Pricewatch review of 2014: choppy waters for consumers in a year of give and take

Water charges dominated the agenda, while budget gains were eroded by taxes, Superquinn said goodbye, house prices and rents rose dramatically, and not everyone bought into the notion of economic recovery

JANUARY

  • Irish Water's chief executive, John Tierney, appeared before the Oireachtas environment committee and said his utility would spend €85 million on consultants by 2015. Phil Hogan's spluttering spokesman said the Minister was unaware of how Irish Water was spending the €180 million it needed to get up and running. It was a bad start to the year for both Tierney and his utility. But things were only going to get worse.
  • A pharmacy in Dundrum promised to match cross-Border prices for generic medications by developing an entirely new business model. Under the scheme, people could buy cheaper drugs once they paid an annual subscription of €25.
  • The CSO reported the price of homes across the State climbed by more than 6 per cent in 2013, with Dublin outperforming the market considerably by recording price increases of nearly 16 per cent.
  • Clocking – the process of turning back the odometer of a car – became a criminal offence when Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar signed an amendment to the latest Road Traffic Bill. There had long been serious safety and reliability implications for unsuspecting motorists who bought clocked cars, but previously it was an offence under consumer rather than criminal law.
  • The number of people in mortgage arrears fell again, with the level of engagement between financially distressed borrowers and their lenders increasing. The Department of Finance said 116,481 of the 697,690 mortgage holders in the Republic were in arrears of some kind – a decline of 1,230 on the previous month.

FEBRUARY

  • After 54 years, the Superquinn brand checked out of the Irish grocery market for good when Cork wholesale group Musgrave, which acquired the business for €229 million in October 2011, decided to ditch the name and rebrand its supermarkets under the Supervalu banner.
  • Consumer confidence was at an "exceptionally high" level, on the back of positive jobs news, strong retail sales figures and an increase in property transactions, according to the Consumer Market Monitor from the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. It showed confidence reaching a seven-year peak.
  • Ireland was among the most expensive countries in the eurozone, with consumers paying 14 per cent more than average for essential goods and services, according to a Forfás report. At the height of the boom, the Republic was the most expensive country in the euro zone, but over four years of the downturn it dropped two places to third. The agency found that while prices in the Republic fell between 2008 and 2012, they were still almost 14 per cent higher than the eurozone average.

MARCH

  • Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton published details of the long-awaited Competition and Consumer Protection Bill and promised consumers a "watchdog with real teeth".
  • The One Big Switch national energy switching campaign attracted more than 40,000 members and reached agreement with Bord Gáis Energy to offer electricity subscribers who moved €80 back at the end of the first year.
  • AIB wrote off more than €170,000 in mortgage debt owed by a couple in Dublin and allowed them to keep their home. The deal was the largest example of debt forgiveness for borrowers in negative equity. It was brokered by New Beginning.
  • It was claimed that consumers were robbed of many of their rights and protections across the financial sector during the boom because of "soft-touch" regulation, excessive bureaucracy and the authorities' obsession with maximising the tax take from property transactions. The withering assessment of how consumers have been served by successive governments, the Central Bank and the Financial Services Ombudsman and the European Union was published by the Free Legal Advice Centres.
  • A Spar shop in Dublin's IFSC found itself in hot water after it placed a job ad in its window looking for deli staff and stipulating that it would only accept applications from women. Photographs of the ad appeared on social media. The store apologised and the ad was pulled.
  • It was reported that the cost of getting married in Ireland had fallen by more than 20 per cent since the bubble burst, but the cost of getting an invitation remained too high for many to bear, with nearly 50 per cent of those polled in a survey admitting to turning down an invitation because they could not afford it.

APRIL

  • Primark announced plans to move into the US, with its first American store to open in downtown Boston.
  • The Restaurants Association of Ireland called for an end to the Good Friday alcohol ban, which it said was causing unjustifiable "suffering" to businesses on religious grounds. Its chief executive, Adrian Cummins, said it was an unacceptable and outdated law that was damaging the tourism, restaurant and hospitality industry. "Ireland must be the only country in the world that has a bank holiday weekend and actually chooses to close the tourist attractions it is best known for – the centres of craic and ceol, the restaurants and pubs of the country. Even the Vatican City doesn't obey this ridiculous law."
  • European mobile phone users were given some good news when the European Parliament voted to put an end to roaming fees by 2016. "This vote is the EU delivering for citizens," said Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda. "This is what the EU is all about: getting rid of barriers, to make life easier and less expensive. We should know what we are buying, we should not be ripped off, and we should have the opportunity to change our mind."

MAY

  • The Government scrapped plans to allow Irish Water to impose a €50 standing charge.
  • Irish consumers were reported to be increasingly likely to punish bad customer service by complaining about it on social networks and taking their business elsewhere. The research, carried out by Accenture, found that 72 per cent of consumers were active switchers, up 11 per cent on last year and much higher than the global average of 54 per cent.
  • Avonmore retained its position as Ireland's most popular homegrown brand, with 81 per cent of consumers choosing it at least 27 times a year. The Kantar Worldpanel's Brand Footprint ranking of Ireland's most chosen fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), showed Avonmore retaining the top spot. Brennans was in second place, with 73.3 per cent of the population opting for its products on average 24 times a year. Denny, Knorr and Jacobs made up the rest of the the top five.
  • Google and other US internet groups braced themselves for a blizzard of requests from European citizens demanding that sensitive personal information be removed from search results after a court ruling redefined privacy in the internet age. It was the first time that the search engine was forced to remove a link to information legally published elsewhere.

JUNE

  • Even after six years of austerity, consumer prices in Ireland were found to be, on average, 18 per cent higher than the EU norm, according to Eurostat. It said Ireland was considerably more expensive when it came to food, alcohol, restaurants, hotels, transport and electronic goods. It ranked Ireland as the fifth most expensive of 28 member states, behind Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg and Finland, with prices estimated to be 118 per cent of the EU average.
  • Dublin city and county was said to be the most expensive location in Europe in which to be buried, the Dáil was told. Labour TD Eamonn Maloney said the case had been made that "it is more expensive to have a burial in Dublin than in London or Paris". He said the lack of competition for burials "has influenced the high cost".
  • Pedestrians using mobile phones were in danger of falling into a "zombie trance" while crossing the road, the AA warned. Conor Faughnan, director of consumer affairs for AA Ireland, said that "theoretically" the State already has a jay-walking law in place and that pedestrians within 50m of a pedestrian crossing must use it to cross the road. "Anyone who has ever been a pedestrian in an Irish town will tell you that the rules are completely ignored," said Faughnan.

JULY

  • The Commission for Energy Regulation revealed details of water charges and said the average cost for a household of two adults and two children would come in at €278. It set metered rates at €4.88 for 1,000 litres of water.
  • Canny consumers shopping around for house insurance could knock more than €400 off their annual bill, an NCA survey found. The average savings were €264. The biggest saving, of €421, was on the price of insurance for a three-bedroom bungalow in Midleton, Co Cork.
  • Three Ireland completed the €850 million buyout of O2 Ireland from Telefonica. The move made it the second biggest telecoms provider in the State and went ahead despite opposition from Comreg. The communications regulator had said competition remedies proposed by Three to enable the deal to go through were "insufficient, inadequate and ineffective". It also expressed concern that the deal, which led to a reduction in the number of network operators from four to three, could lead to higher consumer prices.
  • Garth Brooks didn't come to town. All five of his Croke Park gigs were cancelled after Dublin City Council refused licences for two of them, planned for the stadium on July 28th and 29th. It said this was due to fears of noise, traffic disruption, illegal parking and "potential antisocial behaviour". Brooks said he had to cancel all five because he could not choose which two of the five he would call off. He said it was like being asked to chose between his children.

AUGUST

  • There was anger among public sector workers after their wages were delayed for the second time in a month due to a problem at Bank of Ireland. The bank apologised and said changes as a result of the introduction of the Single European Payments Area (SEPA) were to blame.
  • Fashion chain Zara apologised and removed children's pyjama tops from sale following complaints they resembled the clothes worn by Jewish prisoners in concentration camps. The striped, long-sleeved tops featured a golden six-pointed star stitched on to the upper-left-hand side, with the word "Sheriff" printed in light lettering. It was available to buy online via Zara's website in several European countries, but not in Israel.
  • Bus Éireann apologised to thousands of primary- and secondary-school students who were left waiting for their annual bus tickets due to a technical glitch.
  • The speed at which milk was souring in fridges become a social media discussion point, with people complaining that milk of various brands and bought from different retailers was souring within three days of being opened, despite being kept properly chilled. Some expressed concern that the use-by dates had been pushed out to extend shelf life. However, retailers and the National Dairy Council insisted the natural shelf life of milk was normally in excess of one week and had not been extended.

SEPTEMBER

  • Figures from the Central Statistics Office showed the economy expanded by 7.7 per cent in GDP terms in the year to the end of June, the strongest rate of growth recorded since early 2007
  • News emerged that Irish banks were increasing interest rates despite cuts to ECB rates. Central Bank figures showed the average interest rate charged on personal overdrafts had gone up from 13.4 per cent to 14.3 per cent in 12 months. Rates on consumer loans rose from 5.95 per cent to 8.01 per cent over the same period.
  • Mastercard lost a decade-long battle against a European Union ban on cross-border card fees, as the Court of Justice of the European Union supported a drive to cut the cost of using payment cards.
  • Apple unveiled a new watch alongside two new iPhones with sharper and larger displays. The watch was the first new product to be developed and introduced under chief executive Tim Cook's reign. The wearable device has yet to hit shelves but when it does it will be tethered to the iPhone. U2 popped up at the launch and gave the world their new album Songs of Innocence for free.
  • It emerged that consumers could spend as much as €5.58 for a one-second directory inquiry call. The Consumer Association of Ireland investigated directory inquiry service providers in Ireland. It found that a one-minute call to 11811 cost €3.42; a one-minute call to 11850 cost €5.58; and a one-minute call to 11890 cost €3.40.
  • In a throwback to the crazy days of the property boom, house hunters queued overnight for a scheme of new homes in Swords, Co Dublin.

OCTOBER

  • It emerged that Irish Water staff would be paid bonuses even if performances were classified as needing improvement. Concern mounted over the utility's demand for PPS numbers. Registration was slow, so a one-month extension to the sign-up period was granted. Opposition to the charges intensified and 50,000 people marched against the charges in Dublin in one of the largest demonstrations seen in the capital in years. The Tánaiste, Joan Burton, said that the timetable for setting up Irish Water had been "too ambitious".
  • The Central Bank proposed new mortgage rules that would force homebuyers to put down a 20 per cent deposit on the value of a property and stop banks lending any more than 3½ times a borrower's gross income.
  • The gap between market leader Tesco and Supervalu, the second most popular grocer in the State, narrowed to 0.5 per cent. Tesco's overall share of the market was 25.1 per cent, down from 26.5 per cent 12 months earlier and down from a high of almost 30 per cent three years ago. Supervalu had 24.6 per cent of the market.
  • Michael Noonan's budget left some Irish families better off by more than €800. Or did it? Before burning the hairshirt, they had to factor in the dual hits of water charges and property tax, which took annual net gains for even the biggest budget beneficiaries to less than €100.
  • Banks were warned that if they "irrationally" rejected realistic insolvency applications made by distressed borrowers they would be named and shamed by the Insolvency Service of Ireland. All told, 28 per cent of insolvency applications brought to creditors were rejected as the main lenders exercised a veto. The Insolvency Service said it was disappointed that the banks' rejection rate was so high and said comparable figures in the UK suggested that banks should be agreeing to deals in more than 95 per cent of cases.

NOVEMBER

  • Anti-water protesters gathered in Jobstown in Dublin, where Joan Burton was attending a graduation ceremony. She was trapped in her car by the crowd for more than two hours. A row broke out between Government figures and Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy as to whether or not it was a peaceful protest.
  • The Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, announced a revised water charges package with capped costs and a commitment to legislate to ensure a referendum must take place if water charges are to leave public ownership.
  • Dublin's first dedicated Christmas market opened at St Stephen's Green. The festive spirit was almost drowned out by a territorial row as some retailers and restaurants claimed the 68-stall market was stealing their business in the run-up to the most wonderfully lucrative time of the year.
  • A British couple was fined by a hotel after they wrote a damning review about it on Tripadvisor. Tony and Jan Jenkinson were hit with a £100 fine by a UK hotel after leaving it, describing it in an online review as a "filthy, stinking hovel". Blackpool Council got involved and the hotel reimbursed the couple.
  • Fewer than 5,400 properties were available to rent nationwide on November 1st, the lowest number since 2007, according to a quarterly report from property website Daft.ie. And there were fewer than 27,000 properties listed to rent in Dublin in the first nine months of this year, compared with more than 47,000 in the same period in 2011. The report also found rents have risen more than 11 per cent in the past 12 months, with average rent now at €933 a month.
  • Home repossession cases increased so dramatically that additional court sittings were being scheduled to deal with them, the Dáil was told. The number of cases had increased sevenfold in the past 18 months, according to Fianna Fáil's finance spokesman, Michael McGrath. He said that in the first six months of 2013, there were 44 repossession bills, which rose to 246 in the second half of the year, and in the first six months of this year that had grown to 335 civil ejectment bills.
  • Ulster Bank was fined €3.5 million by the Central Bank for the IT collapse in June 2012, which had caused wages not to land in people's accounts, direct debits to go unpaid and mortgage payments to be missed.

DECEMBER

  • More water charges protests. More than 30,000 people marched on the Dáil. The Government insisted it was not for turning.
  • There was much talk about recovery in December, but many consumers did not seem to get the memo. A survey from Deloitte found that many were increasingly gloomy about their financial prospects, despite upbeat assessments from political and economic circles. It found that 39 per cent of Irish consumers had become less optimistic about their disposable household income in just six months.
  • Despite the gloom, Irish shops braced themselves for their best Christmas since before the economic collapse, with a report from Ibec's retail division suggesting consumers would spend €4 billion in December alone.
  • Bad customer service and poorly made goods cost Irish consumers half a billion euro every year, according to the new Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. It also found that one in 10 Irish consumers spent more than 10 hours trying to resolve consumer problems, with almost 50 per cent of all issues never resolved in any way by companies.
  • The price of crude oil on international markets slumped to four-year lows. From July until December, the price of a barrel of oil fell by about $40. This led to a net transfer of income from energy-producing countries to global consumers of $1.5 trillion a year. Irish consumers have not benefited all that much from the decline in prices. "I think the best consumers can hope for are small decreases, because so much of the cost of the price of fuel here is tax," said the AA's Conor Faughnan.