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Celebrating the Consumer Act

It’s taken me a little while, but I’m truly starting to understand and revel in the full implications of the Consumer Protection Act brought into effect in March this year. The introduction of the CPA, along with some personal experiences in the first half of this year have certainly fuelled the fire of my desire to militantly campaign for “ethical capitalism” every chance I get.

The years of my life prior to the last six months have hardly been free of bile-in-mouth inducing encounters with the bastard spawn of Western capitalism, but I’m afraid listing them would take too long and dig up hills of frustration an army of Dr Philistines won’t be able to help me through. So let’s fast-forward to the current status quo.

To start with, I feel like I’m stuck in a loop of the Monty Python Spam sketch, but without the laughter. Well, sometimes there’s a little laughter, when I’m promised I’ve won five hundred bajillion dollars by some Nigerian leech who somehow manages to get a broadband internet connection from the depths of Hades, er I mean Lagos, for the 20th time.

That’s before spam from actual local companies. Unsolicited phone calls and text messages from the most insistent business entities (think more “The Entity” than “registered provider of a service”) are a plague I’ve never come to terms with. Has anybody reading this EVER responded favourably to cold-call marketing techniques? I’d really be interested to know the dynamics of the exchange if so. Personally, cold calling is like a pledge of allegiance to the cause of me never supporting the calling company in this lifetime.

Before anybody cries “job creation”, let’s just be honest with ourselves. There are jobs and then there are annoyances disguised as jobs, that actually do nothing in the long run to boost anybody. I could pay somebody to stand and poke you in the eyes with a stick all day. Job created! Not. The sooner this country realises that, the better. Filling up call centres or strapping yellow vests on to hoodlums to watch your car while it’s broken into is not anything other than a temporary and ultimately harmful solution.

Right, so with the constant buzz of spam flies in my ears, I got around to dealing with the other manifestations of the capitalism demon. A verbal contract for some site acquisition work on the side was shattered by the unscrupulous and hasty decision of people who rather ironically have an “unashamedly ethical” stamp attached to their business correspondence. Suffice to say, I didn’t like the idea of lying to the large telecommunications provider subcontracting them, and when I pointed this out, rather gently I might add, they were stung. After all, when you’re “unashamedly ethical” dealing with shame is clearly not a strong suit.

Glad as I was to be shot of that lot, the reality of the way business is conducted now was painfully hit home again. Even the most seemingly innocent business can, once pressed, turn on you like a viper motivated by pure greed, and perhaps a dose of ego on the side. This comes as no surprise in a society that apparently for the most part believes such a thing as altruism doesn’t even exist (no really, I’ve asked a lot of people). It’s all about business for them, and “all’s fair in love and war” is like a honeyed mantra to their lips. Bullshit. All is not fair in love and war. And it’s never “just business”.

Moving on, I had the pleasure of dealing with a medical aid that purposefully designs its processes to make you stumble, resulting in them not having to pay out. One has to be cunning with their stunts. Before you have a medical procedure, it is prudent to have authorisation prior to the authorisation of the tentative authorisation of the pre-authorisation of the authorisation. And read all the fine print. Otherwise you will find yourself royally screwed over. I’m hoping that the powers of the new CPA will extend into medical territory. At the very least they must treat the fresh ulcers on top of the old ulcers that they give their patients free of charge, and finally openly admit that healthy people are a threat to the medical industry.

Later on in the year I’d encounter a few pleasant surprises as a person who makes and spends money. Well, actually only two. And the second one doesn’t really stand out as joyous on its own, but framed against the backdrop of the totally uninspiring customer service one gets in South Africa (which I’ll delve into after) it was quite pleasant. The first issue revolved around a torch. One that uses batteries and not the kind that village extras in monster movies carry around.

I was excited when I found the torch (as one is). The build quality was fantastic, for my rugged purposes, the features were ample (a built in laser pointer and strobe function, along with UV and green filters — don’t pretend the boy scout in you doesn’t find that cool), and the price was cheap from a local outdoor supplier. Anyway, a few weeks after buying the thing, it decided to let me down during a particularly dangerous event, and I was furious.

Because it was a matter of a faulty design element in the switch, I didn’t even bother to contact the retailer. Instead I wrote a short letter to the torch manufacturer, a company called Nebo, based in Texas, USA. In it I merely explained the circumstances, and expressed my disappointment. Shortly afterwards, I received a reply with earnest apologies. And a request for my address details, as they wanted to send me a replacement. Considering they discontinued the particular line of torches, the one they’re sending me is actually a much nicer updated version. A really flashy one.

Understandably, I’m impressed, and as such have suggested I find a way to relay the specifics to their technical team in order to help them eliminate the chance of the same problem happening again with the switch in question used on other models. I’m still waiting for the product. But there’s no need for me to go postal as of yet as it was posted very recently. Efficient, contrite service. Beautiful. The global post-Bush vibe towards Texans might not be very loving, but every encounter I’ve had with them so far has proved rewarding …

On to my next consumer challenge. I enjoy an active lifestyle, and particularly gravitate towards dynamic solo activities outdoors. Free diving, rock climbing, free running (Parkour) and trail running are the sort of activities I enjoy. Unfortunately, my joints don’t always share the feeling, which has led me to look for ways of minimising the structural strain I put on my body. One of the most contentious solutions currently is running barefoot (so the little “boerseuns” were the progressive ones all along), or at least using a shoe that mimics being barefoot so as to not hinder the natural mechanics of the foot while still offering protection from nasty sharp bits on the ground.

After a lot of research on the issue, involving looking at other people’s feet without any hint of fetish, I’ve decided to give monkey feet a try. But within reason. As much as I quite like the idea, variations such as the Vibram Five Finger shoes — raved about by many a progressive athlete, including Timothy Ferriss — author of 4-Hour Body — would prove too much of a novelty nuisance for me. Anyway, during my poking around I mailed a company called Terra Plana, who makes the Vivo Barefoot range of shoes. They replied promptly from New York (again, those awful Americans being so efficient) with a professional, courteous and helpful attitude, telling me exactly where I could get the shoes in my area. But after more thinking and reading reviews, I decided that the Merrell brand’s Barefoot Trail Glove was a better option for me.

Considering there are loads of very positive reviews about the this particular shoe, touting them as being top of the class, and that they were launched at the beginning of 2011 I thought by mailing the major local outdoor suppliers, who already stock the Merrell brand, I’d be helped out. Damn you Americans for making me delusional. Communicating with these people was by comparison as useful as trying to shout hurricanes into submission.

Top of the list was Cape Union Mart. Although this bestows no major honour. After my inquiry being passed around they came back to me with an admittedly reasonably courteous reply. But it said merely to wait till August. The best part of a year later than the shoes came out. This was the most surprising of all for me, because Cape Union Mart has been positioning itself as the premier outdoor supplier with all the buying power and top-notch customer service. Not pleased with being fobbed off, I wrote this on their Facebook page’s (only active for self-initiated marketing purposes it seems) wall:

Thanks guys for the private reply. It’s seriously unfortunate that Cape Union Mart doesn’t have stock of the above — and I think something that requires more “public” discussion. As far as I know, the Barefoot Trail Glove was released at the beginning of the year. Why should South Africans have to wait 8 months (as indicated in your mail reply you’re only looking at getting them in August or so) to have access to the stock? Is your company fully aware of the current surge in minimalist/barefoot running? According to many, including this review, this particular shoe is a market leader. Cape Union Mart would like us to believe that they are also a market leader, yet it takes them that long to catch up? As you’re one of the few major outdoor gear suppliers around, we kind of expect you to be a little more forthcoming in order to gain continued support. As a trail runner with joint issues I keep my ear to the ground for possible solutions, and came across this product in the process. Does Cape Union Mart not have the buying power? Is this a deliberate play on the market to force buyers into buying your old technology stock off your hands? Or is this a genuine problem out of your reach? In contacting Merrell directly in the UK, they say they don’t sell directly here (not that I asked them, but they mistakenly thought that’s what I was asking). Either way this is extremely disappointing. When expectations are created by a retailer, and not met, I’m inclined to turn my back on them and advise anybody who asks my opinion likewise. Perhaps I’d be better off just running barefoot or making my own shoes? Or instead turning to another supplier? When I mailed Terra Plana regarding their Vivo Barefoot shoe — a major competitor to the Merrell — in South Africa, they responded within minutes directly from New York with an exact, courteous, and professional breakdown of where I could get their shoes in my area, along with offers of assistance. Definitely a business model that can be learned from. Thing is, I would probably prefer the Merrells for my purposes. Anyway, as a long time supporter of the Cape Union Mart brand, what should I do?

No reply. Although they have been active on the site for promotional activities since. They’ve literally charmed my shoes off. Other companies’ replies were barely there enough to deserve mention. Footgear, a Merrell stockist, gave me this awe-inspiring response: “Hi. Unfortunately we do not stock that particular style.”

Well slap me down with a wet halibut, our local retailers must really be comfortable in their respective monopolies if this is the extent of customer service they’re prepared to go to. Point is, I’m tired of the “like it or leave it” attitude I’m shown as a consumer. Sure, some of these companies might have monopolies for now, and thus be the only resort for the consumer. But that can change rapidly when the consumer gets irritated enough with the lack of care they demonstrate. I’ve never believed the customer is always right. But when you make a reasonable request, and no effort is made to gain customer loyalty, you get annoyed. Even more so sometimes with the direct customer services industry, such as food service in restaurants — which requires a whole article of its own.

Businesses need to stop thinking they’re doing you a favour. Money for goods or service exchange is a mutually beneficial situation and should be treated with utmost respect from both sides. As consumers we need to hammer them hard. Nag, expose, and pressure them into doing their jobs honourably. Make use of every reasonable tool you can, especially the new consumer legislation and the media. If they don’t care about you, they don’t deserve your money. And they don’t deserve to whine like little children when they get beaten at their own game by competition.

I hope their asses get nailed to the Walmart.