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Deal hound for those barking mad over prices in ‘Rip-Off Ireland’

The Irish Independent
Orla O’Sullivan, October 18, 2004

A researcher-cum-personal shopper thinks Irish consumers will pay for help in cutting their major expenses, writes ORLA O’SULLIVAN

THE latest response to Rip-Off Ireland is a new service to save you money – but it’ll cost you.

Eddie Lennon, freelance journalist and founder of the now discontinued website bestvalueireland.com, will analyse the expenditure of consumers and small businesses and show them how they could make big savings.

For a flat annual fee of about €400 for consumers, €1,000 for businesses, he proposes doing eight to 10 searches over the course of a year.

Mr Lennon says he will document in advance that the savings he makes for clients exceed their service fees. “It won’t be just a case of sign up and hope,” he said.

Mr Lennon anticipates researching cheaper phone and internet deals, office supplies, travel, and expensive items such as electronics.

He acknowledges that some people won’t have €400 in annual expenses to trim. “This service isn’t for people who scrimp and save, it’s for those with high outlays who haven’t the time to research the best deals.” Presumably, this would include the 15,000 Irish people now estimated to have more than €1m to invest.

While The Consumers Association compares prices generally, this tailored assessment is more akin to a personal analysis, such as that offered on TV’s popular Show Me The Money.

His concept dovetails with several social trends in Ireland and abroad. Here, websites such as ripoff.ie, valueireland.com and the creative pint-comparison site drinkfeckgirls.com form part of a growing consumer backlash to inflated prices.

Internationally, internet services help what marketers term the ‘money-rich time-poor’ consumers automatically compare prices.

US sites that went beyond easily-compared commodities at the start of this decade had few survivors. Still-operating sites include priceline.com and lowermybills.com. The latter dropped utility comparisons, kept telecommunications and added financial products.

Overseas banks have, since 1999, tentatively offered personal-shopper/research services entirely unrelated to banking. The latest, offered free by an Indiana bank last year, has understandably proven popular.

Others, such as the original ‘Zenda’ – a cyber-Girl Friday for all customers of NatWest Bank, now Royal Bank of Scotland – devolved into a limited paid service for affluent card customers. Ireland has followed these international trends, with a ‘lifestyle manager’ service introduced by Ulster Bank, another RBS subsidiary, last June and a phone-plan comparison service dating back to March 2000.

Although a couple of thousand of the bank’s U First customers upgraded to the €168-a-year U First Gold account, only about 150 people have used the research service, said Megan Bestac, product manger of the new account. Most were primarily attracted by the free annual family travel insurance, she said.

Patrick Cahillane is managing director of OneSource, the Tullamore-based phone brokerage and carrier that now also compares internet plans.

He commends Mr Lennon’s proposal as “a brilliant idea” but questions how one person can be expert in everything.

“Comparing phone bills, alone, is almost a full-time job. There are so many players (about 30) and they all have their different schemes.”

Ironically, banks have steered away from researching the best terms on financial products – even though savings there are potentially huge. (For example, our April 15 issue of Your Money demonstrates how you could save €11,000 on mortgage insurance over the life of the loan.)

Ms Bestac said they are excluded from the Gold account’s research perks because they entail “a whole litany of legal issues”.

Eddie Hobbs, finance spokesperson of the Consumer Association and TV presenter of Show Me The Money, concurs.

On hearing Mr Lennon’s contention that an Apple iPod, for example, can be bought from a US website and delivered to you for less than two-thirds of what you’d pay in an Irish shop, Mr Hobbs said: “I’d use that service.”

The research range could be eclectic and dictated by the client, Mr Lennon says. “I know from a friend of mine who does landscaping that the price of garden decks can vary by €5,000 – largely because providers are just testing what the consumer will pay.”

There are major variations in phone charges, for example – sometimes tenfold differences in rates. Yet, with the average Irish household’s bill being just €44 a month, only businesses might consider a fee-based search worthwhile.

“The old inertia is giving way to the motivation not to be ripped off,” Mr Lennon says. His previous website, bestvalueireland.com, had about 420 visitors a day when it was discontinued at Chrismas 2002.

The new service will operate from bestvalueconsulting@hotmail.com or 087 997 0887.

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