Merlyn Holkar, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health

Subscription retail: boxed-in

It seems that subscriptions are the latest big thing in retail. This model has always been popular with some products, such as magazines and gym memberships. In recent years it has expanded into entertainment, with many of us subscribing to streaming services rather than buying DVDs, and now, suddenly, there is a subscription service for almost anything you can think of: razors, dog food, snacks, tea towels, shoes…

Our latest briefing paper, out today, takes a closer look at this boom in subscription retail, and what it means for people experiencing mental health problems. Our research has found that people with mental health problems are more likely to sign up for subscription services, particularly entertainment services or treats, often in an attempt to feel better. Worryingly, we also find that people with mental health problems can have particular difficulties unsubscribing from these services later on. With many of these services charging £10 a month or more, it’s easy for costs to rack up when subscriptions automatically renew.

This is no coincidence. Subscription services are designed to trap their customers. But some of the barriers they use are particularly problematic for people with mental health problems.

Easy in... not so easy out

The basic model of subscription retail is to make the signup process as quick and easy as possible, often offering free trial periods or other goodies to sweeten the deal. The unsubscription process, by contrast, is deliberately complicated, so that people who are signed up have to jump through several hoops if they want to cancel.

Here are some examples of ways that retailers make it harder to unsubscribe:

  • Burying information about unsubscribing in an obscure part of the website or terms and conditions
  • Requiring users to fill out lengthy forms or manually type out their email address in order to unsubscribe
  • Requiring a phone call to unsubscribe
  • Emotive messages like “we’ll miss you” are designed to guilt customers into continuing with their subscription
  • Distracting by offering alternatives – such as a different subscription package, perhaps better tailored to the users needs
  • Offering a price cut – 50% off next month if you stay
  • Reverse clickbait – hiding unsubscribe pages with confusing or technical language – for instance “manage recurring order”

By adding these extra steps, and making them as time-consuming and complicated as possible, retailers can discourage people from unsubscribing.

When the barriers begin

Our new research, however, shows that for people experiencing mental health problems, this friction is far more serious, and in many cases these extra steps make unsubscribing – and thus stopping spending – incredibly difficult. Mental health problems can affect people’s cognitive abilities, for instance reducing attention span or decision making ability, meaning that complex or protracted unsubscription processes can be a real challenge during periods of acute mental illness.

We have also identified two particular ways in which unsubscription processes can be difficult for people with mental health problems.


1. Telephone phobia – Many people with mental health problems, particularly those with anxiety or social phobias, find it incredibly stressful to communicate on the telephone. If a phone call is required to unsubscribe, this can make it essentially impossible to do so. We recommend that companies always offer a range of communication channels.

“I hate ringing up companies to pay. I get nervous on the phone to strangers anyway and this doesn’t help. So instead of paying I put it off which incurs more charges.”

2. Forgetfulness – Anybody can be forgetful from time to time, but memory problems are recognised as a particularly common symptom of mental health problems. Many subscription services automatically renew, so costs can pile up for customers who forget to cancel.

“My head is like a small room packed full of paperwork and post it notes that have all been mixed up and have no filing cabinets or space to sort it out… I can’t seem to arrange any of it into some sort of order and my memory is very bad… anything I need to remember just gets lost in the mess.”

These are problems with unsubscription, rather than subscription retail per se. Of course, for many people subscription retail works perfectly. It can be a fun chance to try something new, a cheaper way to buy things you need anyway, or a time-saving way to avoid the shops. But for people with mental health problems, in particular, it can quickly turn into a trap.

That’s why we welcome the announcement of stricter regulation of subscriptions, to ensure that all consumers will be able to stay in control of their spending. We look forward to seeing the government’s proposals in its forthcoming consumer green paper. 


To read our recommendations take a look at our policy paper here