Friday, 18 March 2011

Where are we?

Don’t panic, this isn’t going to be one of those intensely dull, thoughtful pieces about where we’re going as a nation, that state of our morals or our failures since independence. I mean it literally.

Do we know where we are, geographically?

I wonder sometimes if we do. More particularly I wonder whether certain stores know where we are.

A couple of years ago we campaigned to have all stores that sell on credit advertise the full credit price when they advertise their enormously over-priced, second-rate goods. Eventually we achieved this and despite the occasional mishap they are all obeying the law now. However at the beginning, after we’d written to them all outlining their legal obligations one of them wrote back and proudly announced that they “abide by South African law”.

Well, that’s nice. I was genuinely pleased for them that they thought they operated legally in their home country (overlooking the fact that actually they didn’t). I hoped that it gave them lots of pleasure. Actually, none of that is true. I don’t give a flying whatsit whether they abide by South African law because THIS ISN’T SOUTH AFRICA!

Shortly after we got that message I updated our web site to include a map that helped remind South African store executives that Botswana was not, in fact, a mysterious 10th province of SA.

Unfortunately it seems that this lesson still hasn’t been learned. I heard from a consumer last week about an experience she had in a local large hardware store. She had accidentally purchased the wrong item, a set of kitchen taps that were the wrong size. Luckily she noticed before she tried to install them, before she had opened the package so she didn’t expect any difficulty when she returned the taps and asked for a suitable replacement. Unfortunately life wasn’t that simple.

She went back and was told that yes, they WOULD replace them with the correct taps (which she had seen were exactly the same price) but they would charge her a 15% handling fee.

I don’t actually have a problem with the handling fee although 15% seems a bit steep. I’m sure that it’s a bother to put the taps back on the shelf and give the consumer the correct ones. I’m sure it’s also a tremendous hassle to press a couple of buttons on their fancy, high-tech, computerised Point of Sale terminal to record the fact that item A is back in stock and they have one fewer of item B now. I’m sure it also provides the management with great psychological trauma and the need for extensive psychotherapy to cope with the nightmares this situation has caused.

But that’s not my point. At no point when she originally bought the taps did the consumer know that there was a such a penalty for returning things. Knowing a bit about her rights she asked the store manager how she was supposed to know about this penalty? There’s a sign, she was told. Where? Over there. You see the sign that’s completely hidden behind a poster, that can’t be read by anyone unless they move the poster to one side, the sign that is effectively invisible. Yes, that sign.

Yes, that sign that is meaningless, worthless and pointless. That sign that is a pathetic attempt to claim some fake right as a supplier to abuse, belittle and stamp on their valued customers.

But that’s not the worst of it. Hidden away in the text of the sign was a line which said:
“South African law shall apply”
Oh no it won’t.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine you went to buy a cellphone from a store owned by an Arabic gentleman. Imagine there was a sign on the wall that said that women can’t buy from the store without their husband’s permission, that the rights of women shoppers are worth only half of those of the male clientele and that anyone caught shoplifting would have parts of their bodies sliced off. Imagine that you complained about this (assuming you’re a man of course) and that the owner smiled and pointed at a sign on the wall that said “Saudi Arabian laws apply in this store”.

What would your reaction be? I suspect that you’d be stunned, then shocked and finally very, very angry at the absolute cheek of the owner. You wouldn’t tolerate such a thing. You’d tell all your friends, neighbours and relatives, anyone you met in the street that looked like they were planning to enter the store and you’d write to Mmegi expressing your outrage.

What’s more the cops would eventually come round and probably escort the store owner to the nearest border post.

So why do we put up with it from the type of South African store that seems to think we’re a funny little neighbouring country to be exploited? I think we all know that there’s a “type”, don’t we? Of course we all know that most South African companies, like most white South Africans are perfectly decent people who have truly learned some lessons from their country’s history and are better people for it. But there is still a legacy with certain companies that needs to be overcome.

And the best way to overcome this is not to take it. Next time something like this happens to you, just pretend to be a Tunisian. Or an Egyption. Or a Libyan. People power can bring change, in fact it might be the only way change will ever come about.

This week’s stars
  • Mr Mafhoko of Game Stores who “provided excellent service coupled with extraordinary patience”.

No comments: