ConsumerValue from the National Consumer Agency

During 2009, the National Consumer Agency set up a new section on their website – ConsumerValue. According to the web page blurb:

ConsumerValue aims to act as a single signpost directing you to resources informing consumers about how to seek the best deals.

ConsumerValue is not about changing the way you live your life. It is about making informed consumer choices based on full information and an understanding of what cost versus benefit mix is right for you.

While the site does provide a lot of information (and is therefore probably worth bookmarking), it’s actually quite hard to navigate your way around the many pages of information.

It’s also quite strange to see the many links provided on this government agency website to the websites of private profit making enterprises – this essentially amounts to free advertising for a select few, and a ringing endorsement from the NCA for these businesses.

Readers E-mail – Is this a scam website? What can I do?

This e-mail came through from a ValueIreland.com reader recently. For the moment, I’m going to blank out the company name as I think the short answer to the question is no.

I ordered a hamper from ******* **** ******* based in Co Clare over a month ago. They have not delivered it and they do not respond to my enquiries or answer the phone but their website is still open to take money off people.

Have there been any complaints about them, is this a scam website? How do I contact them?

Back in June, I put together a series of top tips on what to watch out for on website when you’re shopping online – you can read those tips here.

Following those tips when checking out the website from the reader, there is a Company Registration Office entry with an address that matches the “real world” address for the company that is provided on the website. The website also provides a proper phone number on the site.

While they’re only cursory checks, it doess look like it might be a legitimate business website.

It is however still concerning that the company isn’t responding to the communication from their customers.

In situations like this, a little perseverance is required on the part of the customer to try to make contact. E-mails should be sent, phone calls made, and even a registered letter should be sent.

In all communications, the customer should be clear on what their expectations are from the business – are they looking for a refund, or are they still insisting on delivery of their order.

Of course, at the moment, given the “current economic climate”, the business may be undergoing some difficulties – which if it’s the case, they should really close down their site from accepting any further orders.

I did do a quick internet search for the company but couldn’t find any negative commentary about the business or the website.

If the company still refuses to respond to the customer, you can probably take it that they’re not acting in good faith.

In situations like this, it can be hard to chase down getting a refund or getting their order delivered. It could potentially be more effort than the original money handed over is worth.

However, the first thing to do would be to lodge a claim to the Small Claims Court – assuming the order doesn’t exceed €2000 in value. The cost of making a claim is €15 and can be done online.

If the business continues to ignore communications, including now from the Small Claims Court, then the claim will be automatically treated as undisputed. The District Court will then make an order in your favour (without you having to attend court) for the amount claimed, and direct that it be paid within a short specific period of time.

If the business doesn’t pay up in response to the District Court order, then you can arrange to send the Court Order (Decree) to the Sheriff for collection – but you will incur further costs if you do this – but this will be refunded to you if the Sheriff succeeds in executing the Court Order. There’s no guarantee either that the Sheriff will be successful in getting the money either.

While this can all seem like a pain to do, I think that it’s essential that consumers should go to this length if business attempt to rip them off. It’s because many consumers don’t do this that many business are brave enough to continue to do it – they incur no consequences because of their activities.

When is buying Irish not actually buying Irish?

I’ve covered this topic a few times in the past, but I thought I’d come back to it again. I know from some of the e-mails I’ve received here and from some conversations with some friends and family, that the problem in trying to identify Irish made products is bigger than ever.

There’s been a fair bit of coverage in the media since earlier in the year where various parties are concerned that there are many products on sale in Ireland at the moment that may give consumers the impression that they’re made in Ireland when they’re actually not.

Back in January, Peter Donegan and I had a little over and back on Twitter about this very topic – Fiacla toothpaste was an example of a product where consumers would be easily misled. Fiacla, despite the name, isn’t made in Ireland any more. He published a follow up post on that which is available here.

Here’s some comments on the topic from Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail) from the Order of Business on February 4th last:

Supporting home industry and buying Irish-made goods will be an important part of the economic recovery. In recent times many people have been enquiring in shops about Irish-made goods in the belief that they are protecting and maintaining jobs at home.

However, it has come to light that the branding on some imported goods is misleading and people are buying goods they believe incorrectly to have been made in Ireland. Some examples were brought to our attention in recent reports. For example, if one eats “Old Time Irish Marmalade” in the morning one will believe it is Irish made but it is sourced in Portugal. Likewise one would be certain, having bought Siúcra sugar to put in one’s tea, that it was Irish sugar. It is sourced in Germany. One has to be particularly careful when buying salmon. There is smoked Irish salmon and Irish smoked salmon, but the latter might be imported and processed in Ireland.

These are only three examples but if this is comprehensive and there are many other such examples, we can see immediately that the economy is being undermined and that people who genuinely want to help home industry and buy Irish-made goods are being misled.

There is nothing illegal in that type of branding but we must make consumers aware it is happening. There is little point in exhorting people to buy Irish-made goods if that danger exists. I gave only three examples but I am sure there are many more. Producers in Ireland who have learned of this practice must feel very angry at present. We must protect our own and be certain that any product that goes on the shelves as Irish is Irish made.

Unfortunately, just words though. There was no meaningful debate on the issue, and no follow up on the day, nor any promised for the future (as if the Seanad could do anything anyway).

Something which is happening at the moment, which should help clarify things for Irish consumers, is the product database being developed over at ThinkIrish.ie. This database should eventually contain all Irish made products which we can refer to and make our purchases, safe in the knowledge that we’re buying Irish products.

The Benefits of the Tax Saver Scheme with Dublin Bus

Here’s a great example how you should regularly review financial type decisions just in case things have changed – either the offers available or your own circumstances.

Sometime in the past, I had decided that it wouldn’t have been worth my while buying an annual Dublin Bus ticket through the Tax Saver scheme.

However, after looking at things again (particularly because of my increased use of public transport), I absolutely have to buy an annual ticket through the Tax Saver scheme – check out the savings I’m going to make below.

A saving of over €450 – what a fantastic boost for the savings! And that’s not even counting any extra journeys that I might take by bus at the weekends.

So there you go – just because you decided that something wasn’t worth your while in the past doesn’t mean you can’t find benefits now or in the future. Think back over your past financial decisions and see if you could revisit any of them to see if things have changed.

Business owners – know when to give up on customers?

I wrote on Monday about how to complain effectively as a consumer when we’re dealing with a business that we feel has let us down in some way.

In our dealings with businesses, we probably always have in the backs of our mind that we are dealing with someone who should be living by the motto “the customer is always right”.

But is that always the case? This article that I found bookmarked from last year says it’s now – that there are times when a business should consider firing customers.

  • Be professional. “Customers should always be spoken to personally, not by letter or phone. Only when the customer is at a distance, is it appropriate to speak with them about the matter on the telephone. But in no circumstances should the contact be other than verbal. E-mails simply will not do in this case.”
  • Keep emotions out of it. Odds are the customer made you extremely frustrated or angry, but now is not the time to vent. Customers often will take being fired personally, “so it is important that you explain your reasons rationally and clearly.”
  • Offer suggestions. Remember after you have fired them, customers will still need someone to provide the product or perform the service you did. Help them if you can.
  • “Stay polite but firm. It is time to move on.”

Have you ever felt that a company has fired you as a customer?

The Irish Government – Lizard Brains

When writing about the current Your Country, Your Call idea generating campaign, I was particularly focused on the fact that out countries leaders (both political and business) have more to gain by maintaining the current status quo than they do in supporting a couple of “truly transformational” ideas that might challenge their comfy position.

Tim Dunne and Maggie Dugan wrote some years ago about what they called “Lizard Brains”. According to them:

The Lizard Brain is concerned with survival. It sits at the base of the skull, at the top of the spine. It’s our old brain. Evolutionists will tell you that we’ve had it since we were – well – Lizards. The Lizard Brain’s reaction to everything, if it has one at all, is limited to the following…eat, attack, run away, or mate.

Recently, on his blog, Seth Godin write about Lizard Brains under the title “Modern Procrastination”:

The lizard brain adores a deadline that slips, an item that doesn’t ship and most of all, busywork.
These represent safety, because if you don’t challenge the status quo, you can’t be made fun of, can’t fail, can’t be laughed at. And so the resistance looks for ways to appear busy while not actually doing anything.

Is there anything more appropriate to describe our current government? And if there was a phrase to best describe the Your Country, Your Call (and Ideas Campaign, and Global Irish Economic Forum) ideas gathering exercise, it’s:

ways to appear busy while not actually doing anything

What’s a share in Anglo Irish Bank going to be worth?

Back in January 2008 when the government nationalised Anglo Irish Bank, it was announced that an independent assessor would be appointed to determine if there was to be any value at all in the company as it stood at that time.

That would have an impact on the Anglo shareholders of record at that time as it would dictate whether or not they would get anything for their shares – then worth 21.7c, down from a record high of €17.53 in 2007.

The process to appoint that assessor has only started recently, according to this story from the Sunday Tribune – Government to appoint assessor to value Anglo Irish Bank shares.

One can only guess how long that process will take, and how long it will take the assessor to come to their final decision.

If the UK is anything to go by (Northern Rock was valued at 0), and based on everything we’re seeing coming out of Anglo since privatisation, the bank should be valued at 0, and shareholders should receive nothing. A company that makes losses as big as Anglos is surely worth nothing.

However, as you can probably guess, I’m a little sceptical about whether or not that will actually be the case.

The government and the Financial Regulator have jumped through hoops in the past few years to prop up Anglo Irish Bank, and by extension, it’s beloved shareholders.

And it’s those favoured shareholders – particularly the better known ones such as those in the “Golden Circle” and more particularly, the Quinn family and related companies – and their needs, that will probably dictate that Anglo Irish Bank will actually have been worth something when it was nationalised – and thereby triggering a payout by the government to those shareholders in exchange for the actually worthless shares.

But that’s just me speculating.

What have you done with your ECB interest rate windfall of up to €8000 in two years?

At the end of February last, the ECB announced that they were leaving interest rates at their historical low of 1%.

I first wrote about this “ECB interest rate windfall” back in November 2008 when, at that point in time, certain mortgage holders were up to €150 per month better off because of cuts in ECB rates.

My question at the time was what were mortgage holders who were benefiting from these rate cuts going to do with their money:

How’s your “rainy day” savings looking? Or are you planning a big Christmas and going to need a bit extra? Do you need to pay down other debts – credit cards, car loans, etc? Or could you overpay on your mortgage to reduce the term?

And yes, I appreciate that this article is limited to anyone who has a tracker mortgage in particular. However, the key thing was:

Whatever you do, don’t let this welcome extra money to be assimilated into your day to day spending. This money should be seen as a bonus, and should be treated differently to your “normal money” – make sure you get a decent longer term benefit from it.

Then, in May 2009, rates were cut again to the 1% rate they remain at now.

Depending on the size of your mortgage, you’re now paying between €5,000 and €8000 better off because of reduced monthly payments.

Where’s that money gone? Do you have any of it saved, or have other higher expenses and a higher tax take taken it all?

Overcharging by the banks – our regulator still only talking a good game

I wrote on Monday about the fact that “naming and shaming” banks and businesses that steal money from their customers isn’t having any effect on either encouraging customers to go elsewhere, or to shame these businesses into not doing it again.

When it comes to banking overcharging, it seems like stronger and more intrusive regulation is the only thing that will truly protect consumers fully.

I should declare though, that I’m not all that in favour of this though – there’s enough information available, for example, to illustrate to consumers that doing business with AIB may not be the best thing for their finances. In such situations, I believe in buyer beware rather than bringing in stronger regulation.

Not that we’ll get any regulation changes anyway

It would have been nice if our new Financial Regulator, Mr. Matthew Elderfield, took the opportunity of the first overcharging incident of his new reign to show that he meant business and acted with purpose on AIB for thieving money from their customers.

So what did he say? Well, according to this report, he didn’t really say much. He sort of whispered, whimpered even. He said he “was concerned that financial institutions “continue to experience control failures” that result in customers being overcharged”.

He also probably scared the pants off the bank executives when he said that “it was clear from recent cases that “change is needed” in how companies handle charging and pricing issue”, and more importantly, that “the regulator was conducting a review “to strengthen its approach concerning the timeliness of resolving overcharging in firms and the grounds for enforcement actions against such failures”.

Wow. We’ve such a better regulator in place now. Much better than his predecessor Patrick Neary who merely, when faced with similar banking overcharging back in 2007, “warned banks that they would be subject to ongoing checks to make sure they were not continuing to rip off customers”.

Who really is the cheapest supermarket? Don’t expect the NCA to tell you!

Splashed across the Aldi website at the moment is the headline “Ireland’s Best Value Discounter”, while available on many of the Lidl special offer pages is a banner that advertises that discounter as “Ireland’s Cheapest Supermarket”.

And both are basing their claims on the July 2009 National Consumer Agency grocery survey.

One could initially say that this further highlights the uselessness of the NCA grocery surveys in that both chains are able to make broadly similar claims (on the face of it) based on the outcome of the same survey.

It also highlights how ridiculous the NCA were to not include these chains in their grocery surveys from the very beginning – it wasn’t until ValueIreland.com carried out the NCA survey in both Aldi and Lidl that both stores were included back in 2008/2007.

But who is cheapest?

Well, the title of “Ireland’s Best Value Discounter” does actually go to Aldi, when comparing Aldi and Lidl only, and only when comparing “own brand results” rather than “branded results”.
But that’s when comparing a basket of 52 items “own brand” items purchased in both stores – all other stores (Tesco, Dunnes, Superquinn etc) are not part of this particular survey (table 2).

The title claimed by Lidl as “Ireland’s Cheapest Supermarket” is sort of incorrect as it only refers to that the part of the survey where “own brand” items are purchased rather than any “branded”. It should really read “Ireland’s Cheapest Supermarket for Own Brand Items”

Technically, it should really read, “Ireland’s Cheapest Supermarket for Own Brand Items in a basked of 19 items, rather than 52”.

With me still?

If you buy 20 listed “own brand” items in Lidl, they are cheaper than all other stores. However, if you buy a basket of 52 “own brand” items in Aldi, they’re cheaper than all other stores – including Lidl.

So that probably means that the “Ireland’s Best Value Discounter” claim made by Aldi is also incorrect – since if you bought 20 items instead of 52, then Lidl would be cheaper.

Confused – you should be, and that’s exactly what supermarkets want – confused consumers. This is why the National Consumer Agency also had to give up on their plans for their “grocery price comparison” website (which I’ll be coming back to soon).

Its unfortunate then that in a grocery market where the chains depend on consumer confusion, the organisation that is supposed to help consumers by reducing that confusion are only serving to increase it with their useless grocery surveys.

Edit 22/03 - Since I originally drafted this article, Conor Popes Pricewatch column in The Irish Times has touched on this topic, Lack of price information costing consumers a packet. In his article, he refers to the NCA grocery price surveys, and the fact that it seems like we thankfully won’t see any more of them:

Speaking at a recent media briefing to promote the amalgamation of the Financial Regulator’s information and education functions within the NCA, the agency’s chief executive Ann Fitzgerald confirmed that the general surveys had been knocked on the head. She expressed disappointment that they were being abandoned but said that obstacles being put in the way of the agency by retailers had made them next to impossible to carry out.

Edit 23/03 - Following on from the Pricewatch article above, CheapEats.ie have followed up also with their article, Pricewatch: The cheapest supermarket?.

Check out their discussion in answer to the question – In the absence of in-depth price comparisons, which supermarkets do you find the cheapest?