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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

Maintaining independence and trust

I wrote a little last week how many well meaning organisations and campaigns can struggle between the need to maintain independence and trust versus earning money to keep the campaign going.

In my opinion, any organisation or campaign will always lose a level of credibility and trust when one starts to charge for services or accept payments from organisations who could be seen to have a vested interest in the success or failure of your campaign. The rule of “he who pays the piper, calls the tune” will always raise it’s head when one receives money when you’re trying to promote an agenda.

For 6 years, ValueIreland.com was advertising free until I placed some Google Adverts on the pages to try to make a little cash to cover costs (unsuccessfully unfortunately) to keep the show on the road. I have very little control over the content of the Google ads panel, but I appreciate that sometimes the adverts present may clash with the thoughts and contents of the website.

The question that should always be pursued when looking at the motives behind any campaign is, “follow the money”. Or in some cases, such as the Your Country, Your Call campaign, “in receiving sponsorship money from big business, what will the campaign be expected to do in return”.

If those questions cannot be answered clearly and unambiguously, then I believe one would be entitled to be wary of the campaign.

Something that I noticed recently was that the Australian Consumer Choice organisation, whose tagline is “We exist to unlock the power of consumers” has started to charge companies for allowing them publicise the endorsement of certain products or services by Consumer Choice.

Consumer group CHOICE has issued the first licence for an endorsement scheme that will allow manufacturers to use the “CHOICE Recommended” logo on a range of products.

Subject to licence conditions and regulations, the logo can be used by companies which have a product that has met CHOICE’s strict testing standards for performance and excellence.

A licence fee will be charged for products in the “CHOICE Recommended” scheme to cover administration costs, with surplus funds to be re-invested into further CHOICE testing and research.

In my mind now, in this situation, I personally would view a “Choice Recommended” endorsement with less trust than one where the organisation wasn’t making money on the basis of the outcome of making the endorsement.

I wonder when the cash-strapped Consumers Association of Ireland are going to follow the lead of Australias Consumer Choice. With falling membership and struggling for funds, I’m sure the CAI would welcome this increase in income.

ThinkIrish.ie – an overdue follow up (part 3)

On Monday and Tuesday this week I published blogs here and here in follow up to my initial skepticism back in March upon the launch of the ThinkIrish.ie campaign.

My skepticism was due to the lack of information we were provided by the campaign on who was behind it, where the funding was coming from and what the ultimate tactics of the campaign would be. It all sounds similar to the questioning of other campaigns we’ve seen recently which haven’t actually turned out to be as they were initially portrayed in the opening press releases – see Ideas Campaign and Your Country, Your Call.

To clarify again, at no point have I argued with the aims of the campaign – though an examination of the numbers behind the prediction of +200,000 jobs if we start buying more Irish goods would be interesting – my desire here is purely for a closer examination of one of the many of the things we, as consumers, are expected to suck up automatically, and unquestioningly.

As a nation, we’re probably not used to that kind of closer examination because most of our Irish journalist types are unwilling to do it themselves. It’s much handier fill space by copying and pasting a press release rather than doing even a bit of simple investigation.

One of my questions yesterday (here) touched on something that interests me about the future of the ThinkIrish.ie campaign.

What consideration has been given to charge companies to be part of your product database – similar to Guaranteed Irish charging membership and for use of their logo?

This question, I think, will be key to this particular campaign. If they do begin to charge, then it becomes little more than the weak Guaranteed Irish scheme. But if they don’t charge, then the campaign is likely to continue to be low scale, low key. It’s a difficult bridge to cross.

I see already, though, that ThinkIrish.ie are asking that retailers make a “donation” in exchange for being allowed to use ThinkIrish.ie window stickers on their shop windows.  Suggested minimum donation sizes range from €75 to €250 depending on the size of the store – more details on that here.

In my opinion, any organisation or campaign will always lose a level of credibility and trust when one starts to charge for services or accept payments from organisations who could be seen to have a vested interest in the success or failure of your campaign. The rule of “he who pays the piper, calls the tune” will always raise it’s head when one receives money when you’re trying to promote an agenda.

The credibility of Your Country, Your Call was damaged greatly because of their reluctance to clarify who made donations to their campaign, and how much.

It’s an eternal question in such campaigns – to charge or not to charge.

ThinkIrish.ie – an overdue follow up (part 2)

Yesterday I published an overdue right of reply from Alan Graham of ThinkIrish.ie to my original post on their campaign back in March. In response to Alans comments, I posed a few other questions about the campaign:

  1. What’s the overall budget for the campaign?
  2. How much is being funded by each of the individual contributors?
  3. Do you have a timescale for this campaign, or is it intended to continue ad infinitum?
  4. What, if any, government involvement is there – direct, state agency, quango – any arm of the government basically?
  5. What consideration has been given to charge companies to be part of your product database – similar to Guaranteed Irish charging membership and for use of their logo?
  6. You mention a board – who else apart from Jonathan Stanley is on this board?

And here were the responses received from Alan:

  1. We’d love to bank 250k to run the campaign but we’ll likely have to do it on a lot less than that. I guess it all depends on how successful we are in the coming months in building traction behind it.
    “If we build it…they will come”.
  2. As we’re still out there trying to drum up donors, I’d rather not have the level of individual donations posted. The difficulty it would create is that it either sets the bar too low or too high for prospective donors – plus we’re less likely to convince people to cough up smaller amounts if they think we’re going to put their donation against their name. (“and that’s all he gave???” or “I thought he was broke!”). What I can tell you is that the founding donor has put about 60k up for the initiative – although I suspect he’d rather that not be broadcast widely – simply no the basis that he’s a relatively low key/private individual.
  3. Timescales? I guess we’ll pack-up our tents when we feel the job is done. Much is dependent on funding but we’d like the campaign to endure and it would be good if the directory could remain on a permanent basis – I think it could be a really powerful channel for Irish business – and in particular artisan producers.
  4. No government involvement, no interest groups, no quangos – we’re so squeaky clean it’s embarrassing.
  5. Charging companies? We like the idea of a free-listing so that’s important to us and it keeps the initiative very grass-roots. In time, it’s natural we might look for ways to monetise the site and move to a self-funding model but no concrete thoughts on that at this stage. The invitation to list for free will remain whatever happens in that regard.
  6. The board is composed of Jonathan, myself, Peter Kruseman, Paul McArdle and Eamonn Freaney – you’ll find a bit more on them in our FAQs.
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