We live in a consumer age.  My own view is that consumerism is part of evolution.  I know that there are a few people out there who really hate how far it’s gone: I’m certainly not arguing that the consequences of being a consumer society are all good.  However, I don’t think we can turn back this particular tide.

Increasingly, what was once a case of consumer need (indeed, many marketers still talk in such terms – mistakenly, in my view) is now much more often a case of consumer desire: we meet our basic psychological desires by buying products.

These psychological desires that have served us so well in evolutionary terms, can now be satisfied from a trip to the shops: if you want status, buy a Rolex or an iPad; if you want power, buy a high performance car; if you want romance get a make-over and buy some new, attractive clothes; if you want to fit in with the crowd, buy the things your friends own.  And so it goes on.

With consumerism such a large part of what people do these days it sounds like having consumer interest groups to lobby for and protect consumer rights would be both necessary and good.  But I’m not so sure.

Recently the product testing and consumer campaigning charity Which? complained to the UK’s Office of Fair Trading about the fees that some travel companies (like Ryanair and EasyJet) charge when customers use their debit or credit card to pay for a flight.  The charges, they said, were significantly in excess of the actual cost to the company and were tagged on to the end of the purchase after lower prices had lured customers in.

Do I think this is a nice thing to do? Absolutely not.

Do I think it’s misguided of the companies that do it? Yes, I think they would be better to advertise as the honest, transparent (for which read ‘trustworthy’) travel company.  Brands are, after all, a guarantee of sorts.

Do I think this should be legislated against or reviewed by government departments? No.

Here’s the problem: the OFT say that consumers ended up spending an extra £300 million for their travel in 2009 as a direct result of these kinds of charges.  Given that the costs are negligible, that’s mostly profit for the companies involved.  But does anyone seriously think that these companies accept a hit on their bottom line as a result of the ruling and incur the wrath of investors when their profits are down at the end of the year?

Of course not.  Instead they will find a way to get that money out of customers in some other fashion: perhaps that will be more transparent, perhaps not.

And in the meantime, the Office of Fair Trading has carried out a very costly review of pricing practices, involving extensive consultancy with psychologists and market research firms, there will have been legal advice and lengthy reviews.

Add in that the companies being challenged will have to mount a defence (more legal costs) and make changes to their websites and advertising, and possibly pay fines too.

Who should we suppose ends up picking up the tab for every single one of these costs?  Of course, it’s the customer / tax payer.

Now, I’m all for the government protecting people from manipulative traders.  Those people who don’t reveal all the information about a product or service or who actively mislead customers; salespeople who put customers under huge pressure to buy something… these people should, in my view, face much stiffer charges than they currently do.

But adding in extra charges before someone confirms a purchase, provided that they see a clear final total, is an issue between the customer (who should, by rights, be feeling very aggrieved) and the brand that thinks this is an acceptable way to price their goods.

Now, everyone can play the ‘spot where they put the card fees’ game with their favourite low-cost airline, but don’t forget to check for the legal fees that will be in there somewhere too.  I’m not convinced this is in consumers’ best interests.

Philip Graves


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