The kindness of strangers

customer complaintsThey say the retailing environment is tough at the moment.

The online world with its free shipping, discounts and gimmicks is really biting into “bricks and mortar” shops selling books, CDs, DVD and just about anything else you don’t have to eat or drink.

Even clothes.

Who would have thought that so many Australian consumers – men and women- would be buying entire wardrobes online?

But they are. Companies like UK-based fashion house ASOS are selling so much merchandise to Australians they’re having to fly in two jumbo jets a week just to fit everything in.

Anyway, I digress.

This week, amid this tough retailing environment, a complete stranger did me a favour.

I was in an ‘All Books 4 Less’, one of those discount stores that sells books for $5 and $10.

I picked out a book for my wife as a present. It was a nice book on crafts.

It cost $1o.

I walked up to the register and nice young woman scanned the book and told me it was $10.

I took out my wallet and handed her my debit card.

She pointed to the sign behind her and shook her head:

“Minimum EFTPOS transaction is $15” it read.

I shook my head and scrounged around in my wallet for a $5 note. Then I emptied out my front pockets and my back pockets and came up with a few dollars more.

She stared at me, smiling awkwardly, as I scrounged around in my bag for coins.

I laid everything out on the table and counted.

It came to $9.95.

Surely she would not begrudge me 5 cents?

“Oh I am sorry” she told me. “It is $10.”

“But surely…”

“No, sorry.”

I glared back at her. Indignant. Then I searched again in my bag and then in all the pockets of my jeans and then in my wallet.


“You’re being ridiculous,” I told her, the anger rising.

“I am sorry, the manager will see there is money missing.”

“But it’s five cents”

“I am sorry”

“You’re being ridiculous”

“I am sorry”

She suggested I walk to the nearest bank.

I searched through my bag, my pockets, my wallet again, refusing to move.

She watched me.

“Perhaps you can buy another book so you spend $15?” she suggested.

“I don’t want another book,” I replied.

Then a woman came up behind me to pay for some books.

I told her why I was standing at the counter with the contents of my bag spread out before me.

She frowned.

‘You wouldn’t have 5 cents would you?” I asked her.

She smiled, opened her purse and took out a 5 cent piece and gave it to me.

I thanked her.

I gave it to the woman behind the counter.

I left with my book.

I calmed down.

Reflecting back now on this, I have to ask: Has the retailing world gone mad?

Is this how you treat customers when you’re competitors are selling the same products at half the price?

But it seems it has.

There’s the story about the health food store in Brisbane charging customers $5 “to browse”  because the owner was apparently unhappy with giving customers advice, without the guarantee they would buy anything.

This is not an isolated innocent. In Newcastle (NSW), a shoe shop is charging customers $10 to try on shoes.

In both cases, the money is deducted if the customer makes a purchase, but who would bother putting up with this kind of attitude? Half the fun of shopping is the ability to browse.

And is this the best solution these two businesses can come up with to arrest revenue lost to online stores or cheaper competitors? Smacks of desperation. These businesses won’t last very long.

Such contempt for customers is happening at the top of the retail food chain as well.  Recently Myer managing director Bernie Brooks, suggested it would not be a good idea for taxpayers to fund the national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) because it would cut into the money people may spend in his department stores.

The social media backlash was brutal.

And let’s not forget another grumpy old retailer, Gerry Harvey, founder of Harvey Norman, worth close to a billion dollars, who loves to complain about online retailers stealing his business, Then he launched his own own online store.  Of course he is still loves running those “23 month no interest, no deposit, no repayment” dodgy offers that cost unwary customers hundreds of dollars in extra fees and other costs.

The fact is there are plenty of traditional retailers making good money because they know how to sell their products, sell the right kind of products and because they treat the customer as king.

This is just as true in the de-personalised online world, where for example the Book Depository charges no shipping fees at all even for international purchases.

So here’s a suggestion for the people at All Books 4 Less and every other retailer grumbling and looking to gouge their customers, even for a measly 5 cents.

Don’t argue with us. Don’t try and wrestle our money from us.

Treat us like old friends. Make us smile and we’ll keep coming back.

And remember that old saying: the customer is always right.

Even when he’s wrong.

Dodgy operators and scam artists: Seven tips to avoid getting ripped off this Xmas

sam.gifIt’s the festive season, we’re all spending money, buying things, and perhaps – in the spirit of the moment – being a little bit reckless about how we spend it.

As a property and financial journalist I have written about a  fair number of sharks, charlatans and scheisters and come across a few in person too.

It’s amazing what people try to get away with – there’s this story about a mortgage broker who conned clients out a $1.1 million and this story about a former professional rugby league player who allegedly pocketed $60,000 meant for his elderly clients,which he received by mistake.

I’ve written about unscrupulous mortgage brokers, dodgy estate agents, greedy financial advisers, but these sorts of people operate at all levels of business from the guy selling you a TV to the charity mugger on the corner of the street.

So here’s some tips to avoid getting into trouble:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it is – run!

If someone is offering to double your money in six months or promises a very high rate of return on your investment, chances are they’re up to no good. They’re acting out of greed and playing on your desire for a quick return. If you want  a quick return, buy a lottery ticket (and pray) or go to the casino and put an amount you are happy to lose on black or red – that could double your stake in a flash, but at least you know the odds and the risks.

  • Always get a second opinion

If you think you’re on to a good thing, then present the idea to someone you trust and ask them for their opinion. It can be a professional in the same industry, a help line, a friend, a family member, just so long as its someone who can give you an objective point of view and has nothing to gain by doing so.

  • Do a Google/internet search

You can find out a great deal of information about someone simply by searching online. Type in the name of the person trying to sell you something and/or the company name and see what results come up. Certainly if your broker or adviser has gotten into professional trouble, you should find some mention of it online. But even if they haven’t you can find out a great deal about someone from online recommendations, their Facebook page, what they say on Twitter, from their blog and their previous roles via their LinkedIn profile etc.

  • Don’t rush into any decision

Whether you are buying a car, a house or a new TV, you should never feel pressured into making your purchase. Remember, there is no shortage of most things and even if it’s a house or collectible car you really like, if the person selling it to you is pressuring you, you should be suspicious.

  • Consider at least one or two alternatives products or services

The other day I was shopping for tea (yes just tea) and there must have been about a 100 varieties to choose from. I spent five minutes just locating the type I was after (Rooibos). This is also the case with most things you purchase these days – maybe not a 100 choices but usually a dozen alternatives. Particularly if it’s an expensive item or where the financial commitment is great, you should consider at least one or two alternative products, which may be better and cheaper or have more suitable features. You can do this without even walking into a store, by using a comparison website. Just make sure its a reputable website with a big range of products and full disclosure of how they compare items. ASIC is currently clamping down on dodgy comparison websites.

  • Ask lots of questions of the salesperson

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, including ones you think may sound silly such as questions about basic information. A good salesman should be happy to answer all of them. Also, by asking a lot of questions you will become better acquainted with the product and the person selling it.

  • Consider the personality, appearance and attitude of the salesperson

Think about the person who is selling to you. Are they likeable? Do you trust them? Do they have a pleasant manner? It’s amazing how often, after someone has sold you something, they lose complete interest in you, which is OK if you’re buying a shirt, but not so good if you’re buying a new car and it breaks down after a week. Trust your instincts. Avoid dealing with slick, fast-talking sales people who sound like second-hand car dealers (apologies to all honest second-hand car dealers). Buy from someone you like and trust. Why give business to a dick-head?

Happy shopping and spending over the festive season!

A public service initiative from freshlyworded.