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Icon of the month: Ticketmaster

Ben Cohen

If you think that battling Oxford Circus requires emotional energy, you have clearly not tried a Moroccan haggle. On holiday there last year I settled into an 'automatic pilot' trading routine: offer 25% of the original price, listen to proprietor explain to me how I am starving his grandmother, flounce off, and finally cut a compromise deal in a reconciliation two stalls down.

In this respect it was something of a relief to return home to Prix Fixé Blighty. But I have an uneasy feeling that we are incorporating the souk culture by stealth, only in reverse and without the opportunity to flounce out if you object.

Today I was perusing Ticketmaster for concert tickets - £32.50 face value. That, however, is just the beginning: there is a further £5.00 'service charge' (that's £5.00 for the privilege of them selling you each individual ticket), and if you fancy receiving the tickets in the post that's another £3.00. If snail mail seems a bit recherche, they can send you an e-ticket that you print out yourself - also costing £3.00. Any way you slice it, £32.50 has become £40.50, and that's by no means the largest mark up on the site - four REM tickets, would set you back £22.95 in overheads.

Hesitate and you are lost; tickets for popular shows are bought up by armchair scalpers en masse and sold via the internet for a major mark-up. At Getmein.com, for example, you can pay £90 for your '£32.50' ticket. Recently bought by Ticketmaster, it's a ticket resale site where DIY touts can advertise their wares at any price they fancy, paying the site commission.

Ticketmaster was founded in California in 1976, operating as an agent for all those concert venues that were previously at their wits end stuffing envelopes with Abba tickets. The venue hands over the sales operation to them, they pass on the overheads to us. Very convenient for the venue, but how about the customer?

Such agents do offer a handy one-stop-shop for all your entertainment needs. But this hasn't stopped many consumers taking offence at the mark-ups. Artists too have taken umbrage. Pearl Jam - always a band spoiling to sock it to the man - appealed to the US Department of Justice over Ticketmaster's 'monopolistic practices'. Losing the appeal, they unsuccessfully attempted to tour the US while boycotting the organization.

Meanwhile, Radiohead are alleging that Ticketmaster has allowed a million dollars' worth of their tickets to be resold at inflated prices via a subsidiary (though to be fair I should perhaps highlight two significant words from this last story: 'alleging' and 'Radiohead').
The company has therefore become a symbol of the Non-Negotiable Upward Haggle. In NNUH land, what you end up paying bears no relationship to the price advertised. Most readers will have their own examples. I'd like to throw in the 80p air ticket weighing in at £80.00, the self-extending '12 month' gym contracts and credit card companies' escalating APRs.

It has all become a big game of cat and mouse. The companies' job is to squeeze as much money out of you as possible, your job is to spot their ruses and turn the tables. Nothing is quite what it seems in a culture of 'up to 8GB' broadband offers - or, as one well known shopping chain advertised its January sale: 'up to at least 25% off'. Wise as serpents? Well, it helps...

In the 17th century business and commerce played an equally ignoble game. It meant endless haggling and battling of wills. If you didn't keep your wits about you at the butchers you would, more likely than not, have come home with a rosemary-seasoned rack of maggots.

Between then and now things had improved for consumers, but how? The simple answer is the Quakers and their Testimony of Truth. In other words 'Let your "yes" be "yes" and your "no" be "no".' For Quaker traders what you saw was what you got, and every other ruse came from the devil. No wonder that a nation of grocery shoppers switched their allegiances en masse.

In an interview with Third Way, the founder of the Body Shop Anita Roddick said that she longed for a new generation of Quaker-style business entrepreneurs. As I scour the latest online order form for small print and boxes to un-tick, it's hard not to agree. I'm sure Pearl Jam and Radiohead would lend their custom. Now, would you like a five-year extended warrantee with this article, madam?