Why I’m calling the end of Irish consumer writing in Ireland

I wrote last week that I believed that we’d reached the end of Irish consumer writing and that unless businesses and service providers innovated by changing and increasing their service offerings, nothing much would change.

Because our economy is being squeezed from all sides, business are likely to contract and consolidate rather than expand and innovate in the near to medium term, so until then, we’re going to continue to get recycled “top tips” and “how to” articles.

Three things happened in the past couple of weeks that have reinforced this belief for me.

Waste of time

First of all, the National Consumer Agency were searching the internet, hoping probably, to copy other peoples hints, tips and advice in their preparations for this article published during November – “Christmas Value”.

This, as I’ve said before, is the statutory agency who has the ability to prosecute businesses for taking advantage of consumers but who decide their time is better spent googling for other peoples Christmas tips and advice and then publishing on their own website.

Waste of money

Secondly, the other useless bastion of faux consumer protection and representation, the Consumers Association of Ireland, published this gem in a press release announcing their November issue of Consumer Choice (cost €7, but you must buy all 12 for €96 in a year):

Keeping hens
Never buy another egg again with our complete guide on how to keep hens.
Consumer Choice also features an in-depth look at keeping hens. We publish a complete guide for anyone interested in having their own eggs including information on how too source the hens, as well as a survey of what’s on offer from companies that operate in this area.

Use this information wisely!

Waste of effort

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, the normally wise Conor Pope, managed to get this published for his large audience through a national newspaper:

FREEZE YOUR ASSET Okay, we appreciate this may sound a little mad but we have heard of people who have done this with great success. Immerse your credit card in an ice tray full of water and freeze it. This is a great way of stopping spur-of-the-moment online spends as you have to wait until the ice melts before you can access the card. There is no point in trying to chip the card out as you’ll damage it and as for trying to defrost it in the microwave, don’t even think about it.

For someone who has such an audience with his weekly column (I’m assuming), such advise is more than a little mad – it’s downright idiotic – even if his audience is an Irish Times reader who’s scoffing at the premise that one would only have a single credit card.

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Dear future Fianna Fail leader, how to secure a future for your Fianna Fail party!

First of all, to declare my hand here. I’m not a Fianna Fail party supporter, but nor am I tied to any other party. In the last local elections I voted ABFF, and will vote that way again.

This post, however, is inspired by what I see as being a huge opportunity for whomever may become the future leader of Fianna Fail.

I’m not all that bothered whether he or she may do this, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities available to some senior Fianna Fail TD right now to secure something of a future for the party – even in the short term (since we know, long term, Fianna Fail are likely to be as easily destroyed as a cockroach by a nuclear holocaust).

Bear with me! My assumptions here are the things will go as we’ve been most recently told by Fianna Fail (and we know how much we can believe in that). They’ll try to pass the budget, they’ll put the 4 year plan in motion, they’ll dump Brian Cowen early in the New Year just before they call a General Election.

Crying out

As far as I see right now, the opportunity is there for a Fianna Fail TD with true integrity (another assumption, I know) to stand up and say, ENOUGH!

While some of this might just be semantics, picture the scene if Michael Martin (for example, could be anyone – Mary Hanafin to throw a real spanner in the works) was to take over from Brian Cowen right now. Whomever takes over from Brian Cowen now has 2-3 months of an almost free hand that they won’t get for maybe another 4-5 years.

Lets say that person takes over now, seizes the opportunity to actually cause some real change – change that’s been avoided by Fianna Fail for the last decade. Not only could they do the party some potential good in the shorter term, it could also make that new FF leader a viable and almost credible leader of the opposition for the next couple of years.

What to do?

Lets say their first action is as leader of FF and Taoiseach was to issue a full and honest mea culpa.

“Yes, we fucked up. Yes, we looked after our own interests first. Yes, we also got carried away on a wave of money, distracted with a sense of our own importance and our own personal needs and desires, and the needs of our friends in the Fianna Fail tent. But it all ends here.”

Damn it, they don’t even have to mean it, they just have to say it and duck the shitstorm for a while. It’s done. There’ll be a lot of people out there who’ll hear it, and be happy. Never mind that it’s just optics – as a party political ploy, it’d work. They’re not going to win an election anyway, so saying it won’t damage them any more.

But it would give the new leader a very strong start.

What else?

There are, in my opinion anyway, a number of things that a new Fianna Fail leader could do in the next 2-3 months before an election that would put them in excellent standing, personally, during their period as leader of the opposition.

There is probably some clarity and honest needed on the forthcoming budget and the 4 year plan, but there are those more qualified than me to comment there. However, there are four very simple things that could be done:

  1. Immediately cut pay, pensions and expense entitlements of government ministers, TD’s, and senators. For some, cuts of up to 50% of salaries should be instated. Make the Taoiseach be paid the same as some other IMF bailed out countries.
  2. Scrap the “Croke Park” agreement and start cutting salaries and staff in the civil & public service, and in the semi-state organisations and quangos. Given our situation now, there’s scope for pay cuts of up to 50% possible here across many senior people.
  3. Reinstate the Freedom of Information Act to the format that it was before it was savaged by Fianna Fail previously. Not only that, but expand it to the critical areas that it currently excludes – such as the Gardai, NAMA, and a personal bugbear, the National Consumer Agency. In fact, anywhere that depends on the State for it’s continued operation should be included – “he who pays the piper, calls the tune”.
  4. Finally, open up all cabinet documentation right up to 31st December, 2010. Don’t wait for the 30 or 20 year rules to make the documentation available. Make the information available now to allow anyone who wants to dig into what really happened.

Then pass a budget. And call an election.

The Fianna Fail leader that does even these four simple things wouldn’t negate everything from the past 10 years, but they’d definitely distinguish themselves as being different to those that went before.

It’d also, more importantly for all of us, actually give us a leader of the opposition of some substantial standing for the next few years.

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There were warnings about our current difficulties as far back as 2000

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Calling the end of consumer affairs writing in Ireland as we know it

I’m starting to come to the conclusion that writing about consumer affairs matters in Ireland has come to a sort of crossroads, possibly even a dead end. This is nothing new, nor has been for some period of time. As regular readers will know, the content here has changed from being “top tips” and “how to” type articles in the early days to having to become more comment and opinion articles in the past couple of years.

It’s come a long way

When ValueIreland.com started in 2003, there was very little written in Ireland related to consumer affairs matters.

The Irish Time, publisher of PriceWatch now, didn’t deem consumer affairs matter worth their while covering. The Irish Independent and other papers were only beginning to awaken to the possibilities. Online, there was only the Boards.ie Rip Off Ireland forum.

Since then, we’ve all seen the explosion in consumer related information that is now made available in print, online and on tv and radio.

Nothing left to say

To a certain extent, by now, if something consumer related (tips, hints and advice) hasn’t been written about now in a newspaper, a magazine or on a website, it’s probably not worth writing about at all.

We’re seeing this with some of the consumer tips and advice published recently where journalists are being paid by certain newspaper publications to tell us how, in this current economic crisis, how we can make money by buying wine, buying art, and even buying property.

The “How to save money on … ” articles are done to death – it’s simply a case of reprinting/republishing the same articles from previous years.

No one was listening anyway

Despite the simplicity and effectiveness of the message to “shop around”, it too is done to death. The fact that it’s ridiculed by much of the general population is disappointing.

We have now left a era when we were plenty able to shop around and make choices of different service and product providers – even if we decided not to.

With businesses closing all the time, we as consumers are left with fewer and fewer options for shopping around – eventually, we’ll be crying out for the chance to do so in the coming months and years.

But still, people with lots to say

In spite of most consumer content struggling to be original any more, and despite the fact that fewer people are listening any more, I still saw multiple new entrants into the “top tips” and “how to” market.

We’ve seen the National Consumer Agency, an organisation with the power to prosecute businesses for taking advantage of consumers, decide that they were better spending their time writing internet articles on “consumer value” rather than enforcing the laws they were set up to uphold.

We’ve seen some people who, despite the plethora of information made available freely online, decided they could make a few bob by turning the provision of consumer tips and advice into a business.

So where to next?

Consumer tips and advice writing as we know it is dead. The only way I can see any future in it is if our businesses and service providers in Ireland begin to innovate by changing and expanding their product and service offerings.

Unfortunately, with the economy still stagnating and likely to do so for another couple of years based on what we’re hearing now, then though the “copy and paste” consumer writers will always have something to write about, there’s unlikely to be anything new for the foreseeable future.

That leaves ValueIreland.com, and writing comment and opinion on the things that matter to consumers.

This could be at a macro-level – but you’re unlikely to read anything here from me that you’re not going to read anywhere else. Yes, I’m mad as hell about what Fianna Fail have done, and are continuing to do, to our country. I’m probably more willing than most to give Fine Gael and Enda Kenny a go at trying something different – though, I’m resigned to the fact that they’re unlikely to surprise us with anything different.

Or it could be writing about consumer issues at a micro-level. The day to day things that people notice, that people are annoyed by, or that people love and are happy with. I can continue to share my own thoughts and opinions, and whenever anyone is kind enough to e-mail me here, I can continue to share that with you to.

Any thoughts?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the points I’ve raised here.

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Don’t get involved in Christmas Clubs – your money is at risk

I’ve noticed a large number of stores have been advertising their Christmas clubs already – we’re only just into November.

While a Christmas club may sound all nice and positive and you may think you’re doing something good in preparing for Christmas, you should be aware of the dangers of getting involved in Christmas clubs.

When you sign up to one of these clubs, or something like “lay away”, you are giving away your money to a business who is not giving you anything in return – not in the short term.

You’re on a promise to get something closer to Christmas when your pot of money builds up, but if the business fails between now and then, you’re going to be left high and dry without your money.

A Christmas club, or lay away, is effectively like getting involved in vouchers and gift tokens – you’re giving an interest free loan to someone who’s giving you no guarantee that they’ll pay you back. While they may offer you some enticement to get involved, there’s a greater risk these days as business are closing every week.

If you are, encouragingly, saving for Christmas, at least used an institution where your money is protected – a bank, building society or your credit union.

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02 and online vs paper billing – the controversy continues

It seems that the decision of O2 to force all their customers towards online billing is causing a lot of concern for their customers. I wrote about this on Monday already, and here’s another readers e-mail.

You might be aware that O2 are switching to online billing and will no longer send customers a bill by post, unless they ‘opt out’ of the service.

I have no problem with online services personally (I am in my twenties and active online, and have access to high speed broadband) but I am thinking of older people here – my parents are O2 bill pay and do not have access to the Internet at home, how exactly are they supposed to keep an eye on what they are spending now?

They were not even aware this was happening until I told them! I understand this is a cost saving measure for O2 but people should have the option to ‘opt in’ for the service rather than having to ‘opt out’ of it! Wonder am I the only one concerned about this?

I wonder does anyone out there know what, if any, obligations are on O2 to deliver bills to their customers?

If customers are paying by direct debit, O2 is obliged to inform their customer at least 14 days prior to money being debited from the customers account.

If the customer has no way of retrieving an online bill, and didn’t know that they had to opt in to receive a paper bill, then I wonder who’d be seen as to blame?

Given that IPSO lies to consumers anyway, there’d be no surprise when they take the side of O2 rather than the consumer anyway should any queries or issues arise if direct debit rules are broken.

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Readers E-mail: Fine Gael Jobs Proposal

This e-mail came through from a ValueIreland.com reader some time ago, but I’m only getting a chance to publish now. What do you think?

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am enthralled by the continuous claims being made by Fine Gael with regard to creating thousands of new jobs if they were to get into power. How could it be that Fine Gael know how to do this and yet the government are unable to come up with such magnificent plans? Do Fine Gael have some strange ability to see what the government are unable to see?

Why is this government ignoring these ideas if they are worthwhile considering?

I fear this government is running scared and and feel they are unable to retrieve the situation and get it under control. At present they are negotiating with the Trade Unions which are behaving like terrorists by making threats on a daily basis.

This is no way to behave during times of financial trouble. True it is not the fault of the employees of the Public Sector that this country is costing too much to run on a daily basis. It is in fact a combination of the Trade Unions and the government that these employees have gained such large increments over the past decade that they now have financial commitments that do not allow them to absorb these reductions in salary.

However, it is also fair to say that these same employees are reasonably secure in employment and do not have the same security worries as being experienced on a daily basis in the private sector. Although this is no excuse for claiming the reductions in salary across the board in the Public Sector are justified.

I would like to know why Trade Union subscriptions are tax deductible. Would the Trade Unions have as many members if these payments were taxable? I feel the membership of these Unions would be possibly halved if this was to be the case.

Isn’t it time the Trade Unions told their members the real truth about the state of the countries finances. Ireland is spending too much money on a daily basis to pay for Public services. We have some employees in the Public and Civil service that are too well paid for the hours they work. We have frontline services suffering due to overstaffing in administration and senior management level.

Why do we need 166 T.D’s when 78 would be sufficient? This would give each county 3 T.D’s. These T.D’s should be forced to spend their time running the country and not in local clinics or going to funerals trying to secure votes. Votes should be secured by doing what we are all paying them to do. There are thousands of areas in Public expenditure which could be reduced without having to reduce anymore salaries in the lower to middle income earners in the Public Sector.

The HSE is purchasing products such as toilet rolls, liquid hand cleanser and hundreds of other products which are being sourced from outside Ireland. Why do we not have a factory in Ireland to manufacture these goods and supply the HSE among other businesses? It would create thousands of jobs through manufacturing and supply.

Ireland is a agricultural land and yet we allow so many goods that are being grown in Ireland to be imported into this country. It is time this government got behind the farming community and started to grow more produce to prevent or reduce the import of these goods. Manufacturing plants could be set up to process and package these goods into strongly branded Irish goods. A wholesaling and distribution division could also be formed to sell to the retailers in Ireland and retailers globally.

The possibilities are endless. All it takes is for the government to provide good financial incentives to producers and farmers. With the correct implementation of these incentives we will eventually become a stronger economy less dependent on foreign direct investment. We will become a sustainable economy with a much brighter future and one in which will become a better place to live and work.

Every cloud has a silver lining and this could be our silver lining if the government are willing to help get people back to work. It will not happen overnight but it could happen reasonably quickly. It would release the pressure being put on the employees in the Public Sector to take more cuts in their salaries. I would also suggest reviewing the performance of some senior Public and Civil Service employees.

I do not think they are all doing the work they claim. If they were we would not be in the mess we are in right now. It is unfair on the honest hard working employees within this sector to punish them for the behaviour of the few hundred or thousand that are not pulling their weight.

Ireland with less than 50,000 unemployed and a happy and prosperous population in excess of 5 million sounds like a good place to be. It is up to every person in Ireland to ensure this government gives us this future.

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O2 not doing a very good customer service job

This e-mail came through from a not very happy ValueIreland.com reader recently. Some sharp practice going on at O2 it looks like:

I’ve just received an A5 flyer from O2 to say that I’ll no longer be receiving my phone bill by post, with this months bill.

Imagine sending out a notice during holidays in very small light print (its about font size 7). They say “if it’s ok with me” they will not be sending me a bill anymore. Well it’s not ok with me and 02 should give us a choice instead of dropping the service unless I opt in.

I can get details of my bill on line. Hold on not everyone is on line

I like getting a bill so that I can check it.

They are trying to get us not to look at our bills

Stinks of saving more money and nothing in it for me. and I’m not sure if Comreg would approve.

It’s worth remembering that O2 charged for paper bills for some customers, but have been known in the past to continue charging even though they weren’t sending out paper bills any more. I wrote about this back in January 2009.

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Interested in being on TV with Eddie Hobbs?

Or at least in the audience for his new Consumer Show on RTE1? This arrived in the e-mail yesterday. It’s a pity Vicky didn’t bother to take the time to find out who the Sir/Madam might actually be - I don’t keep it a secret.

Dear Sir/ Madam,
The Consumer Show, which will be fronted by finance guru Eddie Hobbs and TV journalist Keelin Shanley is looking for people to be part of our studio audience.
This show will be recorded in the RTE studios, Donnybrook, Dublin 4 from the 6th September 2010 and every Monday thereafter for six weeks.
If you think this would be of interest to the readers of your website you can contact me on 01 2084643 or email me at vicky@cocotelevision.ie and I will send you on all the relevant information.
Yours Sincerely,
Vicky Taylor
The Consumer Show
Montrose House
RTÉ
Donnybrook
Dublin 4
Direct Line: +353 1 208 4643
Web: www.rte.ie/tv/theconsumershow/

Follow up as you chose – I won’t be going along anyway. I think it’s quite disappointing that RTE and COCO Television would return to the Eddie Hobbs well for a presenter for a consumer programme.

As someone who did some great work on behalf of consumers some years ago, I think he really is “gamekeeper turned poacher” in recent years. We’ve seen his promotion of property as an investment product through Brendan Investments. There’s also been his involvement in Cape Verde property promotion.

And more recently, with the decline in readership for the You & Your Money magazine that he fronts, there has been an increased dependency in that publication on advertising from CFD and spread betting providers.

I appreciate that he’s probably there given his past popularity, and that he’s trading on the success of RipOff Republic years ago, but I think those times are gone and that his impartiality isn’t what it used to be.

Still, we’ll be huddled around the tv watching the first episode – surely it has to be better than some of the other consumer related muck that RTE have been broadcasting in the past couple of years?

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SayNoTo1890.com – More geographic alternative numbers now available

Yesterday, over on SayNoTo1890.com, I made some updates to the main A – Z page with a series of new geographic alternative phone numbers for 1890, 1850 and 0818 phone numbers.

In case you’re not familiar with the website or the money saving idea behind it, here’s the blurb  from the site:

For many people who have inclusive bundles of minutes with their landline and mobile phone packages, you’re still charged extra to call 1890, 1850 and 0818 numbers. The calls sometimes cost more than you’d expect given they’re called Lo Call or Call Save numbers, especially when calling from mobiles.

This website will provide you with geographical alternative phone numbers for the many companies that insist on still using these phone numbers – even though they’re costing their clients more than it should to get in contact with them.

A geographical alternative phone number is a local telephone number, which when called is normally subtracted from your minutes bundle allocation instead of you being charged extra.

 

Click here for the SayNoTo1890.com Website.

Click here for the SayNoTo1890.com Website.

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