Friday 30 May 2008

Freedom to trade?

Do stores have an absolute right to trade? Should ANY store be able to open up business and sell things? Should there be any restrictions at all on how stores do business?

As a big believer in the benefits of the free market I’m obviously not in favour of excessive controls. I think that, in normal circumstances, suppliers should be left alone. So long as they obey the law, pay their taxes, treat their staff fairly and are good neighbours then they should be left undisturbed to do their business as they see fit. The fewer controls they have to negotiate, the fewer forms they have to fill in, the fewer busybodies getting between them and success the better.

But obviously there are some reasonable restrictions we’d all agree on. Pick N Pay shouldn’t be able to sell weapons-grade plutonium. Crack cocaine probably shouldn’t be available on the shelves of Spar. Useless “miracle cures” for cancer, AIDS and typhoid shouldn’t be available in pharmacies at Riverwalk. OK, that last one doesn’t happen any more, at least not after we intervened.

Obviously all of those things are illegal so we shouldn’t allow them. That’s perfectly reasonable surely? Stores should not be allowed to sell illegal products, it’s very simple and I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing.

So why do we, the community, allow stores to do it? It’s happening right now as you read this. Stores are operating illegally, ignoring the laws and showing utter contempt for their victims.

I’m not sorry for repeating this point. Why do most stores ignore the law when they advertise their products for sale on credit? Why don’t they advertise the total credit price in the advertisement as the law demands? Actually, I know the answer. In fact I know several answers.

Firstly they do it because we, their customers, permit them to. If every consumer just stopped buying from these stores, just for a month, they would get the message. They would see half their profits disappearing overnight. I’m not making that last bit up, about half their profits. A furniture store manager once told us confidentially that more than half of the company’s profits came from their credit schemes, more than the profit they made from actually selling furniture. Most of the furniture stores you see around town should, more correctly, be registered as money lenders.

Secondly they do it because the powers-that-be, the regulators, those bodies about whom I am usually so dismissive, often aren’t doing their jobs. Every store that trades is required to have a trade licence and these licences are often based on an inspection. Why doesn’t that inspection include a very close look at their business practices, not just whether they have suitable lavatories and a fire escape.

Before you think I’m dismissing all the regulators I do have to say something good. In the papers recently I saw a press release from the Ministry of Health regarding the labelling of pre-packaged goods. This outlined what manufacturers and stores were obliged to include on food labels such as lists of ingredients, country of origin and weights and quantities. However the bit I liked most of all was at the end. It reminded us that anyone breaking these regulations would face “fines, imprisonment as well as cancellation or suspension of licences”.

Te previous week I saw a similar release covering tourism companies whose licences were about to expire. It stated clearly that if the licence expired they were forbidden from trading.

This is all magnificent, utterly magnificent. This is what the Public Service is for. Not sitting there reading the Daily News all day but enforcing the law.

Of course part of this is the new level of energy you can find in the Public Service these days. Anyone who has dealings with them can’t help but notice a new level of anxiety they exhibit. The new CEO of the Public Service seems to have brought a new broom to bear. Long may it continue.

So here’s an idea. The law says that the Minister of Trade and Industry “may at any time withdraw, suspend or cancel a licence… if, in his opinion, it is in the interests of the inhabitants of a particular area or of Botswana generally”. It then says that the Minister can keep it suspended for as long as he sees fit and until the store has done whatever they’ve been told to do.

Simple, powerful and woefully underused. If a store breaks the rules their licence can be withdrawn. So let’s see that happening. Let’s see a few stores have their licence withdrawn, a few days would be enough, and see the message spread throughout the community. Maybe even my long-running fantasy can be realised. Don’t worry, it’s nothing too depraved but it does involve a store manager spending a few nights in prison, enjoying the state’s hospitality as a result of persistently ignoring the law.

Maybe that’s all the industry needs in order to shape up. Just a couple of serious enforcements and the message will spread to all the other stores who think the law is optional.

Here’s another suggestion. We’ll give the Minister everything we’ve gathered, all the evidence, including documents, recorded phone calls and even undercover video recordings of stores telling our team lies. It’s all available to whoever in the Ministry needs it. All they have to do is ask.

This week’s stars!

  • Tumelo Sejoe at Game Stores for going out his way to help a customer.
  • Captain John Seke, First Officer Moseki, Donna Moloi and Motshegetsi Mphato from Air Botswana for “being friendly and helpful as we have come to expect from our national airline”.

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