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Living in Rip Off Britain

Last weekend I headed up to the Metro Centre in Gateshead to film some consumer technology items for BBC One’s Rip Off Britain.BBC One - Rip Off Britain Logo

During the shoot at the Rip Off Britain ‘Pop Up Shop’ I worked on some incredibly disturbing ‘rip-off’ case studies where big-name service providers are being incredibly unfair, inflexible or insensitive to their hard-fought customers.

All of this made me reflect on how complicated buying almost any service in the UK has become, particularly many of the consumer technology products and services that we now take for granted.

Service Provider Society

Perhaps more than ever before much of what we do, buy and use every day in is tied to a contract with a service provider of some sort, be it car insurance, mobile phone, television landline or electricity.

The internet has a lot to do with this: it has enabled increased competition between providers, encouraged a barrage of advertising through online channels and a introduced plethora of price comparison sites guaranteeing the best deals.

In the face of such consumer choice, and an economic downturn encouring watch every penny, we are more likely now than ever before to ‘ditch and switch’ and chase the best deal for our hard-earned money.

Make no mistake, in today’s competitive service provider society, brand-loyalty is either a rare or a foolish trait.

However, there’s seldom such a thing as a free lunch.

Follow the Loss-Leader

The other side to the coin is that many service providers are, like us, either feeling the economic squeeze or acting under pressure from management or shareholders.

With competition driving down prices for us, this means lower profit margins for service providers. Some companies even deliberately absorb an initial loss (‘loss-leader’) in the anticipation that they can sign us up and recoup it later – think of those ‘first month free’, or ‘six months at half price’ offers for almost any service you care to mention.

For companies who provide services, practices such as cross-selling, up-selling and encouraging retention are all key to ensure that each customer provides a return on investment.

In principle this is generally accepted by most.

At the same time as brand-loyalty is becoming the exception for customers, customer-loyalty is becoming the exception for brands.

Hardball Tactics

But also part and parcel of the deals we find and contracts we sign are the limited-time offers, minimum period lock-ins, early termination penalties, deals for new customers only, impractically-long terms and conditions, indecipherable agreement wording.

Faced with a bewildering onslaught of terms and hurdles such as these it’s no wonder many begin to feel powerless when there are inevitable misunderstandings or things go wrong.

And under financial pressure companies may be more likely to employ hardball tactics to ensure their bottom line isn’t harmed – or perhaps just so that, like us, they can stay afloat too.

However, consumer protection legislation in Britain is also far from accessible: cooling off periods, distance-selling regulations, unfair terms in consumer contracts, trading standards, Sale and Supply of Goods Acts, Official Complaints Procedures, Alternate Dispute Resolution services and ombudsmen, UK implementations of EU directives – yet another bewildering set terms, the laws in place to protect consumers presents another enormous barrier.

Rip Off Britain

Julia Somerville, Gloria Hunniford and Angela Ripon

Julia, Gloria and Angela

As a consumer champion show Rip Off Britain, now in its 4th series, not only fights for consumer rights but also enlightens viewers on how to stand up to companies who are acting unfairly and empowers viewers to claw back some control.

In the midst of this mire of contract and legal terminology are some simple principles, processes and tips which everbody should be aware of.

I hope that some of the cases that I worked with during the filming will have benefited from some of my advice on how to complain effectively and officially, and to whom to refer a complaint if the service provider still isn’t being helpful. I can’t wait to see how they turn out, hopefully fairness and sense will prevail.

Series 4 of Rip Off Britain broadcasts in September 2012 on BBC One. It airs daily during the daytime and weekly in the evening – watch this space for more details.