Pricewatch: 2019 was eventful for hard-pressed consumers

Food scares, Brexit fears, rising costs, and how to cut a pineapple

Niall Wynn, owner of Proper Order Coffee Cafe Haymarket, Smithfield, Dublin with one of his compostable coffee cups. In November Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton launches a public consultation on levies on single-use coffee cups. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Niall Wynn, owner of Proper Order Coffee Cafe Haymarket, Smithfield, Dublin with one of his compostable coffee cups. In November Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton launches a public consultation on levies on single-use coffee cups. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

JANUARY

New Central Bank rules aimed at helping consumers save money on their mortgage repayments and making mortgage switching easier come into effect. Lenders have to be more upfront with borrowers about the value to be found elsewhere and they have to be faster at making decisions.

Concerns about insurance mount. The Minister for Transport, Shane Ross, says an inquiry is needed to look into the cost of motor insurance premiums. “It is my instinct that this should be looked at more carefully and in greater detail,” he says. Fast-forward to the end of the year and a report reveals insurance premiums are more than 40 per cent higher than they were a decade ago. There are more calls for inquiries. Meanwhile, consumers continue to cough up.

Brexit is never far away from the headlines. It emerges that Irish consumers might encounter difficulties buying some products sold on the amazon.co.uk platform in the aftermath of a no-deal Brexit, and the Central Bank warns that people could see potential shortages of some foods and higher prices attached to others in the event of a hard Brexit.

Unilever confirms it is stockpiling ice creams in the UK and deodorants in continental Europe to guard against potential supply disruptions.

Research finds that more than a third of the food and drink on special offer in Irish supermarkets are high in sugar, fat or salt. The figure climbs to 56 per cent in convenience stores.

FEBRUARY

New figures from the Central Bank show that the Republic’s mortgage lenders paid out €647 million in refunds and compensation to customers caught up in the tracker mortgage scandal. The total number of cases lenders admitted to rose by 1,400 to 39,800 between August and December of 2018.

Thousands of tickets for the Six Nations appear for sale on the controversial website Viagogo for a combined €419,000. Details of the scale at which Six Nations tickets are being touted prompt concern and condemnation from rugby governing bodies.

Bank of Ireland’s chief financial officer Andrew Keating says it is his expectation that “the price of mortgages, particularly those longer-duration mortgages, will increase”. Signalling future prices, depending on the circumstances, can be in breach of Irish competition law. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) says it is aware of the comments.

MARCH

Almost 620,000 doses of illegal medicines were seized in 2018. The most commonly imported illegal products were sedatives (36 per cent), erectile dysfunction medicines (18 per cent) and anabolic steroids (16 per cent).

Passengers who pay extra for airline seats to make sure they sit beside their travelling companions could be wasting their money – unless they are flying with Ryanair, a report by a British consumer watchdog states. The Which? Travel investigation analysed more than 3,000 economy flights which flew with 10 of the most popular airlines in Europe. It found that 86 per cent of those who chose not to pay extra to reserve a seat were seated together anyway. The main exception was Ryanair which had the lowest proportion of passengers seated together (46 per cent) unless they paid extra for allocated seating.

The world of fruit is rocked after videos appear on the Internet suggesting people have been eating pineapple wrong for hundreds of years. Instead of cutting at a pineapple with a knife, you can much more easily peel segments away from the core of the fruit, or so the story went. Did it work? Pricewatch tried the new technique and was most disappointed.

APRIL

Thousands of Irish consumers’ travel plans are thrown into disarray after Iceland’s Wow Air ceases operations and cancels all flights with immediate effect.

A family from New Zealand who discovered a hidden livestreaming camera while staying at an Airbnb property in Cork said say they “felt a sense of danger” after finding the device hidden in a smoke alarm case in the living room of the accommodation. Airbnb removed the host permanently from its site after the discovery.

Guinness says it will introduce 100 per cent recyclable and biodegradable cardboard to replace plastic in its beer packaging, including the plastic ring carriers that have been known to harm wildlife. The innovation will reduce plastic waste by 400 tonnes per year.

Spotify reaches 100 million paid subscribers, a first for any music service.

Kerrygold becomes the first Irish food brand to exceed €1 billion in annual sales, helped by its growing popularity in the United States. Kerrygold owner Ornua says about 7.5 million packets of the butter were sold each week in 2018. In the US it is now the number two butter brand behind market leader Land O’Lakes. In Germany, its principal European market, a standard 250g block of Kerrygold butter was the fastest-selling food or drink item on supermarket shelves last year.

MAY

The consumer group Which? finds some of the biggest travel operators in the Republic are giving incorrect information about the level of cover and protections travellers are entitled to under EU regulations.

Almost 600 nursing homes nationwide receive a warning from the State’s consumer watchdog about imposing potentially unfair terms on vulnerable residents. The action by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) follows controversy over some nursing homes imposing additional charges on residents for so-called “additional” activities.

WhatsApp, which is used by 1.5 billion people worldwide and is owned by Facebook, discovers that attackers are able to install surveillance software onto both iPhones and Android phones by ringing up targets using the app’s phone call function.

The European Commission opens a formal antitrust investigation into Insurance Ireland to assess whether it is operating a cartel. The move follows a series of raids on motor insurance providers in the Republic in mid-2017.

Huawei, one of the fastest-growing phone companies in the world, gets into difficulty when US president Donald Trump adds it to a trade blacklist and says US companies will be restricted from doing business with it. Google says it will enact restrictions on Android updates to Huawei. The company is given a stay and it remains to see what will happen next.

JUNE

Plastic pollution is so widespread that people may be ingesting 5g a week, the equivalent of eating a credit card, a study commissioned by the environmental charity WWF International says.

A Donegal-based furniture maker which specialised in making bespoke children’s beds shaped like castles and monster trucks goes out of business, blaming uncertainty surrounding Brexit for its sudden closure. The closure of Anderson’s Themes and Dreams left many families across Ireland and the UK substantially out of pocket, with some of the beds it has sold costing well in excess of €1,000.

More than a quarter of parents have helped their children by paying for a portion of their motor insurance policy, an AA survey finds.

Hot on the heels of the pineapple-eating viral sensation comes one about garlic. A short video suggests that if you hold a head in a particular way, use a particular knife to pierce individual cloves while they are still attached to the bulb, and then twist just so, the cloves will come away already peeled. The internet was beside itself. Did it work? No, not really.

A study from Eurostat shows that Ireland is the fourth-most expensive country in the EU for food and soft drinks. Irish food baskets cost 20 per cent more than the EU average in 2018. In Romania the basket cost 66 per cent of the EU average while it was up to 132 per cent in Denmark.

JULY

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty accuses the insurance industry of “completely exaggerating” the number of fraudulent claims it receives or not giving “a damn” about them after claiming one in five are suspicious despite only reporting a handful to the Garda.

Consumers who failed to switch gas or electricity suppliers over the last four years have paid almost €1,700 more in utility bills than if they had switched, the independent energy regulator says. According to the data, active customers who switched or renegotiated every year for the last four years could have saved €704 on gas, €1,097 on electricity or €1,696 on their dual fuel costs.

Arthur Ryan, the outstanding Irish retailer of his generation and the founder and chairman of the Penneys/Primark empire which this year marks its 50th anniversary, dies at the age of 83.

Street parking charges in parts of Dublin rise by up to 70 per cent with an increase in tariffs and an extension of the most expensive parking zones. Charges in the city centre “yellow zone” rise from €2.90 to €3.20 an hour while, just outside this area, the “red zone” charge goes from €2.40 to €2.70. The “green zone” remain at €1.60.

Back-to-school costs remain a financial burden for three-quarters of parents, and one-third cannot afford some of the school items needed, according to the annual back-to-school costs survey published by the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU). It put the cost of sending a child to secondary school at €1,399, up €20 on last year. The costs associated with primary school children are down €50 to €949.

Instagram begins hiding the total number of likes a post gets from public view in Ireland. The move is aimed at pushing Instagram users to focus on the content rather than the number of likes a post has, making use of the site seem like less of a competition.

A multimillion-euro campaign is planned to encourage younger Irish people to post pictures of their potato dinners on social media after a study found the staple has a “huge image issue” among them. As part of the Bord Bia research, millennials are asked what words they associate with different carbohydrates. Quinoa is associated with “hipster”, “new” and “modern”, a wrap is “cheeky”, “young” and “fresh”, but the potato draws connotations of “older”, “farmer” and “GAA player”.

The home appliance manufacturer Whirlpool recalls tumble dryers made before September 2015, over fire safety risks. The warning relates to a number of models, including Indesit, Hotpoint, Creda, Swan and Proline dryers. Whirlpool-branded tumble dryers are not affected by the problem.

Ryanair staff are the hardest to find in European airports if passengers are hit by flight disruptions, while Aer Lingus staff are considerably easier to come by when things go wrong, another Which? survey finds. When actually dealing with complaints, however, the airline with the lowest scores is British Airways.

Moneylending services should have to carry warnings about the high costs of loan repayments on any advertisements, the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) tells the Government. Similar to packaging introduced for tobacco carrying health warnings, any moneylending advertisements or literature should include a clear warning of the high cost of the loan.

AUGUST

A mechanical failure on a filtration device causes the level of arsenic to climb above legally acceptable levels in a batch of water products shipped by Monaghan company Celtic Pure to some of the largest supermarket brands in the State including Lidl, Aldi, Dunnes and Applegreen.

Some 18 beef processing plants between counties Cavan and Cork are subject to pickets by the Beef Plan Movement. The Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, calls on both sides to enter talks. His calls are unheeded and the protests are ramped up.

Another 46,000 people took out private health insurance in 2018 as the economy continued to improve, according to the annual report of the Health Insurance Authority. The number of people insured increased for the fourth year in a row to reach 2.22 million, close to the maximum seen at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom.

The CCPC says it will carry out an investigation into the public liability insurance market as businesses raise concerns about rising costs. The review will look at how the market operates, how competition works and if it is affecting the cost of public liability insurance.

The Christmas Shop opens in Brown Thomas a full 131 sleeps before Christmas.

More than a fifth of Irish consumers are unable to afford a holiday, suggesting that a substantial volume of households are still struggling financially, according to analysis from KBC economist Austin Hughes.

SEPTEMBER

A hard Brexit at the end of October could hit many thousands of Irish people who shop on UK websites almost immediately, with a dramatic curtailment of rights and a significant spike in prices on the cards, the CCPC warns.

Almost half of community and volunteer groups say they are facing closure and have had to reduce the number of activities they are involved in as a result of rising insurance premiums, a survey has found.

The company behind Lucozade and Ribena says it will use only 100 per cent sustainable plastic bottles across its portfolio by 2030 in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint.

People order less and consume fewer calories when information on the calorie content of their food is included on menus, new Irish research establishes. But the extent to which they cut their consumption depends on where the calorie information is shown, according to a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). Consumers given a menu where the calorie information is displayed just to the right of the price, in the same font and size, ordered 19 per cent fewer calories and ate 37 per cent fewer calories.

Insurance companies are accused of scamming loyal customers by charging them far more than new customers through a practice of dual pricing. Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty claims in the Dáil that companies are charging “extortionate prices” and “punishing loyalty” as he highlights his own experience while renewing an insurance policy. He said Liberty Insurance quoted him €856 and when he phoned them they could cut it to €814. But when he put all the same details into the company’s website he was given a quote of €571, a reduction of €280 “that they refused to quote on the phone”.

OCTOBER

Irish banks are accused of keeping variable mortgage rates “artificially” high to boost profitability. Consumer advocate Brendan Burgess says the banking system here is “out of kilter” with the rest of Europe in offering new customers more competitive fixed-rate mortgages when the forecast was for interest rates to stay low in the short to medium term. Typically banks charge customers a premium for locking in a low rate.

Paschal Donohoe unwraps his Brexit budget. There is little in it for anyone.

A new mobile network is rolled out, hoping to lure customers with all calls, texts and data for €10 a month for as long as a customer signs up. But anyone hoping to join GoMo will have to bring their own mobile phone to the network, as the company will only offer 30-day sim-only plans.

The Central Bank plans to look into the practice by some insurers of charging existing customers higher rates than new clients, in order to see whether insurance companies are adhering to the regulator’s consumer protection code, even though it is prohibited from playing a role in the pricing of policies.

Department stores Brown Thomas and Arnotts could begin selling second-hand goods by the end of next year, Donald McDonald, managing director of both, says. He reveals that the two retailers plan to spend €70 million on their stores and online businesses over the next five years. This would include a shift to “conscientious consumption” which would focus on reselling second-hand luxury goods.

NOVEMBER

The business organisation responsible for installing Christmas lights in Dublin comes under pressure to remove a new sign welcoming shoppers to the “Grafton Quarter”. The new lights, which replace the old “Nollaig Shona Duit” sign, have been installed by the Dublin Town organisation, but other city business groups, Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan, and hundreds of Twitter users are unimpressed by the new branding.

KBC Group chief executive Johan Thijs criticises the Central Bank on a call with financial analysts. “What is still an annoying thing is all tracker mortgage stuff and, honestly, we would recommend to Central Bank of Ireland: come on, guys, turn the page,” he say. In response, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe says the comments will be “so upsetting to the 99 families in our country who lost their homes” as a result of the industry-wide debacle, affecting more than 40,000 borrowers. The banker is forced to apologise for the “insensitive” comments.

A survey from telecoms watchdog ComReg suggests that streaming audio and video content has doubled over the last two years while the amount of time Irish people spend on social networks including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter has climbed by a third over the same period.

A public consultation on levies on single-use coffee cups is launched by Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton. Bread 41 on Dublin’s Pearse Street announces that on Mondays it will no longer sell takeaway coffee to people unless they have a keep cup.

DECEMBER

An overhaul of the telephone numbers commonly used by banks, charities and other organisations means they will not cost more than a local call.

The Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Act 2019 comes into force, and all vouchers sold must now be valid for at least five years from the date they are purchased.

As many as one in four Irish cooks put their health, and the health of their families, on the line on Christmas Day by washing their turkeys before cooking them, despite repeated warnings from Ireland’s food safety watchdog.

The Luas operator is urgently reviewing ticket machines at its park-and-ride facilities across Dublin after evidence emerged that faulty machines were issuing motorists with tickets carrying incorrect car registration numbers, leaving them at risk of being clamped.

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