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Time to get your own back

While competition, we have been told ad nauseam, is good because it forces prices down and service up, I am not so sure any more.

If we take an example at one extreme, the ANC government — which has no competition, is free to do pretty much as it wants and does just that and bugger the consequences — we find high prices (fuel, food, corporate taxation, land, transport and labour) and pathetic service levels (home affairs, police, judiciary, state health, energy and inland revenue). That seems to support the hypothesis.

The result of a lack of competition or built-in constraints is consumer (or voter) frustration, resentment, apathy, civil unrest and violence. That’s what comes from a kakistocracy with badly skewed work and business ethics. And thousands of people plus history to blame!

A happy politician is one who has found someone to blame.

At the other extreme, take something like domestic shopping. I would guess competition is at its toughest there and margins are skinnier than Amy Winehouse’s buttocks. Huge advertising budgets, tight turnaround times (ever wondered why you can always pick up a special on Coca-Cola two-litre bottles?) and very little by way of competitive edge.

You have Woolies with the highest prices, but pretty fine quality, well-paid staff and a dogged perception among consumers of being South Africa’s version of the old British Fortnum & Mason. Next in line would have to be Pick n Pay, which, despite a generally lackadaisical staff attitude, does have a few shiners, competitive prices (generally 15% lower than Woolies), responsive client service and accessible management that takes public perceptions seriously — hence the new CI, livery and the best complaints resolution in the sector in the country.

Down in the dungeons of despair would have to be Shoprite (wrong!) Checkers and Spar, both lacking the service ethics, having bad staff attitudes, generally sloppy store management (cluttered aisles, illogical product distribution, poor stock maintenance and unrealistic prices). To cap it all, the obscenely bloated packages top management earns means a pervasive couldn’t-give-a-tanner’s-fart attitude towards the consumer. Of course there are individual exceptions, but these are more sparsely scattered than panda poo in the Kalahari.

Out on the peripheries are Hyperama (Shoprite) and Makro, then the Dions and Games and other also-rans. In this category the motto is: do your homework first and then go shopping. Cellphones are great for comparing prices in-store and you will invariably find more people doing this in these stores than in, say, Woolies. Their pervasive problems are that they too often get their loss-leaders and their profit-makers confused; they are infatuated with the bottom-shelf brand names; and shoppers only make any headway on huge bulk buying or circling like vultures waiting for the really great special of the moment.

Problem is, if you’ve come looking for school stationery, you’re hardly going to drop it all in favour of an HDTV for R14 999,99 or a 48-piece dinner service at an amazing R399,99, now are you?

But, as Bob Dylan says, everybody gotta serve somebody and the shopping must be done.

Yet even with this knife-edge competition, the consumer gets a universally raw deal — and here too the happy Whitey Basson and other gazillionaires are the ones who have found someone to blame.

Now that Alec “Energy” Erwin has cut the apron strings of cheap Chinese clothing, have you noticed how the cost of clothes has rocketed? And while we are distracted by being able to afford only one T-shirt instead of 10, all the cheaper Chinese cameras and hi-fis and computers and other goodies come chundering through the back door.

I went out this morning to find a small lightweight hammer. Builders’ Warehouse: R88; Makro: R72; Woolies doesn’t sell hammers (not even organically grown ones); Checkers: R55; Pick n Pay: R50; Hyperama only in packs with other hammers (and I have quite enough “others” already, thank you). So it was Hillfox Fleamarket for R12 (and there’s nothing inferior about the quality, believe me).

Banks are no different — in fact, the websites of all financial institutions resort under my internet “bookmarks” (or “favourites” if you prefer IE) in the folder marked “Crooks, thugs & money-grubbers”. Remember, moneylenders were the only dudes with whom Jesus really got upset!

Not one “really cares”. Not one offers “unparallelled service”. Not one has “superior technology”. And not one goes “the extra mile”. In fact, having worked in banks and building societies (remember them?) as a spin doctor myself, I know how impenetrable the reinforced concrete ceiling is that exists between advertising promises and their implementation. Banks want your money. Full stop. And they’ll do anything legal to get it. Second full stop.

And so it goes on through the sectors — garages, car dealerships, clothing shops, jewellers, DIY, outdoors and camping and, of course, furnishers; competition or no competition, the Romans were right : caveat emptor.

Even online shopping has now fallen prey to over-promising and under-delivering. I’ve been trying to buy some books (in fact, quite a lot of books). And what you pay dearly for at Exclusive (the Woolies of bookshops), you sacrifice on their usercidal website. CNA is a waste of time and is invariably three to six months behind everyone else on stocks. So it pays to take a morning off, go to the biggest shopping mall you can find and do the walking thing, shop to shop.

Shopping online has become more arduous, time-consuming, booby-trapped and deceptive than ever. Just like banks and retailers and cellphone suppliers and all the other purse snatchers whose gauntlet we, the weary, disillusioned, demoralised, impecunious, stressed-out, Prozac-gobbling till-slaves, run daily.

It’s ultra-mega-hyper-super caveat emptor nowadays, folks. So don’t be shy to get your little bit of vengeance.

The Sioux were the first to say you should never judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins. That’s damned good advice. That way, by the time you tell him what an arsehole he really is, you’re about 1 400km away — and you’ve got his shoes.

KYSSYG — tomorrow is the turn of the brands!