Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Layaway, the cure for our plastic pain?

Yesterday, January 19th was officially the most depressing day of the year, when it seems the bad weather, long forgotten new year resolutions and the post Christmas bills all catch up with us. To be honest the bill I hate most is my credit card bill. January seems so far away when you are shopping before Christmas. Yes I try to reduce the cost of it, but sometimes I need it to tide me over or I have to withdraw cash where these sneaky charges kick in....it always galls me even if I have to pay a few euro in charges and fees. Two years ago I was involved in a NYCI campaign to address some of the worst anti-consumer features of credit cards. Last year I got a commitment from the Financial Regulator that some of these issues would be dealt with in the review of the Financial Regulator's Consumer Protection Code in 2009. Given all that has happened in the financial sector in recent days, months and weeks, a revolution in regulation is required, not a review.

Well back to my bill, I got a shock when it arrived as I was charged a €7.50 over limit fee. How could this be, I don't remember having to pay this before. Anyhow I called my bank Permanent TSB and asked where did this come from. I was informed that this new fee was announced in a press release in October (couldn't find that) and of course if I had read the new terms and conditions line by line, would have seen details on page 6, how silly of me!

Bank charges and fees have been a major issue in the UK. Some of the banks there charge unfair and exorbitant fees and the issue has been through the courts where the banks have been taken to task and many consumers are getting redress. The Office for Fair Trading there has investigated these charges known as default charges and called for reductions. The only reason we have been spared such an onslaught is that many of the fees and charges (not credit card fees it would appear) are governed by Section 149 of the Consumer Credit Act which I wrote about previously Anyhow my bank told me that the fee was to cover their costs because it cost them moeny when I went over the limit, which of course is balderdash.

Firstly I told them a limit is a limit, if I exceed my credit card limit, then the payment should be refused. I am certainly not one to be embarrassed if my credit card is refused. Secondly it doesn't cost the bank anything, in fact they are charging me interest on the larger amount, so in fact they are having their cake and eating it. Getting a nice fee of €7.50 plus interest on the bigger balance. A few years ago banks were actively encouraging people to increase their limits, sending them letters and calling them. This was banned by the regulator, now they have found a new way around this. Charge an over limit fee and madden us all into increasing our limit to avoid it.

Against the background of my rage at this fee and credit cards in general, I came across this interesting article in the Economist on layaway. Its referred to as a lay-by in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Basically a return to old and perhaps more sensible times when if you wanted to buy a suite of furniture, you paid for it in instalments and only when you had fully paid for it you collected it. As this blogger recounts I do remember something like this from childhood, but until recent times seemed quite quaint. So instead of walking in, flashing the plastic and a buy now pay later mentality, you are forced to budget so that you can afford your weekly or monthly payments. Sounds like hire purchase, but its not. HP is usually used for large purchases like a car, you get possession of the goods straight away and payments are spread over 2-5 years. For people on lower or stretched incomes (which includes a lot of people now) layaway could be perfect for purchases such as clothes, furniture, white goods etc.

Layaway explained!

Basically you decide what you want to buy, pay a deposit and then pay a weekly or monthly instalment, perhaps over 3-6 months. In other jurisdictions there is a service fee and you would have to factor that into the overall cost. In these times when retailers suddenly collapse, consumers may be wary of paying instalments over a number of months without possession of the goods. And what if you can't pay or if you change your mind. These are all things that need to be clarified before you decide to go down this route. Of course you first have to find a retailer who offers this facility. I could only find one. But I imagine in this straightened times that some retailers would do anything to make sales, while many consumers want to better control and manage their costs, so it just might take off. My only advice is that if it is offered, check all the fine print! But certainly an idea for the times.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Northern Exposure is good for the Republic's consumers and economy

There has been a lot of bellyaching from business interests and some politicians about consumers heading to Northern Ireland to access cheaper prices and save money. Brian Lenihan pleaded with consumers to shop at home because by shopping in the North the state was losing revenue needed for investment in schools and hospitals. Firstly I will take Brian Lenihan more seriously on taxation when the massive tax loopholes which allow the super rich to pay little or no tax are closed off. In 2006 we learned that "between the 1999 tax year and 2003, a sizeable number of multimillionaires - 184 to be exact - declared incomes of more than €1m a year and paid no income tax at all." That's not to mention the approximately 3,050 tax exiles who live here for less than 182 days and pay no tax at all. Secondly individual and family incomes are under huge pressure from the high inflation, particularly in food costs over the last 2-3 years. On top of that people's incomes are being squeezed and indeed some being decimated as the result of job losses. The Government mantra was "shop around" and therefore any rationale or sane person would avail of the cheaper grocery prices in the North to help makes ends meet.

Of course the retail and business sectors have been trying to suggest that the Northern shopping phenomenon is all a media creation. The reality here is that if consumers went to Newry or Lurgan and didn't get value or found that the prices were not all that different they would just stop going. The fact that there are still travelling in large numbers indicates people are saving money and getting good value. Of course we had all the usual suspects blaming the high labour costs, rental costs, and any other costs they could think of. I heard a guy on Q102 in November justifying the difference in prices based on the back of an envelope exercise where he had compared rent costs in Dublin and Belfast and also labour costs. Somehow he appeared to think that this rip-off could be explained away on the basis of a few phone calls without any detailed or proper analysis of a whole range of underlying costs. Indeed he like none of the these apologists mention the lower corporation tax and the lower social insurance contributions employers pay here. Neither do they mention the strengthening euro which should be translating into cheaper prices.

Well finally some light was shed on this issue when before Christmas when Forfas published a report which clearly demonstrated that the price differential was not justified. They found that at most the price differential should be in the region of 5% not the between 16% to 31% difference found in independent studies of grocery prices. The Forfas report was based on information provided directly from retailers and most importantly showed that the cost of the goods is the key factor affecting resale prices, its states "the cost of buying goods for resale is the single biggest cost incurred by retailers and accounts for three-quarters to four-fifths of their total costs". So at last clear and independent evidence that labour, utility and rental costs cannot be used to explain away the huge price differences, the reality is that retailers were making significant margins and profits. I suppose the market will always charge what it thinks the consumer will pay and perhaps during the boom years enough (not all) people were willing to pay high prices.

However I think a lot of retailers and businesses were slow to respond to the changing economic circumstances that many consumers found themselves in early last year. They were killing off the golden goose they plucked so easily for a decade. And as a result people began to buy less, switch to the discounters and more recently go North.

Falling through the floor-hopefully prices will follow!

Obviously there are short term benefits for consumers in terms of saving money by heading North. However there are medium and long term benefits as well, not only for the consumer, but for our economy and society as a whole. Having such strong competition available cross border will force retailers and businesses here to reduce their prices and offer better value and service. We saw that to a certain extent over Christmas and New Year with the major reductions in some stores. I believe if retailers here are to regain and retain customers and market share they will have to cut prices.

We are always told that one of the greatest benefits of the EU is the single market and indeed the EU Consumer Policy actually promotes cross border competition stating "the potential therefore exists for deeper EU-wide retail markets. Opening up cross-border retail markets is the key to unlocking the potential of the retail internal market. As cross-border shopping develops as a credible alternative to national markets, consumers both have greater choice and national markets are subject to greater competition."

So contrary to what some politicians and retailers say this "Northern exposure" is actually a good thing. Yes we will lose some tax revenue in the short term, but in the long term for our society and economy, it has positive aspects because it will keep and hopefully force prices down and reduce the cost of living for all and make us more competitive.