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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service Shipping Program Called a Come-on

(CN) - An online wine retailer that promises free shipping actually inflates the prices of its products to make up the difference, a class claims in court.

Lead plaintiff Aaron Paul sued in San Francisco County Superior Court on behalf of a class of paid the website's members. proclaims on its website to be the "# l online wine store since 1998" and purports to offer "great selection, low prices, convenient delivery and information that's impossible to replicate in a store."

It offers customers the option to purchase into a "Steward-Ship Program" for an annually billed fee of $49 that is supposed to give members free standard shipping on all eligible purchases, according to the complaint.

Paul says he purchased an SSP membership in September 2012 but found, when he renewed, that the terms and conditions did not match what he was told.

According to the complaint, until recently, the terms of the SSP program were "buried" in a separate webpage rather than presented conspicuously on's website.

"Rather than providing these disclosures in larger type/contrasting font than the surrounding text, defendant provided them nowhere on the sales screen," Paul says. "Rather they were buried in a separate document,'s Steward-Ship Terms and Conditions, that were not even displayed to customers."

Despite the claims of shipping-charge relief, "the base price of the wine changes depending on the location of where the wine was to be shipped," the complaint states (emphasis in original). "In other words, in some instances the same bottle of wine costs more to ship to one state than another, even for SSP member-customers who have paid for 'free shipping.'"

Paul also says that began in September 2013 to increase the annual SSP fee it automatically rebilling customers to $53.29. allegedly charged Paul's card this higher amount without his consent.

Paul says the consumer complaint he initiated in October 2012 about's practices triggered the company to add certain disclosures to its website.

The parties nevertheless allegedly failed to reach a settlement after several months of negotiations.

When Courthouse News visited's website from separate computers, a required pop-up box prompted the entry of a shipping destination state to begin navigating the website.

The same wine, with a different shipping destination state, produced different base pricing, but it is not apparent whether that base price would be the same without entering the details of a paid, SSP membership.'s general counsel Bill Tomaszewski did not return a request for comment.

The class seeks injunctive relief, restitution and damages under Calfornia's Automatic Purchase Renewal Law, Unfair Competition Law and False Advertising Law.

It is represented by Sarah Avila of Milstein Adelman in Santa Monica, the firm Kanner & Whiteley in New Orleans and Ku & Mussman in Miami.

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