Thursday 22 May 2008

A free lunch?

There’s a saying used a lot by physicists, economists and bar owners, three of my favourite professions.

"There’s no such thing as a free lunch".

In simple terms it means that you can never get something for nothing. Even though a bar owner may offer free snacks, you are expected to buy lots of drinks to earn them. Even though you get energy out of a physical or chemical reaction you always have to put more energy in to obtain it. In economics it’s often said that to get something you have to give up something else.

Then the phrase is used by cynics to suggest that nobody ever really gives away anything for free. Sometimes I think I’m a cynic and not just a sceptic.

Last week, in a full-page advertisement a furniture store offered a free gift. They offered you, entirely free, a duvet inner and two pillows, so long as you buy a base set from them first. So it’s obviously not really free, they’ve factored the cost of the cheap extras into the cost of all their base sets beforehand. It’s not free at all, it just sounds like it is.

What the store also did was to offer those deliciously tempting pillows for a VERY brief period. 24 hours. If you weren’t there the day after you read the advertisement this once in a lifetime offer disappeared. Well, until next weekend probably.

Similarly the so-called Church of Scientology will certainly give you a free leaflet explaining how their ridiculous philosophy will solve all of life’s problems but to find out exactly how this works you have to buy the books, the courses and the endless, compulsory “counselling” with your own money. Vast quantities of it. Of course you get the counselling at subsidised rates if you join their commercial “religion” and help them spread the word and make them some more money. Only then do you get a glimpse of their copyrighted, secret scriptures. The same ones that are available on the internet.

Then there’s the Multi-Level Marketing company offering all sorts of wonderful toiletries, household goods and a vast array of “lifestyle” products. On top, entirely for free is the opportunity to become rich by becoming joining the pyramid, becoming one of their distributors and making a fortune. Shame it doesn’t work.

So is there anything you can genuinely get for free?

Yes, there is. I’m delighted to confirm that Consumer Watchdog breaks all the laws of physics, economics and bar ownership.

We do it all for free. No hidden charges, no funny business, entirely free, for nothing, gratis, zero-cost. Free.

These days we get around 60 calls each month from consumers who have fallen victim to scandalous store credit schemes, villainous micro-lenders and dodgy cellphone stores. Very often they ask us, before they explain their problem, “What will you charge to help me?” It sometimes takes quite a while to convince the callers that we don’t charge a thing. We really don’t.

Very occasionally people have insisted that they want to give us something. On these occasions we’ve always politely declined and suggested that if they really feel that they want to give someone something as a result of what we’ve done then they should give something to charity. If we help you and you feel generous then give something to the Cheshire Foundation and help someone less fortunate than yourself.

Then there’s our annual party. That’s also entirely free. Nobody has to pay a thebe, a cent or a penny to come to our party. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a service star, a service star’s boss or a VIP. It’s free, it always has been and it always will be.


Yes, there’s an exception. There is one group of people who DO have to pay for our services. I’m not going to use the word I’m tempted to use to describe them but let me put it this way. If, like the consumer who contacted us recently, you tell us that you only want help from me, because I’m a white guy and not from my extremely talented but black female colleague then you have to pay. Cash. Lots of it.

We have a number of advantages over the Government Consumer Protection Unit. We’re not bathed in bureaucracy, we achieve things and we can turn people away. We don’t have a law that says we must help everyone. We can turn down consumers who think that it’s acceptable to tell my black female colleague that she’s not good enough. We’re free to show racism and sexism the door.

An update.

Last week I appealed for honest cellphone store owners to contact us so we could announce to Mmegi readers that such creatures DO exist. Do you know how many have contacted us? Do you know how many people who sell cellphones have got in touch so they could publicly announce that they respect their customers, promise to abide by the various consumer protection laws and be good guys?

10? 5? 2? 1?

Zero. None. Not one. Not a single one. Can they be so rare? If so I’m contacting the Department of Wildlife to see if we can have honest cellphone sellers officially classified as an endangered species.

Another update.

Check our web site for our latest Buyers Guide, this time on store credit. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment on our blog which you can also reach from the web site. Just click on Consumer Watch-blog.

This week’s stars!

  • Modiri and Howard at Incredible Connection for excellent service.
  • Nekere at Musica at Game City for always being extremely friendly, cheerful and helpful.
  • Vivian from the Rural Industries Innovation Centre in Kanye for exceptional help to a lost visitor.

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