portrayed as a misunderstanding.

A list of devastating criticisms came up, many slamming the company and warning people about being given the cold shoulder for complaining about the very same no-show book box experience.

When we emailed with details of Sarah’s complaint and asked them for an explanation there was a brusque response.

They insisted their payments system was automated. The issue was with Sara’s bank and wasn’t their problem.

We said we were astounded that they’d blamed Sara despite being in breach of contract for not supplying her order.

Then out of the blue and without any further reference to us, the firm emailed Sarah in an abrupt about-turn, apologising for the ‘confusing situation’ and promptly refunding the £12.50 March subscription in full.

A relieved Sarah told Streetwise she was dumbfounded at how quickly we’d got the extended book box struggle sorted.

‘In a way,’ she said, ‘I’m annoyed with myself for not reading the reviews before I set the subscription up. They highlighted an awful number of problems with the company’s customer services not fixing problems and sailing close to the wind.

‘The situation I found myself in was ludicrous and their customer service appalling. I’d like to thank you so much for getting it sorted.

‘I just don’t want others to be fooled by their glossy-looking gift box website and find themselves in the same situation.’