Canadians rethink pandemic subscriptions amid return to favourite pastimes

Canadians rethink pandemic subscriptions amid return to favourite pastimes
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Photo credit: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

Aretha Greatrix had to do a double take last month, when she got a text message and email thanking her for renewing her subscription to OutTV.

The Edmonton filmmaker signed up for an annual subscription to the specialty streaming service years ago to watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but swore she had cancelled it by the time the auto renew message arrived. She was mistaken.

“I was thinking, ‘you mean I’ve had it the whole time?’… and not only that but now I’m paying for another year,” she recalled.

Greatrix is one of many Canadians being confronted with reminders about subscriptions for streaming platforms, meal kits, magazines and even household goods like diapers and cleaning supplies e-commerce giants like Amazon.com Inc. can ship consumers at regular intervals.

Many signed up for the services when the height of the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily cancelled arts performances and live sporting events and made in-person shopping and gatherings riskier. But, in recent months, Canadians have returned to their favourite pastimes and are now finding subscriptions are weighing on their wallets.

Netflix alone added more than 36 million subscribers in 2020, bringing its total customer base to more than 200 million, but has since reported its first drop in customers since 2011. The streaming giant said in the first quarter of 2022 it lost 200,000 subscribers, largely because it withdrew services from Russia after the country waged war against Ukraine.

The company is bracing for an even more extreme drop — roughly two million users — by the end of June.

Meal kit company HelloFresh similarly saw its subscriber count fall to 6.94 million in its third quarter from 7.7 million in its second quarter, but has since bounced back to 7.2 million.

Though many unsubscribe, there are others who let their accounts remain active simply because they forget to cancel the service or don’t even remember they have them because they’re not closely watching their bills.

“Most people do not think about the auto renew function and they let momentum carry them,” said McKinsey and Co. partner Oren Eizenman.

“It’s only when you have certain monumental aha moments, where you say, ‘I’m spending way too much on this or I’m not getting enough value on this’ and unsubscribe.”

But getting a handle on subscriptions is a good way to unlock cash that quickly adds up, especially as inflation surges and the number of services people enrol in increases.

A study from McKinsey & Co. found 46 per cent of the 5,093 U.S. consumers surveyed subscribed to a media streaming service, such as Netflix, and 15 per cent of online shoppers subscribed to an e-commerce service in November 2017.

The median number of subscriptions they held is two, but nearly 35 per cent of respondents had three or more.

McKinsey is conducting new and Canadian-focused research into how subscription habits have changed since the first two years of the pandemic, but Eizenman has already seen people become more conscious of the value they are getting from such services.

“People have said, ‘if I’m not going to be stuck at home for 23 hours a day, I actually don’t see the value of joining seven, over-the-top subscription services,’” he said.

“They’re much more likely to say…I’m going to have one because I am going to be going and seeing friends.”

He has also noticed many experiencing “content fatigue,” where they aren’t bothered by the money they are spending on services, but on the amount of time using them is taking up.

To manage what you’re subscribed to, use one credit card for all your subscriptions, said Gayle Ramsay, BMO Financial Group’s head of everyday banking.

“I actually did take all mine and put it in one spot…and it’s made a difference,” she said.

Consumers can also get a helping hand from their banks. Some like BMO have services or account features that alert customers when the amount they are spending on subscriptions rises.

If your bank doesn’t offer the service, there are apps — Truebill, Trim, SubscriptMe and Bobby — for managing subscriptions.

Regardless of how you keep track, Greatrix recommends people regularly take stock of what they are subscribed to and consider whether each service is still worth remaining enrolled in.

If you deem a service still worth your money, she suggests looking for a way to turn off auto renew features, so you can reassess the value every time you’re asked to pay again.

She also thinks people should mark auto renewal dates on their calendar and set reminders, so they know when they must cancel by. Greatrix schedules those reminders at least a week before the auto renew date to give herself an extra buffer to cancel.

If you are ditching a service, don’t despair, added Ramsay. Sometimes you can find free alternatives to whatever subscription you had.

She said, “Many libraries offer free magazine subscriptions, so you could look at the other ways you could actually access that subscription, where you’re not necessarily paying a fee.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.

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