When David Guskin got the bill for the Britney Spears concert tickets his daughter, Emily, ordered from Ticketmaster, he was shocked. On top of the $56 price for the July 10 show at Nissan Pavilion was a $3.50 "facility charge," a $9 "convenience charge" and a $4.10 "order processing fee" for each ticket.
"Where is the bathroom fee? The food availability fee?" complains Guskin via e-mail. "The total of various junk fees is $16.60 [per ticket]! This is almost 30 percent of the ticket price itself and about what the entire cost of attending a concert was not that long ago."
Guskin, a Potomac resident, thinks the fees are "absurdly large."
But such objections are nothing new to the world's biggest provider of automated ticketing services. Ticketmaster has long been a complaint magnet largely because of its seemingly superfluous fees. Consumers like Guskin who are already hot over paying big bucks for concert, show or sports tickets feel they're getting burned by add-on charges that jack up the advertised ticket price by 20 to 50 percent, depending on the event.
Some consumers have even taken Ticketmaster to court over the fees, though without success. Most cases are dismissed. Or, as with a 1994 New York lawsuit that alleged the fees were excessive, the courts found that the fees are "always disclosed" and didn't constitute deceptive business practices.
"When computerized ticketing first started 25 year ago, people deemed it an incredible convenience. . . . Now it has been deemed a necessity and people wonder why they have to pay for that necessity," says Ticketmaster spokesman Larry Solters, adding there's a reasonable explanation for each of the additional charges.
For instance, that processing fee? It covers Ticketmaster's expenses in filling a ticket purchase -- from its agents taking the order and finding available seating over the phone or online, to arranging shipping or will-call pickup.
What raises more hackles is the "convenience charge." As Guskin says, paying $9 for convenience seems "redundant and excessive . . . since any convenience the customer might incur is for processing his or her order."
But Solters says the fee provides for the convenience of being able to buy tickets 24 hours a day in any of several easy ways.
"If he didn't want to use the Ticketmaster convenience, he could get in his car, take time off from work, drive out to Nissan, go to the box office, buy the tickets, drive back to work," he says. "What Ticketmaster affords you is the opportunity to buy tickets off-site via phones, online and ticket outlets -- and there is a cost associated with that."
And don't blame Ticketmaster for the "facility fee." Although the ticketing agency collects it, the money goes to the venue -- in this case Nissan Pavilion. "Which makes it no less obnoxious," says Guskin. "Will movie theaters and bowling alleys soon also charge building facility charges?"
Nissan Pavilion spokeswoman Brooke Kent explains that "the facility fee is Nissan's parking fee" since concertgoers pay nothing when they drive into the lots.
Meanwhile, most of the extra charges are a moot point for Guskin, at least this time around. Britney Spears's summer tour has been canceled because of the performer's knee injury.
"Supposedly, we get it all back except for the $4.10 processing fee," says Guskin. "Why isn't that refundable as well?"
Solters says Ticketmaster is refunding the ticket price and all fees but not the processing charge "if they did the mail order through the Internet or by phone" because it performed the service.
When a show is canceled, he says, Ticketmaster does twice the work -- selling the tickets and making the refunds -- for no revenue. And the customer, he adds, "has the benefit of not having to leave his house to get his refund."
But Guskin isn't convinced. He says not many other retail industries treat customers that way. "Perhaps they performed a service, but so does any store when you buy something and then return it. They don't have the nerve to keep part of the charge," he says. "If [Solter's] service logic works, why can't they charge when you just make an inquiry and don't buy? They performed a service then, didn't they?"
The upshot, counters Solters, is that Ticketmaster is all about making ticket-buying easy. To save on some, but not all, of the add-on fees, buy at the venue's box office and pay in cash.
"The reason Ticketmaster has a viable business," he says, "is because people find it incredibly convenient."
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.