“Cool, I’ve actually been accidentally subscribed to a $50 monthly membership fee on Rihanna’s bra website for four months without knowing it,” a friend of The Goods tweeted recently. “I NEVER would’ve knowingly signed up for it, I don’t even have any idea what I’m paying for. Wasted so much money.”
“SAME except it’s been like six months,” was the first reply. As it turned out, my editor had also accidentally paid for a Savage X Fenty Xtra VIP membership, which allows you to purchase exclusive and discounted underwear, including special stuff supposedly hand-picked by Rihanna. To my chagrin, I realized shortly after, I had paid for a year-long membership in the fall of 2018, shortly after the brand debuted. Of course, the fact that I personally made an embarrassing error does not necessarily mean that something deceptive is happening. Nobody scammed me into not reading, I just don’t like to read, and when I’m buying underwear at work I have to do things quickly.
However, on the consumer review site Trust Pilot, Savage X Fenty has close to 1,300 reviews, 25 percent of which rate the store “average,” “poor, or “bad” — and many of those are about the membership fee. The review labeled by Trust Pilot as “Most helpful” reads in part, “I checked my account today and realized I was charged for three months, entered into an absurd contract without my knowledge and am being charged an absurd amount of money a month.”
So I retraced my steps. I went back to the Savage X website, which is absolutely covered with deals labeled “New VIP Offer,” and new arrivals that are VIP-only. A good chunk of the items in the store are only available if you’re a VIP, meaning you have to sign up for the membership before you can purchase them.
Millennial poverty is not being able to buy lunch because youre dumb and forgot about your annual Savage x Fenty membership fee.— Rowdy Roddy Peppa Pig (@drea_carmen) July 22, 2019
But even if you limit your browsing to other items — often simpler, less flashy underwear and bras and nighties, framed less as something Rihanna herself had a hand in creating especially for you — clicking on any VIP promotions pushes you to become a member as well. For example, click on the “2 for $29” bralette deal and a Savage X Monthly Membership is automatically added to your cart to activate the discount. You don’t pay for the membership until it’s automatically charged to your card at a later time.
In fact, even if you don’t click on anything VIP at all, and simply add a product that initially appears full price, the site will still automatically add a Savage X Monthly Membership and a VIP discount. The membership program is explained in a lengthy sidebar next to the cart, and you can delete it from your cart as you would delete any item. But if you don’t stop to read what might be considered by shoppers to be an irrelevant wall of text, you’re likely to end up with a recurring monthly charge of $49.95 for as long as it takes you to notice. There’s also no guest checkout, which means everybody who buys anything has to set up some level of an account.
Reached for comment about customers’ confusion around membership fees, a representative from Savage X Fenty told Vox, “Customer satisfaction is very important to us and we strive to provide the highest level of service to hundreds-of-thousands of customers worldwide. While complaints are a very small minority, as a new company, we are always looking for ways to listen and improve.” The representative declined to comment on whether the company might consider changing the way membership enrollment is automatically added to shopping carts.
Even once you know you’re enrolled in a membership program, the system is somewhat strange. You can opt out of paying the fee at the start of any given month, but only if you don’t plan on buying anything. If you don’t opt out but also don’t buy anything, the fee rolls over as store credit. “The choice to shop is yours!” the information page explains. “Shop, or log into your account to ‘Skip the Month’ by the 5th of each month and you won’t be charged. If you don’t ‘Skip,’ your payment method will be charged $49.95 on the 6th of each month and you will receive one VIP Member Credit valued at $49.95.”
In the site’s terms and conditions, there is an even more confusing explanation of the difference between the annual membership (which I had) and the monthly membership (which my editor had). The annual membership program is apparently “an elite club for our OG annual members only — this membership is only accessible to those who signed up between May 11th, 2018 and January 15th, 2019,” and this group of members don’t log in monthly to skip a fee because they only pay once a year, and only $49.95 total.
Annual members also get free shipping, which monthly members do not, unless they hit a minimum purchase of $49, at which point shoppers with neither membership also get free shipping. “Each year you are auto-renewed, you will receive a $30 gift toward your next purchase of $35 or more,” the description continues, again, bafflingly.
You can’t cancel a monthly membership on the Savage X Fenty website or in the customer support chat window. You can only cancel over the phone, like the Wall Street Journal!
Other Trust Pilot complaints say that customers were charged even after they canceled their membership, or charged even if they skipped a month, or prohibited from skipping a month because the website kept freezing on that page. Some tried to redeem accumulated store credit and discovered strange rules (“If it is not in increments of $49.95 the credit will not be applied”), or that all of their remaining store credits disappeared after canceling their memberships.
On Twitter, customers who complain seem to do so reluctantly, not wanting to seem as if they are criticizing Rihanna herself, or implying that she had anything to do with this bizarre business model. I understand, and it’s true that she did not invent it.
It was created in 2010 by a company called TechStyle, which refers to itself as the “brand-building platform” behind Kimora Lee Simmons’ fast fashion subscription service JustFab, Kate Hudson’s athleisure brand Fabletics, the accessories subscription service ShoeDazzle, and of course, Savage X Fenty.
In February, the company announced that it had reached 5 million active members in 2018 and hit $750 million in annual revenue. “The VIP Membership program has allowed TechStyle to build a closer, more meaningful relationship with our global customer base,” TechStyle co-CEO Adam Goldenberg said at the time. “The program’s benefits have driven customer satisfaction across our brands to levels previously unattainable in fashion[.]”
(TechStyle referred a request for comment to Savage X Fenty.)
TechStyle refers to their offerings as “proprietary FashionOS technology” and a suite of “expert services.” (This appears to mean websites and people to run them.)
A membership model is not unique to Savage X Fenty among online brands. JustFab, which uses a similar membership program, was sued by two counties in California for allegedly misleading advertising in 2014, with district attorneys from Santa Cruz and Santa Clara arguing that the company wasn’t “clearly and conspicuously” labeling its promotional deals and discounts to make it clear that they required a monthly subscription of $39.95 to access. The case was settled for $1.8 million, but JustFab is still regularly criticized for the practice. (A recent several-thousand-word profile of Kimora Lee Simmons makes no mention of the company at all, nor of the reality show Kimora: House of Fab, which is about what it’s like to be the president of JustFab. Interesting!)
Fabletics also has a $49.95 monthly membership fee and a byzantine set of rules around how to “buy or skip” in any given month. Shoemint, “an exclusive shoe collection of irresistible styles at insider prices” that vanished mysteriously in early 2016, did not use TechStyle’s platform but did have an even more aggressive $80 monthly membership fee. One rattled customer described it on Pissed Consumer writing, “BEWARE OF SHOEMINT!!!!!!!!!” and “Buying a pair of shoes automatically makes it so you are a member and they can charge my credit card every month from now on, WHO are these people, CROOKS IN MY OPINION!!!!”
forgot to cancel my savage fenty membership before i was charged 50 bucks but thats ok rihanna caught ME slipping thats on ME— dummy thicc, waiting for autobus (@largewife) August 10, 2019
None of this information was difficult to find, so I was initially surprised that these membership models haven’t been discussed more regularly, out in the open, on blogs and in more tweets. Bloomberg called secretive membership fees “the future of shopping” in 2016, in a feature about AdoreMe lingerie, yet somehow we did not consider ourselves warned. Then I remembered that there is nothing more American than being absolutely humiliated by the fact that you accidentally cut into your personal wealth in a silly way — failing to be as rich as you might have been if you had bothered to read the confusing supplementary information next to your digital underwear cart.
Of course, this is also one of the main incentives to have a beloved and endlessly charming celebrity as the face of your brand. I am so nervous about how Rihanna fans are going to receive this short piece of writing about the possibly deliberately opaque systems underlying her latest business venture, and I unfortunately feel the need to emphasize that I personally admire everything else about her.
Savage X Fenty has plenty of goodwill that it has earned by being more inclusive than basically all other lingerie brands, and its fashion shows are a delight. I would rather not have this published at all. And that shame is exactly why I imagine we’ll never know how many people have been giving Rihanna $50 each month pretty much by accident — or for how long.
Update: Savage X Fenty announced a new $50 million funding round today!
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