The rise of consumer power (and the birth of Pricewatch)
‘The consumer agency was hobbled from the start and it was not given the teeth or the cash to really fight on behalf of the consumers
The earliest mention of “consumers” in The Irish Times came on the day the paper was first published in March 1859 but as it debuted in an advertisement for Patrick Byrne’s “white soaps and sperm candles” in which he promised “liberal discounts to large consumers” it was hardly the most auspicious of beginnings.
Since then the C word has appeared just under 140,000 times on these pages but in recent times it has been a whole lot more likely to be linked to rights, protection, empowerment and disgruntlement than candles made from whale blubber.
The notion that consumers might need protection or even have a voice is pretty recent and we had to wait until the mid-1960s – when the Consumer Association of Ireland was founded – for that voice to grow loud enough to be heard.
In the early 1970s disparate groups, frequently led by redoubtable country women, sought out Gay Byrne and a few sympathetic ears in the print media to highlight the high cost of food and dairy products in the new-fangled supermarkets that were opening their doors, but such matters were largely ignored by those who controlled the levers of power.
In 1975 the EEC drew up the first programme for consumer protection. The rights of the consumer were outlined for the first time: the right to choose, to be informed, to safety, to be heard and to be represented. They haven’t changed much since then, although the consumer’s voice is louder than ever, and most companies claim to have the consumer’s best interests at heart.
The customer is always wronged
It still seems, however, that lip-service is more common than good service, and the customer who is supposed to be always right is far too frequently wronged. In the early part of the last decade – as we were getting used to all the lovely boominess – it seemed to dawn on consumers that all was not right in their world of amply stocked supermarket shelves, high-end motor cars, designer handbags and low-fare jet-set lifestyles. With the illusory wealth of the Celtic Tiger came rip-offs. Lots of rip-offs.
The internet explosion of the early part of the last decade gave us new and better ways to spend our money, but also offered us new ways to identify the most egregious rips-offs. Consultations with the web oracles of Google and Amazon made it clear that retailers big and small, mobile phone companies, banks and even our doctors and dentists were bleeding us dry.
The Fianna Fáil government set up a committee to help consumers get a better deal.
After much deliberation this committee published a strategy report which was long on promises and short on results. The Groceries Order was abolished, although prices did not fall as much as we were promised they would.
That committee was also behind the setting up of the National Consumer Agency (NCA). Its chief executive was Ann Fitzgerald who had chaired the consumer strategy group. Not long after taking office she criticised the State for its failure to consult with, inform or advocate on behalf of the consumer, and she described the power of vested interests in preventing consumers getting a fair deal as “frightening”. The NCA worked out that the cost to the economy of passive consumers and bad services was €840 million a year. The agency was hobbled from the start and it was not given the teeth or the cash to really fight on behalf of consumers.