Friday 21 December 2007

Dear Father Christmas

I’ve tried to be very good this year so I think I deserve a present. In fact the whole Consumer Watchdog team have been good boys and girls. We’ve all worked very hard to help the consumers that call us to sort out their problems, we’ve stuck up for customers who have been abused and we’ve not defamed anyone at all. Not one, all year. In fact we’ve never defamed anyone so surely that deserves a little something?

Our biggest success financially this year was helping to get getting a customer P10,000 compensation for a car he bought that turned out not to be exactly what he’d been told. However we’ve also got people free meals in compensation for disasters, refunds of bank charges, replacements for goods that were faulty or generally not fit for their purpose and even free ice cream.

To be fair, a lot of this was actually quite easy. When we called companies to explain that we’d had a complaint about them the vast majority were eager to help sort it out. I know in most cases this was because the managers are actually quite decent people but I also know that a few were just terrified they would end up being named in Mmegi. Whatever the reason these guys fixed the problems very quickly. A smaller number proved a little more difficult though. It took a number of increasingly forthright calls, emails, faxes and letters from us before they realised that we simply weren’t going to shut up. Only then did they see reason and do the right thing.

I confess that a few got away with it and are still up to the dirty tricks to this day. There’s the company who encourage customers to join their scheme without letting them see a contract until the moment they sign it. That’s the contract that contains the “irrevocability clause” that means that once they’ve signed the contract they can never leave. Never. Not ever.

However I don’t feel too bad about that lot. In our meeting with them after they threatened to sue us for defamation because we had warned the public about their nasty little habits one of their senior managers repeatedly said quietly to one of our white, male team that horrendous phrase:

“You know, these people…”

Our tip for the year. Whenever a melanin-deprived, pre-1994 bigot uses that phrase they actually disclose what they really are. They are the sort of people who deserve to be taken to the border and thrown over it.

Back to the good news. Several people who had taken loans from Blue Employee Benefits contacted us because they felt confused and concerned by the terms of the loans they had taken out. We contacted Blue and almost within moments one of their most senior managers was in our office apologising profusely and promising to fix each problem. Proof if we needed it that the majority of South African companies that come to Botswana to make money do so in an honest, fair and open way. They also respond very well when, every so often, something goes slightly wrong.

So anyway what do I want for Christmas?

Well a new Apple MacBook, a top of the range Jaguar and a really authentic Greek restaurant in Gaborone would be nice but they’re just not going to happen so I’ll be more realistic.

Well, first we’d like to see stores that sell things on credit obeying the law. That’s not too much to ask, is it? The law states very clearly that if a store offers something for sale on credit then the total amount payable must be stated clearly and in “characters of similar size” to the cash price. How many of them actually do this?

Then we’d like the stores to whom we wrote two months ago explaining the law on this matter to respond to us saying they will now actually stop breaking the law. In fact, let’s not forget that one did! Ellerines wrote back saying that they were terribly sorry and promised to correct the situation at the first opportunity. Perhaps we should send Ellerines’ response to the other stores and suggest they just copy it and just change the headed paper? Alternatively the other stores could just write to us and say:

“Look we didn’t know. We promise to obey the law in future and stop insulting the consumers of Botswana. We’re going to fix it. Love and kisses. P.S. We’re sending you a free Apple MacBook and a Jaguar.”

I can dream, OK?

Finally we’d really like to see the Consumer Protection Unit prosecute the stores that ignore their legal obligations. They have been given enormous powers by the Consumer Protection Act and we’d like to see some of them actually being used.

Not only would we like to see prosecutions but we’d like to see a store manager or director experience the wonderful hospitality of the Prisons Service. Apparently the food isn’t so hot and the facilities leave a little to be desired but apparently they’ll make some very close friends while inside.

All it would take is one. One store manager who is prosecuted for offending our laws and the message will go out to the whole lot of them. The message that we are a sovereign nation with our own, sensible laws and a willingness to enforce them.

Wouldn’t that be a perfect Christmas present to all of us?

This week’s stars!

  • Ken at Barloworld for being “charming”!
  • M Israel, a security guard at Parliament for outstanding courtesy and friendliness.
  • Gaone at the Gaborone Station Post Office. According to our reader “the other day, when she realised that the queue was too long, she asked for those who only needed to buy a postal stamp and quickly dealt with them. Soon, the post office was EMPTY!!!
  • Bervely at Nandos at Game City for always being friendly and delivering great service.
  • All our Mmegi readers for sticking with us every year, for supporting us and providing us with the material!

Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year to all of us!

Friday 14 December 2007

Feeling secure?

Are you feeling secure? When you are at home, on the roads or out shopping do you feel secure? Do you have a comfortable feeling of safety, freedom from the threat of crime and that you are able to enjoy what the US Declaration of Independence delightfully describes as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

In the last few weeks we’ve been contacted by a range of readers who have all raised issues that relate to security in one way or another.

The first was a reader who, with his wife, took his sister-in-law and her husband out to the Walmont Ambassador hotel (yes, I still call it the Grand Palm too) for a meal to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. A total of 17 people had a thoroughly good time with excellent food and music from a live DJ. In total they spent nearly P2,000 on the evening but everyone thought this was money very well spent.

Before going their various ways the whole group decided to have their pictures taken outside the hotel so they could remember a great evening. This is where the disappointment began.

“No sooner had we started taking pictures than the security personnel pounced on us like wild dogs. They threatened to confiscate our cameras and delete all the pictures including those which were not taken at the hotel.”

The group all ended up leaving the hotel feeling very dejected and having a very bad last memory of the evening. Very sensibly our reader complained to the hotel the following day and copied his complaint to us. The response was excellent. As soon as he heard about the issue Greg Soutter, the General Manager of the hotel got in touch.

He told us that they certainly do NOT object to customers taking photos at the hotel. On the contrary they love it. It is, after all, free advertising. What business doesn’t want people showing off evidence of what a fine company they are, spreading the word about their excellent service and recommending them, all for free? Greg went on to assure the customer that the security guards in question would be identified and “removed from the property”. He ended up offering a very sincere apology and a promise of a fuller response as soon as he has finished a formal investigation.

All in all, a very good response. A company that realises that security guards are there to make customers feel secure, not to hassle them.

However, another reader had a different experience, this time in a book store in a major shopping centre in Gaborone. Entering the store with his son and carrying his son’s rucksack over his shoulder he was accosted by a member of staff who told him he had to leave the bag at the desk. Looking around and noticing that several other people were carrying bags, that every woman in the shop was carrying a handbag and that other children also happened to be carrying rucksacks he decided to take it personally, left the store and vowed in future only to shop in their much larger branch in Sandton City where he says “I’ve never been excluded”.

There is an important issue here. We all know and understand that stores have to protect themselves against theft. It’s not the stores, after all, that end up paying the price for all the stolen goods. It’s us, their honest customers, who pay higher prices as a result. However there are alternatives. Have an open policy about such matters. Put up a huge sign saying that bags aren’t allowed and provide a secure place to keep them. Employ security guards to discreetly watch over people. Install a security camera. Encourage your staff to watch the customers, not just as a security measure but to see if they need help or advice. If you visit a decent restaurant you’ll see that the managers and waiters do this instinctively. They’re constantly scanning the restaurant for empty wine glasses, plates to clear or customers who look like they want to spend more money. Exactly the same approach should be used in all stores and here’s a secret for store owners. You’ll make more money.

In short stores CAN find ways of protecting themselves against crime without treating their honest customers like crooks.

Finally another good news security story. Another reader emailed us and said:

“I’m bringing to your attention the most unexpected good service. My partner was involved in a car accident yesterday evening, I was about 100 metres behind him. I stopped and called 999. My call was answered by Officer Seoko, who assured me that he would have the police with me as soon as possible. He called twice more, to let me know that help was on the way, and a third time to make sure they were at the scene. Needless to say, I was highly appreciative of his courtesy and professionalism.”

Now this IS good news. We are too often dismissive of the work done by the Police. We often complain that the police are never there when we need them, although we are often just as quick to complain when they ARE there when we don’t need them. Working in the Police is sometimes described as “99% boredom and 1% absolute terror” and it’s great to hear that despite the stress of the job, the appalling pay and utter boredom of most of the work there are officers out there that still care about their customers. We’ll be writing to the Commissioner of Police to pass on the celebration.

This week’s stars!

  • Of course Officer Seoko from the Botswana Police Service for outstanding service.
  • Akanyang from FNB Kgale for going out of her way to help
  • Majidu at Office Depot for being really helpful

We still have Debonairs vouchers to give away. Our friends at Debonairs have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Debonairs voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 7 December 2007

Chavez or choice

You may have seen on the news recently reports of a temper tantrum experienced by Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, while he attended the Ibero-American summit in Chile.

Sitting near him at the conference table was Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela. Chavez had been loudly accusing the former Prime Minister of Spain of being a fascist. When the current Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, tried to point out that this was not entirely fair and that his predecessor had in fact been democratically elected (and also democratically evicted) Chavez started shouting and screaming. At this point Juan Carlos lost his regal cool, raised his royal digit and said "¿Por qué no te callas?" which means "Why don't you shut up?"

Not exactly normal royal language but every now and then I suppose Heads of State are allowed to be irritated and speak plainly.

Since this episode Juan Carlos has become a bit of a hero, not only in Spain but rather wonderfully in Venezuela as well. The phrase has since become one of the most popular downloadable cellphone ring tones in Spain and has been amusing YouTube viewers all over the world.

I think one of the things people like about the incident is that for the first time in a while someone has had the guts to stand up to Chavez the dictator and get the better of him.

Many people around the world have tried to present Chavez as some sort of folk hero because he says bad things about George W Bush (OK, I admit I do that myself) and has promised his people democracy, economic prosperity and an end to corruption. Well, that's all very laudable of course. Nobody can argue against any of those things. The trouble is that you don't achieve these things by trying to change the constitution to allow you to remain president for life, by rigging elections, by stifling your critics, by nationalising profitable companies that employ millions of Venezuelans and by employing your relatives in government positions.

The effects of what Chavez has done are clear. Since he took office murder levels have, according to The Economist, tripled. Transparency International, the organisation that always says such nice things about us in Botswana, says that Venezuela is one of the few countries where corruption is on the rise. Any apparent increase in national wealth has resulted from the dramatic increase in oil prices, not because the economy is actually doing anything more.

I think there is a lesson for us every time we see a country either democratically or by force convert to any philosophy that comes from Marxist, Hegelian, Leninist or Trotskyite origins.

Every time any country has attempted to implement a radically left-wing economy it has failed. There has never been a case where it worked. Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, North Korea, some of our neighbours in Africa and more recently in Latin America, every time it has been tried it has resulted in the opposition being shot and the people being left to eat grass.

Surely by now the lesson is clear?

What about the alternatives? Here's a challenge for you. Name any pair of liberal democracies that have ever waged war against each other. I don't mean in their feudal pasts, I mean while they were liberal democracies.

OK, it's a trick question. It's never been known.

The funny thing is that the last time I challenged someone with that question they suggested the Anglo-Boer War. That's the war between two nations which allowed only men to vote, in South Africa only white men. So that really doesn't qualify, OK?

No two real democracies as we know them have ever gone to war. Every communist nation has ended up with either starvation, oppression or both.

Simple, surely?

So anyway, what has any of this got to do with consumers in Botswana? Because there is one thing above all that separates the extreme left agenda from the liberal democratic one. Choice. I believe that all intelligent people want some level choice in their lives. They want to be able to live where they choose, to shop where they choose, to live with who they choose. They want to be able to decide for themselves how they live their lives and so long as they don't offend their neighbours they want to be left alone.

I don't think it's too much of a leap to say that the same principles that apply to the oppressed peoples of the world, whether under radical left oppression in Venezuela or fascist oppression in Burma, apply to consumers everywhere. We don't want to be told what to do by anyone other than our wallet. We want to be free to do as we please. We want to get a job and to leave a job when we want to.

So next time you're deciding whether to eat at Nandos or Wimpy, or you can't decide whether to go to Apache Spur or Primi Piatti remember that you are exercising your freedom in exactly the same way as when you post your election slip into that box to decide who governs us.

So do it with pride and remember those who wish they could do something that simple.

This week's stars!

  • Kenanae Makula at the Riverwalk Branch of Barclays Bank who apparently is pleasant, professional and lovely.
  • Greg Soutter at the Walmont Ambassador (yes, like you I still think of it as the Grand Palm) for responding very well to a complaint.
  • Boiki Tema from First National Bank for being charming and enthusiastic and for selling FNB products even when you meet him at a party!

We still have Debonairs vouchers to give away. Our friends at Debonairs have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Debonairs voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we'll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 23 November 2007

Dear Minister

As you are aware the Consumer Protection Act places various obligations upon your Ministry. The Act, in it’s own words, seeks to “provide for the protection of the interests of consumers by means of investigation, prohibition and control of unfair business practice”. This Act, which has existed for almost 10 years, also states that you, as the Minister, can authorise Regulations that prescribe exactly how businesses may operate in order to safeguard the interests of consumers. These Regulations were finally approved in 2001.

Section 5 (3) of the Act states that the Consumer Protection Office may “permit and consider representations made by any consumer organisation or movement on any matter of consumer protection”.

Please therefore accept this letter as a formal representation from Consumer Watchdog regarding various business practices that we believe require urgent and decisive action in order to prevent the abuse of consumers in Botswana.

For instance Section 17 (1) (d) of the Regulations states that it is an unfair business practice if a supplier causes “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”.

We believe that a good example of this is a locally-based company who include a clause in their contracts that states that the contract is “irrevocable”. This company then typically refuses to allow customers ever to withdraw from the contract. Furthermore this company refuses to allow the customer to even see and review this contract before they sign it. This strikes us as a very clear case where the “probability of confusion” is very high. We believe that action is required to make sure that consumers are protected from such deception.

The Regulations also state in Section 17 (1) (g) that it is an unfair business practice if a supplier takes advantage “of a consumer's inability reasonably to protect his interests by reason of ... inability to understand the language of an agreement presented by the other party to the transaction who knows or reasonably should know of the consumer's inability”.

In simple terms if a customer is presented with a contract written in English and that customer obviously does not have a good command of English then the supplier has committed an unfair business practice. We believe that action is required to prevent this abuse.

Section 15 (1) (c) states that it is an unfair business practice if a supplier offers a commodity promising “outcomes where those outcomes have no safe scientific, medical or performance basis”. We see an enormous number of advertisements for health products that clearly fail this test. Whether for weight loss, asthma or, most worryingly, for boosting the immune system, these products clearly have no scientific basis that can be demonstrated.

These products are deceptive, exploitative and extremely dangerous given the health status of many of our families, friends and neighbours. We believe that action is urgently required.

Another key piece of legislation is the Control of Goods, Prices and Other Charges Act that originally commenced in 1973. This Act, amongst other things, enables you, as the Minister, to regulate the marking of goods for sale to the public.

The Regulations that followed this Act offer one very important protection that is almost completely overlooked by stores. When goods are offered for sale either on hire purchase or on credit the store is obliged to state not only the number and amount of the instalments and the deposit, but critically they are also obliged to disclose “in characters of similar size” the “total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments”.

As any consumer will be able to tell you this is almost unheard of. The newly enforced South African National Credit Act gives South Africans this right but we have had this protection for 33 years.

We recently wrote to all the stores that offer goods on credit and so far only one of them has confirmed that they will change their advertising and labelling to meet this obligation. The remainder appear to plan to ignore this regulation. It appears that they plan to continue to show contempt for their customers and the laws of the country within which they operate.

In summary we believe that the consumers of Botswana are very well equipped with legal protections that far outstrip those of our neighbours. However we deserve to have these protections actively enforced.

Both the Consumer Protection Act and the Control of Goods, Prices and Other Charges Act empower your Ministry to actively enforce these various regulations. Furthermore they prescribe a range of actions your Ministry can undertake with organisations to ensure that they obey the law. This ranges from a power to summon stores to give evidence, to search and seize documents and goods, to institute court proceedings and even to appoint a curator to take over the running of businesses where consumer interests require that level of protection. Of course a store that ignores the powers or actions of your Ministry may then face criminal proceedings as a result.

We believe that the consumers of Botswana need greater intervention by your Ministry and the active enforcement of the various Regulations that have been approved. If we at Consumer Watchdog can help your officers in any way we will place ourselves at their disposal. The evidence we possess is freely available to you and your departments.

We look forward to hearing from you.

With best regards

The Consumer Watchdog Team

This week’s stars!

  • Letsweletse and Thobega at Total Filling Station at Game City for service with a smile.
  • Boikgopolo Letlamoreng at Lesedi Motors for going above and beyond the call of duty.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 16 November 2007

The Watchdog does maths

Shall I give stores a breather this week? The last few weeks we’ve been going on and on about store credit schemes, about what stores are meant to do to help us, about their legal obligations and, most importantly, about how almost all stores are totally ignoring some of their obligations.

A few weeks ago we wrote to all the stores we thought might sell things on credit asking them to explain why they ignore one of the most important rules. This the 33-year old rule that says that if a store offers something for sale on credit then they are obliged to tell us, “in characters of similar size” what the total credit price will be. If it’s offered for sale for P199 for cash and the total credit price turns out to be P1,752 then they must tell us that.

By the way, that’s a real example. I know it sounds unbelievable but there is a store that is advertising a glorified bed sheet for exactly those amounts. That’s a staggering P1,553 in credit charges. Buy this sheet on credit and you’ll pay nearly nine times as much as your neighbour who buys it for cash.

I don’t know where to begin to express how dreadful this is. I firmly believe that government has no role in telling you and me what we should and should not buy, nor what we should pay for non-essentials like bed sheets. But this is genuinely scandalous. The store should be ashamed of itself, firstly for charging such astronomical amounts in credit charges, secondly for not being perfectly open about the cost and lastly for even thinking of selling something so cheap on credit at all.

We’ve still only had a couple of responses to our letter but rest assured we’re going to post all the responses we’ve had from the stores on our web site so you can see who’s prepared to be open about their credit schemes.

Back to the rules. As I’ve mentioned before our South African cousins now have a new law called the National Credit Act. The Regulations that emerged from this Act are now in force and one of them says that all adverts must state the total credit price. Fair enough. But we’ve had the same rule for 33 years. The Control of Goods (Marking of Goods) Regulations 1974 says exactly the same thing. So why are stores just ignoring our laws?

There we were, walking around town last week when we stumble across another furniture store full of posters advertising their products. Strangely one poster advertised some things in Pula and others in Rand which is fair enough I suppose. However the most curious thing was that the Rand-priced items showed the full credit amount but the Pula-priced ones didn’t.

But being a strange creature with a slightly mathematical brain I noticed something odd. Literally odd. They advertised a cellphone that was available for cash at R1,299.95. They then stated that on credit it would cost a deposit of R130 and then 24 instalments of R97. Now before I go any further, take a look at those numbers and if you think about it you can see that whatever the total repayment turns out to be it has to be an even number. The maths cannot result in an odd number. So how come the total credit price they state is R2,311?

The charitable explanation is that they must have failed their maths exams. Otherwise it might seem like they’re trying to deceive us. He real credit price is R2,458. 130 + 24 x 97 comes to R2,458. So maybe they’re just not very good at maths?

Then the advertisement shows the credit percentage rate. Perhaps they were off sick the day the teacher did percentages? They claim that this an interest rate of 27.5%.

No, it’s not.

The total “extra” you pay buying this phone on credit is R1,158. That’s payable over 2 years so each year you’ll pay R579 in credit charges. 579 expressed as a percentage of the purchase price of R1299 is 44.5%.

So where do they get the figure of 27.5%? I suspect that this is the interest rate they have decided to tell us they charge. What they then do is exclude a whole lot of other charges from the calculation. All those “handling”, “insurance” and “miscellaneous” charges are simply ignored.

In parliament in the United Kingdom MPs aren’t allowed to accuse each other of lying. It’s judged to be “unparliamentary language”. However Winston Churchill once got around this by referring to something as being a “terminological inexactitude”.

I’m going to adopt the same approach. Of course the stores would never deliberately lie to us about their credit charges. Of course not. Who would ever think such a thing? It would be unimaginable.

But I do think it’s fair to say that some stores, no names mentioned at this stage, are guilty of a monstrous terminological inexactitude.

In fact it us, their customers, who are lying. We’re lying down and taking it.

This week’s stars!

  • Andries at Woolworths at Kgale Shopping Centre for going out of his way to help a customer with a smile.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 9 November 2007

Do we deserve it?

There is an old saying in politics that the people get the government they deserve. Now before you think I’m going to attack our government let me stop you. That comes later. First I’m going to adjust that saying slightly.

Customers get the quality of products and services they deserve.

I’m not saying that customers deserve bad treatment. I’m not saying that we deserve to be disrespected. I’m certainly not saying we deserve to be abused. However I do think we, as consumers, have a role to play in making sure we ARE respected and not insulted. We need to start demanding respect rather than just expecting it.

One of the first things we can do is not walk headlong, with our eyes wide open, into trouble. To begin with we can stop buying what can politely be described as Completely Ridiculous Awful Products. I went with my family recently to the Fireworks night at the Gaborone Cricket Club. The evening was great fun, thousands of people having a great time seeing their friends, having a few cold ones, watching some awesome fireworks and generally enjoying a great evening.

The trouble was with some of the merchandise on offer. Kids were spending their pocket money on the cheapest, nastiest plastic toy guns from a particular stall. Based on my children’s experience that night these toy guns have an average lifespan of around 2 hours before they break. Luckily they broke while we were still there and when we got back to the stall to demand a refund there was a queue of deeply unhappy kids all demanding the same thing. The stallholders however didn’t seem to understand that they had little choice in the matter. It was only when a bunch of adults started shouting and the kids starting crying that they realised this was probably not the best form of advertising they could construct. The kids got their money back.

But we, the parents were responsible for this. We allowed our kids to buy these Completely Ridiculous Awful Products. There’s no excuse, we’ve all bought them before, we all know that they are the cheapest, nastiest, flimsiest rubbish that ever came out of a sweatshop in deepest China. We were to blame for it as much as the stallholders thinking they could make a few Pula from selling rubbish.

We allow this to happen by participating in it.

Why can’t we do better? Why can’t we fill this need ourselves? Why can’t we, as a country, produce our own toys? Everywhere I go I see people selling things they’ve made, either from wire or wood. Why can’t we make our own cheap toy guns out of a few bits of wood and a rubber band? We have the skills, we could have our own little village industry making toys that would cost the same and would last a whole lot longer that the C.R.A.P. from China.

So, back to getting the government we deserve. I am NOT making a political point. I am not talking about politicians, political parties of election winners. I mean the functions of government.

Who was the last person you know who got stopped and fined for speeding? We all know someone. Most of us ARE that person. But who was the last person you know who got stopped and charged for going through a red light. For driving through a pedestrian crossing when there were people crossing the road? For driving like a certifiable lunatic? I can’t think of anyone. Why not? Is it because the police aren’t “empowered” to do so? Is it because it isn’t illegal? No, it’s none of these reasons. It because we don’t demand it. It’s because we haven’t written to our local Station Commander or perhaps even the Commissioner of Police and demanded that they do these things.

And what about consumer issues? Why are stores allowed to get away with disrespecting us? Why are stores allowed to charge simply outrageous amounts of money so we can buy things on credit? Why are stores allowed to ignore their responsibilities under the Consumer Protection Regulations and the Marking of Goods regulations? Why? Is it because government isn’t enforcing them? Yes, but WHY aren’t they enforcing them?

Because we don’t make them enforce them.

There’s a reason why public servants are called that. They are there to Serve the Public. That’s us. They are there to serve us and whenever we are not being served they are failing us.

We really must send a message to our public servants that we know what they are there to do. We know what their job is. We are fully aware of their powers and responsibilities. We must start asking them WHY aren’t they exercising them.

Here’s a suggestion for Government. If you really think you can serve the public then give us a sign. Give us a hint that you really believe it and are prepared to do your job. The first thing you can do is place every single government job description on the internet. Then publish every department’s and every officer’s performance objectives. That way we, your masters, can see what you plan to do to serve us. We can then make sure you do.

This week’s stars!

  • Aaron at Apache Spur at Riverwalk in Gaborone. Our reader said they got “the best service experience ever! Aaron was just amazing and I'm sure that I'll be going back to Spur and I'll insist on having him serve me again!”
  • Lulu at Mmegi who according to someone from a rival newspaper is fantastic, never known to raise her voice, always calm and generally a star.
  • Unity from the front desk at The Voice who apparently is also incredibly courteous, professional and hard-working.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 2 November 2007

The good, the bad and the ugly

Consumer Watchdog is on a mission at the moment. For several weeks we’ve been going on and on about our recent discovery. The 1974 Control of Good (Marking of Goods) Regulations and the things that stores must do if they want to stay in business.

You may have heard of the new National Credit Act that was passed in South Africa in 2005 but that actually came into force in June this year. This governs the use of credit as a way of buying things. Now of course this only applies to South Africa but we could learn a lot from it. There are endless regulations on who can be given credit, how credit bureaux can operate and the information and remedies customers are entitled to. One of the best bits is Section 21 which states that if something is advertised or offered for sale on credit then the store MUST disclose various things. Most importantly they must advertise “the total amount of all instalments, including interest, fees and compulsory insurance”. It’s very simple. The advertisement must tell you the cash price and then the total credit price. No hiding behind just how much each instalment will be and how many you must pay.

BUT, this only covers South Africa. It doesn’t apply to Botswana.

Who cares?

We have the Control of Good (Marking of Goods) Regulations. Thirty-three years ago we passed a law that says exactly the same. Sorry South Africa, you were a late arrival at the democracy party and you’re a late arrival at the regulated credit party.

Our regulations say almost exactly the same thing. Whenever something is offered for sale on credit, right next to the cash price the store must show “the total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments”. The trouble is, I can’t help but wonder why, if these regulations came into effect 33 years ago, nobody has demanded that they be enforced?

Ask yourself whether you have EVER seen the total credit price advertised. I haven’t, not once. Not ever.

So anyway, being the busybody trouble makers that we are we wrote to all the stores we could think of asking what they thought about the regulations and why they weren’t abiding by them. Now I confess that’s a bit of a trick question. We can’t really expect someone to abide by a regulation they’ve never heard of. Surely though we would expect that the various bodies who are there to protect us like the Consumer Protection Unit, the local councils, the Ministry of Trade & Industry would have done something? Seems like they didn’t know about the regulations either.

In case you’re interested you can see a copy of out letter on our web page. So what reaction did the letter have?


A few stores have completely ignored us, so far at least. A couple had the good manners to acknowledge the letter and tell us that they’ll get back to us once they’ve consulted with their legal advisors, marketing teams and probably their psychiatrist.

However there was some good news. Almost within minutes we had a call from Mmabalao in Gaborone who said they wanted us and the public to know that they don’t sell on credit at all. They do lay byes but they don’t like the credit idea one little bit. Loads of Living got in touch and said the same thing. Good for them.

Then a minor miracle. Ellerines got in touch and they just staggered us. Put simply their letter said:

“Whoops! Sorry. We’re fixing it.”

Then they went even further and explained that they’ve already printed all their promotional material for Christmas but they’re going to print some posters and handbills that will explain to customers how to work out the total payment and that Ellerines staff will help customers to do the calculations. Lastly they assured us that all their materials will abide by the regulations by February next year.

Stunning, simply stunning. A store that respects it’s customers and that is prepared to do what it needs to do to help them.

We’re not in the business of advertising or even endorsing any company’s products (other than our own of course) but this really does impress us. We’re not saying people should buy from Ellerines but we will say this. Take your hard-earned money to a store that respects you, to a store that clearly realises that customers are important enough to help them and treat them properly and to a store that is willing to abide by the law!

So I wonder how the other stores will respond. Rest assured we’ll let you know what every one of them says. We’ll also tell you which ones won’t respond!

This week’s stars!

  • Mark at Ellerines for showing how it’s done.
  • Andrew at Haskins for going completely out of his way to help a customer with an urgent need.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 26 October 2007

There ought to be a law against it

Every so often someone asks us whether we need new laws to protect the consumer. Do we need additional protection from abuse, from scams and against stores and suppliers who are trying to pull the wool over our eyes?

No. That's always our answer.

Yes, there will always be a need for new laws. As the world develops new things come along that previous law makers couldn't have imagined. Over the last decade banks have been forced to adjust to the new risks they face from money-launderers. Laws and regulations have been passed by all the civilised nations such as ours that force banks to take certain precautions to make sure the money they accept from a customer isn't actually the proceeds of crime.

More recently our government has been discussing new laws regarding cyber-crime. Yes, again this is needed because new threats are emerging that never existed before. Crooks can do things with a computer these days that were never dreamt of before.

But new laws to protect consumers? No way. We're already very well protected by the Consumer Protection Act and Regulations, by the Control of Goods Act and by the basics like the Penal Code which make theft and fraud punishable offences.

Yes, there are certain things we think should perhaps be adjusted slightly. The Consumer Protection Regulations give a long list of things that it declares are unfair business practices. However, at the end of the list it includes the following:

"any other method, act or practice that the Minister may, upon the recommendations of the Director, determine, by Order, to be an unfair business practice"

There are a few things I would dearly love to see the Minister declare as unfair business practices. First of all is the habit of many stores of forbidding you from taking a contract home with you before you sign it. Yes, you could argue that it's covered by the clause that forbids "causing a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction" but I would love to see it more specific. I want to see a new regulation that says it's forbidden to "prevent a customer from having a reasonable period to review a proposed contract before signing it". I might even go further and state that there should be a compulsory cooling off period of at least 24 hours. Both you and the store have to wait at least 24 hours before you are both committed. I've tried hard but I can't think of anything that you might want to buy on credit that you absolutely have to have immediately and can't wait a day for.

Another regulation. All contracts must have either a termination clause or a clause outlining how long the contract will last. When you get a mortgage or a bond you know how long it's going to last. When you buy something on credit you know how many instalments you have to pay. When you buy a house you know that you can always sell it some time in the future. Even when you get married you know that you can always get divorced if it turns out you've made a hideous mistake. So why does one company I can think of include a clause in their contract that makes it a lifetime commitment? Without their gracious permission you can NEVER change your mind. It's outrageous and should be made illegal.

Finally one last regulation I'm appealing to the Director of the Consumer Protection Unit to recommend to the Minister.

Can we please make it illegal to mis-pronounce "Gaborone"? I can forgive tourists from English-speaking places who make an honest mistake. It does, after all, start with a G so you can see how they might think that it's a G like in "Ghastly", "Gaga" and "Go Away". To be fair, most tourists, after being politely corrected, will mend their ways and stop doing it.

The real criminals are the people who actually know how it's pronounced and just don't care. Whether residents or visitors from down south, there's really no excuse for such rudeness. They wouldn't do it in other places. If they went to the capital of France and insisted on saying "Paris" rather than "Paree" they would get that French withering look, contemptuous muttering and dreadful service they would so richly deserve. It would be the same elsewhere. Rome is really Roma, Florence is really Firenze, Munich is really München.

So why do they do it here? Ironically many of these people are also perfectly happy to say "Hauteng" rather than "Gauteng" so why can't they bring themselves to say "Haboroney"?

I think that even if we can't have it made illegal we should start to stand up for ourselves. Just because someone is a customer that doesn't mean you have to take abuse. Let's all start to use our natural courtesy and in the friendliest way possible, correct it every time we hear it.

Either that or just tell them to "Ho to Gell".

This week's stars!

  • Keabebwe Paka at Naledi Motors for outstanding service and for being friendly, helpful and pro active.
  • Also from Naledi Motors, their driver Moabi Naledi for good driving and courtesy.
  • Lemogang Mphato and Phodiso Kebadiretse from Aluminium 2000 for wonderful service, who both worked over lunch while remaining cheerful and kind.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we'll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.