Friday, 27 May 2016

Look for patterns

A very wise, intelligent and charismatic person once attempted to define intelligence as the ability to correctly observe patterns.

The problem is that we we humans aren’t always very good at doing deciding what is a pattern and what isn’t. Do a Google search for pareidolia, the mistake our brains often make when we see patterns that aren’t really there. The internet is full of examples of this. You’ll find endless supposed images of Jesus in pizza toppings, sandwiches and mirrored windows. These images are nothing more than constructs within our brains, brains that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to observe patterns as a way of saving our lives from predators. That skill often now shows itself in these bizarre constructed images.

Image c/o Richard Wiseman
As consumers we also have to careful about the patterns we might perceive. People occasionally post messages in the Consumer Watchdog Facebook group that are clearly related to false patterns. They’re often criticisms of which ever ethnic group the poster currently feels aggrieved by. Whether their resentment is based on a real experience or not, our position is always that you can’t make sweeping generalizations about every member of a group just because you feel you had a bad experience with one of them. We always remove these posts as soon as we see them and before they can cause unnecessary offence.

However, I think it’s fair to remark about patterns relating to a particular store or company, particularly if the same complaint is being reported over and over again.

We received an email a few days ago about a cellphone store. I’ve removed the name of the store for now.
“On 5th May I bought a smart phone for P495. Soon I realized that the phone was faulty: it didn’t connect to the internet, didn’t read the memory card, the speakers didn’t work and the charger didn’t charge. On the 17th May I took the phone back and was told that on the receipt it was written ‘no refunds, no exchange and no returns’, hence they couldn’t help me. On the 18th May I went back again, accompanied by my teacher, who pointed to the note at the receipt which says ‘3 months warranty’. The sales lady now took the phone for repair, explaining that repair will last at least two months. My question: Is the store obliged to exchange the phone if repair takes such a long time, or at least provide replacement for that time?”
Before we look for patterns let’s consider the Consumer Protection Regulations. Section 13 (1) (a) says that goods must be “of merchantable quality” which is defined in the Regulations as meaning “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased”. Obviously a smartphone should be able to connect to the internet, read a memory card, make noise and be charged. That’s not rocket science or brain surgery. Anyone can understand that.

Section 17 (1) (e) forbids a supplier from “disclaiming or limiting the implied warranty of merchantability and fitness for use, unless a disclaimer is clearly and conspicuously disclosed” and the next section, 17 (1) (f), says that a store can’t claim a customer has waived their rights “unless the waiver is clearly stated and the consumer has specifically consented to it”.

Did you see that last bit? The customer must have “specifically consented to it”. That means a signature on a piece of paper, surely?

Most importantly there’s the comment on the receipt that said “3 months warranty”. That’s all the store needs to remember.

And finally, the claim that it will take two months to repair the phone is absurd, preposterous and stupid. Section 15 (1) (a) of the Regulations says services must be delivered “with reasonable care and skill”. I know cellphone repair shops that can fix most phone problems in 24 hours so two months is silly and the store need to know that.

But back to patterns.

In October last year another reader contacted us about exactly the same chain of stores. He said:
“I got a phone and within 2 days it was giving me trouble when I received a call it kept flashing and white lines on the screen. I took it back to them exactly a week after I bought it and they claimed to have rebooted it and said it would be fine but in another three days again it started doing the same thing. They took it and said they will take it to their technician but 3 weeks later it still had the same problem. Then they claimed it had been dropped and I should buy a new screen.”
The month before that another reader told us almost exactly the same story about the same chain of stores.

I took a quick look back through messages on Facebook and found another five complaints, all telling almost exactly the same story. This isn’t a coincidence. This is most definitely a pattern. This chain of cellphone stores (and no, it’s not the biggest chain you can name, it’s a smaller one) seems to like doing business this way. Sell your customers a phone and then disclaim all responsibility for fixing the problems that sometimes occur.

You have to ask yourself whether this is actually a company policy or perhaps a result of their supply chain. Where are they getting these phones from? Are they from a legitimate source?

I don’t know the answer to those questions but what I do know is that these stores are abusing their customers and ignoring the legal obligations they have towards to them.

We’ll be in touch with the store owner and asking what he plans to do to remedy these problems.

The lesson is to be cautious about extrapolating individual experiences into patterns. But sometimes it might just be right to do so.

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