Price Comparison (comparative advertising) is in the interests of consumers

This interesting e-mail came through recently to ValueIreland.com from a business person who is investigating providing price comparison in their particular market to try to show consumers that they actually do provide better value for money than their competitors.

I read, with interest, your article regarding a possible grocery price comparison site. It started me thinking about the legality of doing something similar in my own industry, on my own site.

I checked recently my pricing in comparison with my competitors and the so called discounters to discover that when all is said and done my prices are as good or better than the vast majority out there.

With every consumer now almost solely interested in price I think this would be worth shouting about.

My company enjoyed a reputation of having top quality products and service over the past couple of years but unfortunately, in a recession, people now associate this with being expensive which is simply not the case.

Obviously I will take legal advice about how I could show that my pricing is better than named competitors but I was wondering if you had any off hand info on the legality of showing price comparisons of similar or the same products on my website.

I would appreciate any assistance you may be able to provide me with, with the aim of offering savings to consumers.

I don’t have the legal specific expertise on this kind of thing, but I don’t believe there can be any problem if you were to report the prices of your competitors on your website.

I believe in advertising terminology this would be known as “comparative advertising”.

As far as I know, there was some recent EC regulations enacted in Ireland to cover “comparative advertising” – the EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES (MISLEADING AND COMPARATIVE MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS) REGULATIONS 2007 – details here.

This regulation is intended to prevent any comparative marketing communications which is misleading or confusing.

For this reason, I believe, if you were to gather your comparative pricing information and ensure that you present it accurately on your website, you shouldn’t have any problem. It might be a good idea to provide the time and date of the prices you’re using from your competitors as well – just in case they try to question where you got your information from. Even better, if you have photographs of the prices you’re using, there can be no misunderstandings (even if you just keep the photos in case any problems arise).

As you’ll probably have read in my comments regarding grocery price comparisons, the problem is to always make sure that the price information displayed is accurate and as up to date as possible.

I’m personally in favour of this kind of advertising but this isn’t something that’s been all that popular historically in Ireland, but is a whole lot more common in the United States. Maybe, if business people are starting to think like this one, we hopefully might see a bit more of it.

Cutting costs and saving money – there is an important difference

There’s a huge amount of information out there (newspapers, blogs, magazines and on radio and tv) giving you advice on how to cut your costs and save yourself some money.

You’ll read a lot of similar advice here on ValueIreland.com as well.

However, something I’ve written about here before is that just because you’re not spending money doesn’t mean you’re saving money.

So, if you switch your mobile phone or your electricity provider or move your insurance to a cheaper company, what do you do with the money that you save yourself?

If you’ve reduced your outgoings by €100 per month by shopping around for your groceries, what do you do with the money you’ve saved?

Will your savings account have increased by €1200 for the year? Or will you have paid off €1200 extra off your credit card bill or your mortgage?

I appreciate that in some cases, you may have had to make cutbacks in one place in order to be able to pay increased costs elsewhere.

However, as much as possible, if you’re successful in cutting your costs you should really try as much as possible to put even a little bit of those savings away rather than letting it be spent elsewhere.

AskAboutMoney.com presents “What every consumer MUST know”

Last week, Brendan at AskAboutMoney.com has started this great thread entitled “What every consumer MUST know“. It’s definitely worth checking out and bookmarking.

Some of the topics covered are:

  • Cost per minute of being “put through” when you call directory enquiries
  • The extra cost of calling 1890 and 1850 numbers from mobiles
  • Disputing direct debits with your bank
  • Avoiding Ryanair credit card charges
  • Cutting electricity costs
  • Saving money on pharmacy costs

Click here to read the full thread.

Refund.ie – A service that I’d stay well clear of

Both the Irish Examiner and the Irish Independent (three times) have blindly (and misguidedly in my opinion) given coverage recently to a new service called Refund.ie.

Crazily, when the Irish Examiner gave the website publicity, they hadn’t even properly published the website – it was full of dummy text with zero information available at the time.

Refund.ie is a private company, set up to make a profit. However, it is claiming that it will pursue financial institutions in situations where consumers feel they have been ripped off.

According to their website:

Refund.ie is a 100% Irish owned company established to fill a vacuum. Refund will help and encourage individual and corporate entities to pursue legitimate complaints in the area of financial services. Our team of experts will review each case with the aim of achieving a refund and/or compensation. In addition to our financial advisers we have a panel of Solicitors who will enforce our findings through the courts where necessary.

As well as pointing out that Refund.ie is not regulated by the Financial Regulator, it also highlights:

However, Refund.ie takes a commission of 22.5pc of any settlement it agrees with a finanical institution, whereas the ombudsman offers the same service free.
The new company also wants a upfront fee of €242, although this will be refunded if there is a successful claim.

Why on earth would you give your money to an organisation like this? From the Irish Independent article again:

Managing director of Refund.ie John Prout said people were still free to go to the ombudsman if they were not satisfied with the service they received from a claims management company like his.

Or, even more of a ridiculous suggestion:

They could also come to Refund.ie if a claim was rejected by the Ombudsman.

I find it ridiculous that a company think that they can get away with inviting consumers to pay them money to follow up on a claim that has already failed when reviewed by the statutory body responsible for such complaints, the Financial Services Ombudsman.

In my opinion, a company such as this shouldn’t even be given such cheap, easy and unquestioning press coverage. As far as I’m concerned, it’s preying on the fears and insecurities of consumers who may have a certain apprehension about going up against their bank in a complaint situation.

But, much as I have issues with parts of how the Financial Services Ombudsman works, that is what they’re there for – to help consumers – and, shock horror, all for free.

From the Ombudsmans office website:

The Financial Services Ombudsman is a statutory body set up under the terms of the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act 2004 (Section 16 and schedules 6 and 7).
The Financial Services Ombudsman is a statutory officer who deals independently with unresolved complaints from consumers about their individual dealings with all financial service providers. It is a free service to the complainant.

So, if you have a complaint against a financial institution – go first through their own complaints handling process. (Click here for top tips on how best to approach going through a compaints process with any organisation, including financial institutions).

And if you don’t get anywhere with your complaint by going direct, then go to the Financial Services Ombudsman.

And stay away from companies like Refund.ie.

Rail User? Have you noticed your annual fare has increased?

I can’t at the moment find the newspaper article I’m sure I read recently where it was said that Irish Rail would not be increasing fares into 2010. (If anyone saw it, and knows where it is, please link below).

However, based on an e-mail I received recently, it looks like Irish Rail will be increasing fares by over 10% in 2010 for some of their customers. Travelling in from Kildare, last year an annual ticket cost €1950, while for 2010 the same ticket will cost €2170 – an increase of 11%

There’s no details on the Irish Rail website about these increases.

Has anyone else noticed these price rise?

Update: Thanks to the ValueIreland reader who sent me in the story I was referring to – it’s here in the Sunday Business Post from November 8th, CIE pledges freeze of bus and train fares.

In what seems like a complete contradiction of what the VI reader above is experiencing, Barry Kenny, Iarnród Eireann spokesperson is quoted as saying the following:

The cost increases are not in the economy at the moment, and there is no need to increase fares for customers.

We Irish are suckers for brands and labels, and it’s costing us dear

Paul Cullen wrote this story back in September, Stepping out in the €27.99 suit, when it was one of their websites top stories early in the morning. It even made the rounds of Twitter for a while as well.

The cheap Lidl suit story has been around for a while – I think it first came out back in October 2008.

What struck me more about this story was the reference to the Canali jacket being sold by Louis Copeland for 38 times the cost of the Lidl suit. That’s a jacket – not a full suit – for over €1,000.

Fair enough the jacket is made of wool and not polyester, and that it has a “breastpiece made from the hair of a female horse’s tail” (top of my shopping list when I look for a jacket, I have to admit!), and that “some” of the sewing is hand done,. My question is though, is there really any justification for spending that amount on an item of clothes – do those differences really amount to an extra €970 worth of jacket?

Or is the extra €970 really just for the people with loads of cash who listen to bull from Louis Copeland when he flatters them about how the jacket fits, and gives them the line that it’s the personal favourite jacket of Barak Obama – all from the article. How much of the extra €970 is really just paying for the most important piece of material on the jacket – no, not the horses ass hair – the Canali label?

Having grown up in the clothing industry, I can tell you numerous stories about how much a label is worth to the price of an item.

Best example I can remember in the recent past about the cache of a label was when Old Navy opened (briefly) in Arnotts in Dublin. In the grand scheme of things in the US, Old Navy is below Gap which in turn is below Banana Republic when it comes to both cost and cache.

Yet if you really study their clothes, while the styles and colours may be slightly different, they are effectively all the same items, but just with different labels on them.

Yet when Old Navy came to Ireland, it was perversely more expensive than the Gap outlet just beside it in Arnotts. Anyone familiar with shopping in the US was laughing out loud at the fact that Irish shoppers were buying Old Navy items that were more expensive than Gap, but however the perception was created in the minds of shoppers, it happened.

In the early 1990’s, you could have manufactured a garment for, say, €27. If you put your own Irish branded label on the item and sold it to an Irish retailer, it would sell for maybe €62 to the general public.

Say you made the same item for a big name international designer – exactly the same item. Firstly, just because they were the big name international designer, they’d say that they couldn’t possibly buy the item from you for €27. They’d give you €19 – and because you were making in bulk for a bigger order, and were keen for the business in the hope of repeat orders, you took the money.

Now, your €19 item gets the fancy label from the big name international designer added to it, and then gets sold by a chain of international chain stores or their own designer stores only in New York, London, Paris and Milan. Suddenly you see the €19 item being sold for €229.

People – it’s the same item. Made by the same people. Using the same materials. But with a different label on it. But being sold for nearly 4 times the price. And it sells more than the Irish retailer sells at €62.

Another great example was something I noticed in Tesco when I lived in London. There, if an ordinary grocery item became popular, they’d very soon put a “Tesco Finest” label on it and charge more – for exactly the same product inside.

Obviously, people can spend their money on whatever they want. And perceptions are hugely important when it comes to how money is spent – and labels feed into those perceptions enormously.

But think about it! We Irish are famous for our love of branded, labelled items. But how much extra money are we spending unnecessarily in order to fund that love.

Competition Authority and National Consumer Agency. A marriage made in hell?

I wrote previously, Are the Competition Authority happy to be merged with the National Consumer Agency?, about how it was unlikely that the Competition Authority of Ireland were unlikely to be happy about their proposed merger with the National Consumer Agency. I wonder is that the reason we’ve yet to see the actual paperwork from the Minister in charge, Mary Coughlan, TD, to actually make the merger happen.

It looks like the different reactions from each of these quangos to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employments proposal for a Consumer Ombudsman is going to cause further friction – coming as it does close to the time (apparently) when the merger is due to actually happen.

This article recently in the Irish Times from Paul Cullen, Agencies at odds over code of conduct for big retailers, covers the emerging differences of opinion.

What I’m more concerned about is this completely laughable statement, attributed in the article to the submission on the Consumer Ombudsman proposal made by the NCA to the Minister:

The National Consumer Agency, in a submission seen by The Irish Times, supports Ms Coughlan’s suggestion of a ban on unfair commercial practices in the grocery trade and says retailers should be prosecuted for treating their suppliers unfairly.

The bolded italics are mine. Remember, this is a statement that comes from a government quango that is more interested in maintaining the status quo by “working with” offending businesses rather than looking after the consumers interests by taking on big businesses who are breaking consumer legislation.

Then again, without having read too much about the Consumer Ombudsman proposal, it seems that the real meat of the proposals surrounds protecting Irish suppliers from the big grocery stores rather than protecting the interests of consumers – so I guess it’s logical that the NCA would be sticking their oar in rather than leaving it to the Competition Authority (in theory, the more competitent authority for those types of business to business transactions).

Do you shop in Newry – To save money or is it just a day out?

Early 2009 saw the setting up of a number of businesses designed to take the pain out of shopping in Newry for Irish consumers. These businesses would both take you up north by bus and bring your shopping home for you, or they’d take delivery of your online shopping orders for you to their warehouses up north and then deliver them to your house.

Of the three in particular that I’d noticed, only one of those is actually still operating – and even that one seems to have had some issues and is now under “new management”.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not lamenting the departure of these businesses, merely making an observation. I was never fully convinced by that type of business model – essentially they’re a combination of importers and courier companies. That, and some of the pretty negative feedback I’d received through this site, meant there probably wasn’t anything in it for Irish consumers.

I wrote before how Irish consumers should avoid using RecessionBusTours.ie – now longer in operation. I referred to SmartSavers.ie previously as well but had no opinion on them one way or the other – they’re also no longer in operation. The only one of the three still working is DealHunter.ie – which has gone through a change in management.

It’s obvious that there isn’t a stable market in Ireland for these kind of services – despite all the talk about the vast savings that are said to be had when shopping up north.

Which got me to thinking? Is the shopping up north phenomenon at the moment as much about having a day out as it is about saving money? And lets face it, doing your shopping up north is a full days effort rather than a couple of hours if you shop local.

Do you shop up north? Do you travel up yourself rather than use these kinds of services? Maybe you have taken your hints from ValueIreland and don’t trust them.

Social Media, Public Relations and the “new media” – ValueIreland’s experience

Through writing for ValueIreland.com over the past 6+ years, I’ve come into contact (online and offline) with many who do similar stuff – i.e. write online. Reading a wide selection of blogs brought me to the newer aspects of what’s now known as “social media”. Instead of publishing an html based website, I started using Google Blogger first and them moved to WordPress, and on to hosting the site myself. Those same blogs and writers led me to Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. The first two of which I’m not all that interested in, to be honest, and I’m losing interest

In writing a consumer focused website, I’ve encountered my fair share of public relations type people – and those who claim to be experts in Social Media. The give-away on the quality of many of these so-called professionals is that invariably, they’re searching Google for Conor Pope, they find my site, and since it seems somewhat similar, they fire off their bog standard e-mail asking me to publicise their client/product/event.

I rarely write about anything here on ValueIreland.com where I don’t either have first hand experience or a deep interest. For that reason, I’m unlikely to just copy and paste the press release into an article. If it’s a new service or website for example, I’m likely to sign up to test out the offering. If I come across something that’s pitched to me, then I’ll give it a go, and if I like it, I’ll write about it. And if I don’t like it, I’ll also write about it. Sometimes, not writing about it counts as making a point as well.

I’m actually writing this post now because of recent experiences I’ve had with a couple of PR people, and because of one or two items I’ve been reading on other websites.

Firstly, for the record, my name is Diarmuid. My name is on the About page on this website – it’s not a secret. I’m not doing this anonymously – I have nothing to hide. So, if you’re a PR person going to e-mail me about something, at least check out the details on my website before sending me an e-mail that says “Dear Sir/Madam”, or “To whom it concerns”, or without any kind of salutation or greeting whatsoever.

I only provide an info@valueireland.com e-mail address here to manage spam better. I will respond to your e-mail from my personal e-mail address. When I do, don’t keep e-mailing me back at info@valueireland.com. As a PR person, you’re going to be telling your clients that you build and value relationships – but if you ignore the fact that I’ve made a positive “relationship” building move by giving you my personal e-mail address and phone number, don’t show how little you value the contact by ignoring that.

Remember, you want something from me. That’s why you e-mailed me. I don’t mind one way or the other.

There are times when I think that I should follow up directly with the clients of some PR companies – more particularly some of the newer organisations who claim to utilise social media as a way to bring their clients (or their products) to the people. I’m sure that these clients are unaware of how little they’re actually getting for their money and would be very interested to hear how some approaches being made on their behalf are so half-arsed and amateurish that they’re doing the client and their brand damage rather than promoting it.

Handling e-mail addresses, and knowing who you’re supposed to be talking to isn’t new media, or social media, it’s common sense and politeness.

Here are a few more doozies from just the past couple of weeks:

  1. One PR company e-mailed “valueireland” and asked for a banner advert to be put up on the site promoting a particular product – for free. A simple search of ValueIreland.com would have told the PR genius that I had little time for the particular product having written about it several times.
  2. Another PR company sent a press release to “valueireland” asking that we promote a new consumer grocery shopping website launched recently. The website, to be fair, is something that I am interested in and would have been keen to follow up further on, but I had a few questions. I emailed them through, and as of yet (4 weeks plus) have not received any answers (or even an acknowledgement).
  3. I loved a recent PR company who e-mailed me recently as I was “one of the main consumer focused websites in Ireland” and would I be interested in writing content for their clients website that was being launched soon. While I was considering if I could be of assistance, the same new website published a “Top 10” of Irish consumer websites, but neglected to include ValueIreland.com.
  4. While I said that I couldn’t provide content to their website due to time constraints, I would be happy to help if they had any relevant content that I could publish for them. “Brilliant”, they said, “we’ll send you something straight away” – again, 6 weeks later, and nothing doing.
  5. For the first time ever, a few weeks ago, a social media/PR company offered me a free version of their product to try out. As it happened, I was in the market for such a product, so I said I’d be interested – as long as they were happy that I write about the item afterwards. “No problem, that’s just what we want”, they said, “just send us on your address details and we’ll get one out to you”. A couple of months down the road, nothing!
  6. I’m also quite intrigued about the training received by the PR professional who has sent me the same press release for a product launch three times now. “In case you didn’t get the first one” was followed by “We’ve made some slight changes, so here’s an updated version”.

Don’t get me wrong here. One way or the other, I don’t mind. But if you’re going to take up some of my time asking me to help you out, I’m going to see if I can help you out – but please don’t waste my time after that by messing me about like above. I’m always a small bit proud that someone thinks that its even remotely worth their while following up with ValueIreland.com, trying to get me to write about their client (company, product, service or event).

I’m no public relations expert either, but I do obviously have my personal views on how to contact me and follow up when someone wants me to do something for them. We all have such opinions – people can ask us to do something in a certain way that we won’t like and we won’t be inclined to help them. On the other hand, we can be asked to do something in a different way and we’re only too happy to help.

As a company, if you’re paying someone to get people “on side” and “on message” for your new product, service or event, I guess you’d hope that these people would be aware of how to get people to help out. Its probably unfortunate for many of those PR people who contact ValueIreland that I’m never stuck for content here on ValueIreland.com, and that I’ve no deadlines to meet, so I don’t have to just copy and paste a press release to make copy.

But enough of that – it’s not all negative when it comes to PR people. There are some who seem (in my eyes anyway) to act in a manner which does their clients a lot of good. They’ll write a proper e-mail, they’ll answer questions, and they’ll remember who they’re dealing with.

But unfortunately, in my experience in the past few weeks and months, these are very few and far between.

ValueIreland.com E-mails – Apologies for the problems

For anyone receiving the  e-mail updates from ValueIreland.com, you may have noticed some problems with them in the past week or so.

I’ve been checking out what’s going on, and I think I’ve found out what the problem is. Hopefully, you won’t see any more problems from here on.

Apologies for the inconvenience.