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Consumer Affairs
Friday, December 1, 2006
Christmas caution

We face so much advertising these days that its existence in the newspapers, on the airwaves, billboards, posters, and roadside hoardings is taken for granted. Indeed, our environment would be bare without it! However, have you ever wondered about the real meaning behind all those promises?

  Is a ‘special offer’ really special, or is it a desperate bid to get rid of something? Does ‘limited offer’ mean the item for sale is exclusive and therefore special and worth buying? And what does ‘only R199’ really mean? You might be surprised how often someone who bought something for, say, R149 thinks it cost ‘around R100’. The universal use of the number nine is a catch to make you think something is cheaper. It is so much harder and long-winded to say the price is R199,99 instead of R200. But it doesn’t bother the salesman. He wants a sale.
Advertising can be informative and useful, but as consumers, we should be more aware of what we are really being told. A gushy, female voice, or a dynamic no-nonsense heroic male voice will launch into an exciting advertisement. Rushing through all the features and benefits, the announcer will end the short blast in the same breathless energy to advise that, “Terms and conditions apply.” They make it sound like it is yet another benefit, when in fact it is imposing a legal limit on the promise being offered.
Whatever you do, find out the precise wording of those terms and conditions and make sure you are happy in the way the promises and obligations are being modified. Sometimes the wording might be at the bottom of a contract in small print, on the back of an invoice, or hanging on a wall in a store. But if the sales person does not point out those terms and conditions and explain them to you first, you may have redress against the retailer later on, despite what you have signed.
I had an experience last year where Harris Building Materials (Pty) Ltd
Trading as Strata Natural Stone in Cape Town refused to refund just under R2 000 in respect of tiles that had been returned and accepted back into stock.
The company referred to its ‘Terms and Conditions’ whereby the cost of material would only be refunded if returned in good condition within 14 calendar days (in other words 10 working days). The company initially sidelined the issue by claiming the goods were ‘sale items’ and therefore were not refundable anyway. Strata also said its terms and conditions were ‘normal industry practice’. However:
• The invoice referred to ‘attached terms’ that were not in fact attached;
• The terms and conditions were not explained to the customer. A retailer has a duty to point out any onerous clauses;
• The claim they were normal industry practice does not hold water. It is like saying because it is normal industry practice for taxis to use worn tyres it is the correct thing to do.
• In view of the nature of the product (sandstone tiles are very heavy), the nature of the job (it can easily take 2-3 months to finish a bathroom), and the importance of matching materials (requiring on site comparison) a 14-day return condition is unreasonable.

I eventually got a refund, accelerated by a threat of legal action through the Small Claims Court.
I mention all this because as we face the onslaught of Christmas retail fever, we should not let excitement and the exhaustion of crowded, noisy shopping sprees put us off guard.
Can I conclude with a few stupid lines used in quite a few promotions and announcements that are misleading and contradictory?
Firstly, how can something be ‘new and improved?’
If it is ‘new’ it never existed before, so how can you improve on it? If it is ‘improved’ then it must have existed before, so how can it be ‘new’. Indeed, if you really think about it the advertisement is saying more about the item you bought before than the one it is trying to sell you today; it is admitting what you bought before was not so great! I wonder what the ad for that one said?
And get this one: ‘Sale on all selected goods’.
Now, either all the goods are in the sale, or only ‘selected’ items are. The retailer cannot have it both ways; it cannot be ‘all selected’. The redundant adverb is used to make you think everything is on sale.
How about, ‘Her new best seller.’ If it is new, how can it have sold anything? So they cannot possibly claim it is a ‘best seller.’ In any case, best of what?
I saw a recent billboard (quite expensive to hire, I am sure) saying ‘Offices letting fast.’ Yeh, right. So if they are letting fast why bother to spend money to advertise they are available? By Nigel Benetton


Telephone lies

‘We are experiencing unusually large volumes of calls at the moment, please be patient.’
If they are ‘unusual’ how come someone has had the time to record the fact, and put it into the automatic telephone answering system?

‘All our lines are busy at the moment. Thank you for holding. Your call is important to us. Please wait for the next available operator.’
Important to whom? Telkom? Remember it can only charge for a call if someone, even a machine, picks up the call at the other end. So the auto response should really finish the sentence properly, ‘Your call is important to us, because Telkom can charge more if you hold on.’

Copyright © Insurance Times and Investments® Vol:19.6 1st December, 2006
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