Friday, 20 September 2013

It's up to you

Consumers need to take personal responsibility for their actions. We really should. But not all of us do so.

We got a panicked email from a consumer explaining her dreadful, appalling problem. She’d visited a well-known supermarket and in her shopping was a box of 12 eggs. The problem occurred just as she left the store. She passed the security guard on the way out and a few steps further she dropped her box of eggs, smashing them. There was egg everywhere.

She told us that “I went back to the store I asked the security guy how they can help me but he said there is nothing they can do.”

She was outraged. She escalated things a bit, demanding to see a supervisor who also told her that there was nothing that could be done to help her.

I confess that I initially misunderstood her complaint. To begin with I thought she was being a good neighbour and wanted someone to help her clear up the mess all over the pavement but that wasn’t actually her problem. What she wanted was her eggs, the eggs that SHE had dropped on the floor, to be replaced. For free.

As well as emailing this to us she posted this on our Facebook group and everyone’s reaction was basically the same. “You dropped them, didn’t you?”

Why would the store have a responsibility to fix this?

I remember listening to a phone-in on a South African radio show years ago. The furious caller had just visited his bank, withdrawn some cash, left the bank, walked round the corner, down the street, round another corner and had then been mugged and all his money had been stolen. He was outraged that when he went back to the bank and demanded that they replace his money at their expense they declined. It wasn’t their fault they’d said. He genuinely couldn’t understand the bank had no responsibility, morally or otherwise, to cough up new cash for him.

Just a few weeks ago a reader contacted us asking why a store had charged him the cost of the jar of mayonnaise his 3-year old son had knocked off the shelf. Why should he have to pay, he asked, he didn’t deliberately break the jar, it was an accident?

It also took a little effort for me and the Facebook community to persuade him that yes it WAS his responsibility. It certainly wasn’t the store’s fault, they hadn’t done anything wrong. I asked him this question. If you’re in a bar and you accidentally knock over someone else’s drink, what are you meant to do? Everyone who’s ever been to a bar, and even those who haven’t, know that the unwritten rule, based on common sense and common morality, is that you buy the guy a replacement, even if he’d nearly finished the one you spilled.

Admittedly those are all cases when the customer (I think) completely lost any sense of personal responsibility. Other cases are more complicated, but they still involve consumers not taking as much personal responsibility for their own protection as they should.

Yet again we heard from a reader who had received a call out of the blue from Hotel Express International offering their Hotel Express Card, that they say is the “card that allows you to pay half price at hotels”. We’ve heard repeatedly about this company and the others that offer these miraculous cards that supposedly offer amazing discounts on hotel stays. Discounted hotel stays are fine of course, but the silly thing is that you don’t need to pay to join these card schemes to get discounts. I know of two South African hotel chains that offer discounts for free. You don’t need to join, you don’t need to pay vast membership fees to get the discounts.

However the problem that repeatedly occurs is abuse. We’ve heard so many times about this and other similar companies who call people and, to “check your eligibility”, they ask for your debit or credit card number. Sometimes they say that they need your card details to see if you’re eligible for “Gold membership” or some such hogwash. If asked, they assure you that they won’t actually charge you, it’s just for that mythical eligibility test.

You know what happens next. Within minutes of giving out your card number and hanging up the phone, your cellphone beeps and you see that they’ve charged you the full amount. In the most recent case it was almost P4,000 that disappeared. Then you have to struggle to get a refund.

But this is nothing new. Several companies operate like this and this situation occurs so often that I suspect it’s an unofficial policy with some of these companies to allow this to happen.

So who’s fault is it when this happens? I don’t think it’s as clear as the egg and mayonnaise situations but these customers weren’t mugged. They voluntarily gave out their bank card details. Nobody forced them, no threats or weapons were used. Yes, they were deceived but some deceptions are easier to see through than others. Giving you card details to a total stranger is bordering on being reckless.

It’s not just hotel discount schemes that do it, XForex, the scheme offering amazing profits by trading foreign exchange have recently done exactly the same thing.

I know there are bodies out there to protect us from abuse but deep down don’t we all know that the only person who can really protect us is the person we see in the mirror?

1 comment:

Kasey Chang said...

The different between the phone charges and the eggs is simple: common expectations / social norms.

In a store or even at home, the social norm / common sense is "you break it, you buy it". If you break someone's dish when you were eating dinner there, do you not at least apologize and offer to pay for replacement? If not, I'd NEVER want to see your face as you're a very bad guest. :)

Same with a store. You broke other people's stuff. Why would you NOT pay for it?

(NOTE: some stores may be generous as they account for X% 'shrinkage' [broken, spoiled, theft, etc.] in their operating margins, but they are well within their right to demand compensation for breakage, as somebody will have to pay for that breakage, either the breaker... or everybody who shop there. And which is "fair"?)

As for the eggs... Once you bought them, they are YOURS! There's no responsibility from the store you've you've paid for them (other than any "warranty" such as freshness)

It was not my intention to ridicule the lady, as I'm sure she had received plenty of funny looks, but it would be interesting to see what made her come to the conclusion that she *should* get free eggs for her own clumsiness.