Too much choice

Jamshed Avari | 03 June 2008

One of the greatest things about our open market is the amount of choice consumers have when it comes to buying tech products and services. Look at Cuba, which just legalized the sale of a desktop PC. Yes, the singular is intentional. One model. It’s called the QTECH PC, and it uses a Celeron processor with 512 MB of an unspecified type of RAM. No options, no customization, no upgrades, and a price that’s a fair bit higher than a much better configuration would go for in most parts of the world. Cubans who buy it can’t buy an Internet connection to go with it. For quite some time now, we in India have had a healthy number of choices of brands, models and versions of almost every category of computer-related products—including niche high-end ones like enthusiast graphics cards and power supplies.

But there are sometimes a few too many choices, and it makes me wonder whether manufacturers and service providers actually benefit from creating customer confusion. A while ago, while checking my prepaid mobile phone’s balance, a message appeared advertising local and STD calls for Re 1 per minute for a token amount of Rs 31 (presumably deducted per month). A quick mental calculation confirmed that I’d save loads of money, so I visited the service’s website to confirm the terms and conditions. To my complete bewilderment, the site listed no less than ten conflicting schemes for cheap STD calls. The 31-rupee scheme was front and center: all local and STD calls to any mobile or landline phone for Re 1. And yes, it’s a recurring monthly charge. But right below that, another scheme promised local calls to any phone and limited STD calls also for Re 1, but with no monthly charge at all. The third offered only STD calls to any phone at Rs 1.30 per minute, and no monthly rental.

The next few paragraphs detailed more schemes for STD calls at Re 1 to assorted sets of states in India, all for more money per month than the 31-rupee scheme, which promises STD calls to any phone in any state. Further down, another scheme priced at Rs 25 per month promised one-rupee STD calls, but only to mobile phones on the same network. Another paragraph buried lower on the page told me that for the same Rs 25 per month, I could also activate a rate of Rs 2 per minute for STD calls to any phone anywhere in the country, but for Rs 250 per month, the rate would be back to Rs 1 and would also cover local calls. But isn’t that the same thing that the first scheme promised for only Rs 31?!

And it didn’t end there. There were even more offers, depending on whether I wanted a new connection, a package deal with a cheap handset, a lifetime (or limited lifetime, whatever that is) connection, or a group deal with family or friends. There were special refill denominations and bonus refills (which, apart from activating some offer, don’t necessarily refill anything), which promised to subsidize some types of calls to some types of phones, but would reduce the amount of credit and time that the recharge would deliver.

All of this made me wonder whether the 31-rupee scheme was too good to be true. Surely, if the same thing is being offered for Rs 250, and if there are so many other combinations of variables, then this must be some kind of mistake. And can any of these be combined? Say, one scheme with really cheap STD rates for a particular state as well as one scheme for cheap local calls? I once refilled with a particular amount, after finding on the same website that this would give me cheap STD rates for a month. But to my horror, I received a message afterwards saying that all the existing offers that I had paid for were cancelled. There had been no warning or confirmation prompt, much less any information about having the amounts I had paid for them adjusted. What if I had bought the Rs 250 scheme just the previous day?

And so, after seeing the list of schemes online, I spent a good half hour trying to calculate which of these offers would result in the most savings according to my current usage pattern. The Rs 31 scheme comes out on top, though I hope it isn’t too good to be true. Maybe since it’s new, the more expensive ones will be phased out. But until then, customers will still see these older offers and the service provider will pocket a nice amount for each person who doesn’t thoroughly check the entire page.

- Jamshed Avari

    Assistant Editor

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