Port Shopping Lecture Crackdown

| Wednesday, 28 Aug. 2013
A typical cruise ship shopping experience

The practice of recommending specific stores to passengers is receiving scrutiny in Alaska

You have to give credit to Alaska for making the cruise lines more responsible for the things they do. Most recently the state acted on a cruise ship policy that started out simple but grew into a monster; port shopping lectures.

Naturally, shopping is a popular activity. After all, when you only have a few hours in a new place, why not seek out a piece of treasure to prove you were there?

Several decades ago someone (who was probably a cruise director's wife) had an idea. "Hey, I am a great shopper and I know all the best stores in town. Why don't I give the guests a talk on where to get the best bargains in the next port?"

A great idea in theory, but it didn't take long for her husband to see she had stumbled into a gold mine. Recommending these stores as the best in town is free promotion to a captive audience that should be worth a bundle of money to these local stores.

And so it was, and the first people to ever organize "pay to play port shopping programs" were cruise directors acting on their own, without the knowledge of the cruise line. I admit that back in 1993 I was working on a popular ship sailing regular seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruises and I watched the cruise director onboard give these shopping talks himself. I also recall seeing him later in the day popping quickly in and out of several stores on the island and I asked him, "Boy, you are sure are hitting a lot of stores, are you looking for something in particular?"

"I sure am" was all he said.

Naturally, that kind of unofficial profiteering could not continue without the blessing of the cruise line, so they decided to run the shopping programs in-house. But that proved to be cumbersome and time consuming, so they did what they now do with so many onboard services; they outsourced the programs. This is not unusual at all, in fact many onboard services are run by outside vendors; the spa, gift shops, casinos, medical facility, certain branded food services (Starbucks), ATMs, internet centers and most notoriously, art auctions.

So today almost every mainstream cruise ship of size has an organized "Onboard Shopping Program" where an independent vendor who lives aboard the ship but works for an outside company is paid to give port shopping lectures. The three main companies offering these programs today are Royal Media Partners, the PPI Group and Onboard Media.

How the Programs Work Today

Alaska finally had enough of the complaints and has just passed state laws to govern the operators of these programs. Today these lecturers must follow these rules:

  1. They must disclose that they have been compensated by the stores they are recommending - essentially that the lecture is paid advertising.
     
  2. They must disclose that they do work for an independent third party company (not the cruise line) solely aboard the ship to tell you about the participating stores and to give you marketing materials such as free coupons.
     
  3. They cannot "bash" any local stores that choose not to participate in their program.
     

Over the years, naturally, certain problems led to where we are today. I mentioned that the programs started as unofficial ways for cruise directors to make extra money. A number of customers complained to the cruise line when they found out he was paid to endorse those stores - they thought it was just a friendly chat about shopping. Even worse, some of those cruise directors were giving personal guarantees of satisfaction by saying they would intercede with the store on your behalf if you were not happy with your purchase. Of course, he could only do that for as long as the ship was in port, so if you took your $2000 diamond ring home after the cruise and found out it was only worth $500 - well sorry, it was too late to help you unless you wanted to ship the ring to a post office box in the Caribbean, and oh, he was going on vacation.

It was these kinds of problems, all created in the name of the cruise line without their knowledge, that prompted the cruise lines to sell the rights to run these shopping programs to independent third party businesses. As far as I know, the "satisfaction guaranteed" part of the program was eventually replaced with - "we promise you that we only do business with reputable companies, and if you are not satisfied with your purchase we will look into revoking that store's right to participate in our program."

In Alaska the lecturers must tell you that the cruise line has negotiated with the named stores to give you preferential treatment as a passenger of that cruise line, but that is not true in other ports of call in the Caribbean, Europe and elsewhere. Usually you receive coupons for discounts and even small free gifts - which is a way to prove to both parties that you actually visited the store.

New problems also cropped up. Other non-participating stores in the neighborhood got wind that some lecturers were implying they were somehow inferior, just because they had chosen not to pay the cruise lines for onboard promotion. Some of those stores even went so far as to make official looking but basically meaningless store window signs saying "Welcomed to ZZZ cruise ship passengers!" Technically, there was nothing illegal about this as long as they didn't use any officially trademarked words or logos.

The Alaska state attorney general has been subsequently started reviewing some 70 recordings of port shopping lecturers on cruise ships in the state, and they say that with the new laws the speakers appear to be in line. Some passengers have commented, however, that similarly to the art auctions, while the rules are being read it sounds like those disclaimers in TV commercials mentioning the possible side effects of a new medicine you should "ask your doctor about!"

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