Friday, 19 February 2010

Best of British?

A while back, I was rooting round in Sainsbury’s when I spotted this and my Informed Consumer attenae started to bleep:

I checked the back and, apparently, its “Made in Ireland from imported chicken”. The beef dinner is “made in Britain from imported beef”. This proved to be true for each and every item in the range. None of the meat was produced in the UK. I emailed Birds Eye about this and received what I now gather to be a standard response (it subsequently turned out that quite a lot of other people had been emailing them about this as well

Birds Eye were eventually shamed into redesigning the packaging and removing the words "Great British Menu"

Well, now Sainsbury’s are at exactly the same game. Their “British Classic” range features the Union Jack prominently in the design. Problem is that the meat in the Shepherds Pie and the Liver and Bacon is New Zealand Lamb.

The Genie from Sainsbury’s Careline was summoned and responded:

Thanks for your email. I'm sorry you find our description of shepherds pie as a British Classic to be misleading. I can appreciate how concerning this must be for you, and I'd like to assure you this was not our intention.

The description on the packaging is very clear. The dish itself is a British classic, and not all of the ingredients used in the pie are British. The country of origin for the mince used is stated on the packaging.
which is exactly the same line that Birds Eye were spinning. How long do you think it will be before Sainsbury's are forced to back down in the same way that Birds Eye were?  Watch this space, and remember you heard it here first.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ring ring!

BT is pushing back the time from which customers can make free evening calls, from 6pm to 7pm, in a move that could infuriate millions of customers.

News of the change is buried in letters and emails sent out to customers this week, entitled "Important information about your BT service". The letters say that the end point for the free evening call period will also move back, from 6am to 7am.

Although the change, to be implemented on 1 April 2010, only involves a move of one hour, it is unlikely to go down well with the 10 million BT customers who have signed up for packages that include free evening calls. Only those on the Anytime package will be unaffected.

Even though the move is likely to result in more people paying for calls, a spokesman for BT said the company still felt it was offering customers a good deal.

"We've looked into it and 6pm to 7pm is a busy time for calling, but it's the time when people make short, organisational calls," he said. "It's between 8pm and 9pm when they sit down to have a chat."

The first three quarters of the email sent to customers outlines the details of their account that are not changing, such as being able to make 0845 and 0870 calls at no extra cost, depending on the type of plan they have.

But, tucked away at the bottom, it says: "We are also making some changes to your BT service. We'd also like to make you aware of some changes to our prices, terms and conditions, effective from 1st April 2010. These include changing what we define as the evening call period for all types of calls: at the moment from 6pm-6am, but changing to 7pm-7am."

At the same time BT is raising the call set-up fee for non-inclusive calls (those you have to pay for outside your free plan calls) from 9.3p to 9.9p a call, while the cost of calls made during the daytime will increase from 5.4p a minute to 5.9p a minute. These charge changes will not apply to BT Basic, Light User Scheme and In-Contact Plus customers.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Ghastly Gas Bills

The gas bill plopped into The Informed Consumer’s inbox recently.
Prompt Payment Reminder

Dear Informed Consumer,
A quick reminder that if you pay your latest Gas bill by 01 Feb 2010 you will qualify for a prompt payment discount* on your next bill.

The easiest way to pay and receive your prompt payment discount is to log on to your online account to pay your bill, or go to and enter your Customer Reference Number and payment details.
Thank you for choosing British Gas. We’re delighted you’re one of our customers [yes, so am I, now where’s my discount to show me how delighted you actually are?]
Yours sincerely

Tim Copper
Managing Director, Online

Now, if there’s something that The Informed Consumer likes, it’s money off something. Particularly when its been a rotten winter and the gas bill is sky-high. It was then that I noted that pesky little asterisk after the words “prompt payment discount”. Right at the bottom of the email, in considerably smaller print (in fact, it was so small that I had difficulty making it out and had to go find my glasses in order to peer short-sightedly at the screen), the asterisk revealed:
*Does not apply to all tariffs. If you are eligible we will tell you below the line which contains your 'please pay by date' on your next bill. See your next bill or visit for details.
Ah. This discount business is obviously slightly more complicated than I had thought. Not everyone gets it. And I can’t check whether or not I can get it because that bit of information will be on my next bill. I logged on to in order to investigate further, where I was told:
Which tariffs/long term contracts are not eligible for the Prompt Pay discount?
Price Protection Feb 2009
Price Protection April 2009
Price Protection 2010
Price Promise
Price Guarantee 2009
Price Protection 2009
Fixed Price 2010 (v1 & 2)
Price Guarantee 2009 Green
Fixed Price2011
Fixed Price2012

So, quite a few tariffs are excluded. Unfortunately, because my bill arrives online, nowhere does it state what tariff I’m on.

More information:
What is the Prompt Pay discount?
From 19 February we’re introducing a prompt payment discount for some customers on quarterly payment options. And eligible gas and electricity customers will have this discount applied to their next bill if they pay in full within 14 days of the bill date.
Note that sneaky “if they pay in full”.
Which payment options are eligible for the Prompt Pay discount?
Quarterly cash/cheque
Quarterly variable direct debit
Quarterly equal payments.
Whoa! Hold those horses! So the Prompt Pay discount is only available if you pay by those three methods. The only way I can pay a bill which is sent to me by email is by debit card. That final payment option means that you don't ever "pay in full" - the annual cost of your gas is averaged out over four separate quarterly payments.  The bill for the winter quarter won't be met by your quarterly payment - the unpaid balance is carried over and added to your spring bill.  When that payment goes through, it clears the remainder of the winter bill and deducts the rest from your spring bill, which is presumably a lot lower 'cos its got warmer outside in the interim.
What about online/paperless bills?The Prompt Pay discount applies to both paper and online/paperless bills.
Hang on, I’ve already mentioned that you can’t pay a paperless bill by cash or cheque, quarterly variable direct debit or quarterly equal payments (which are made by direct debit). So it was with glee that I sent them an email setting out the problem and finishing with:
“None of which payment options are open to me if I want to pay my entire quarterly bill all in one go online with my debit card. Which I imagine the very vast majority of your customers will want to do. So its rather pointless trumpeting in an email that I can receive a discount, isnt it, when the only payment options open to me are not ones that can be made by anyone receiving an online bill?”
At the bottom of the online enquiry form was written:

If you contact us by email, we'll get back to you within 3 days
Thank you for contacting us.
The automatic receipt for my question I got a minute or so later read:
Your complaint has been assigned to the Online Complaint Handling team to begin an immediate investigation and they will be in touch with you within the next 7 days.
So, not within 3 days then? Within 7.
Five days later the following dropped into my inbox.
"I have spoken to our Technical team and they are now in the process of updating our website to include all methods of payments. This update should be taking effect shortly [but not before all this quarter's bills have been paid, presumably - don't want everyone who pays online to be clamouring for their discount, do we?] and I am happy to email you again once this has gone live online. I would also like to thank you for bringing this issue to my attention to allow me to rectify our online information."
So, will all those customers who were actually entitled to receive their prompt payment discount but didn't claim it because they were under the impression that they couldn’t get it because they didn't pay by one of the three options listed (none of which are available to you if you get your bill online )get their discount? What do you think?

I emailed them back on this point and look forward to receiving their reply. Within 3 or 7 working days depending on what part of the website you happen to be reading at the time.

Oh, and what did the Prompt Payment discount turn out to be? The one that I got because I embarrassed them into admitting that their website information was out of date and potentially excluding all those thousands of customers from getting their discount?  £2.70. Its a small victory for The Informed Consumer. But a victory nonetheless.

And another thing.  To get my discount, British Gas told me that I would have to pay by 1st February.  Yet the website says:  From 19 February we’re introducing a prompt payment discount. So they're starting their discount scheme 18 days after the cut off point for making a payment.  Everybody's rushed to make their payments on time to get their discount.  But the discount scheme doesn't start until 18 days after the last date for payments to be made in order to receive the discount.  I emailed them about that, too.

BE AN INFORMED CONSUMER.  Always make time to go through the small print and challenge any seeming inconsistency in the "rules".  Which have been created by Them and which often turn out to be incredibly self-serving.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Tea up!

You know, its amazing what examples of deliberate misleading of consumers start to become apparent once you start looking for them.  Needing tea bags today, I wandered into the local 99p Store where this packet caught my attention:

Turning the box over, we find the line "A refreshing blend of the finest Indian and African teas".  Erm... so no tea from Ireland then?  I actually know a fair bit about tea and its history, and I can assure you that tea has never and will never be grown in The Emerald Isle because their climate is completely wrong.  And that tea would certainly have been too expensive for the residents of the croft on the box to be drinking with breakfast or with any other meal for that matter.  Finally, tea would have been synonymous with the English for most of Ireland's history and therefore shunned.

The tea makes it way from India and Africa to Winthrop, a manufacturing town in Massachussets, USA (still nowhere near Ireland, although relatively close to Boston, home of the famous Tea Party) where it is blended and packaged, then shipped to the UK (rather than Ireland) where it is distributed by a company called Chelsea Foods, who are based in Essex (which is nowhere near Chelsea and not Ireland either).  The only connection I can see that this product has with Ireland is that its in a Kelly Green box with a picture of a small cottage which could be anywhere but which is obviously meant to be an Irish croft.  Oh, and the fact that the US blenders are called Shamrock Foods.  By the looks of their factory, there ain't many shamrocks, begorrah:

So, African and Indian tea.  USA blenders.  UK distributors.  All of which adds up to so much Irishness that its practically Guinness by the time it reaches your cup.  Not.

I did some research and this is what Wikipedia threw up:
Irish Breakfast tea is a full-bodied, malty brew. It is a blend of several black teas; most often Assam teas and, less often, other types of black tea.
Some of the brands of Irish Breakfast tea include Barry's, Bewley's, Republic of Tea, Twinings, Taylors of Harrogate, Stash Tea Company, Fortnum and Mason, Mark T. Wendell, Harney & Sons, and Upton Tea Imports. All of these and many other companies create their own blends of Irish Breakfast tea.
In Ireland, it is not referred to as "Irish Breakfast tea", but simply as "tea". It is enjoyed throughout the day and evening.
Interesting.  So, while Earl Grey and English Breakfast Teas are established, recognised blends which are protected under the Trades Description Act (meaning Earl Grey is Earl Grey regardless of where in the world it is blended or bought because its always exactly the same blend of tea), "Irish Breakfast" is a nominal name for any blend which you might care to chuck together.  Different brands of Irish Tea will taste different because each company basically make up their own recipe.

The last sentence is revealing.  Even the Irish don't refer to it as "Irish Breakfast Tea" - and they drink it all day.  So it has nothing specifically to do with breakfast.  Or indeed the Irish.  Unless its in a Kelly Green box with a shamrock on it, of course.

This is a job for the guys over at Honest Labelling.
I did, in the interests of fairness, email both Shamrock Foods and Chelsea Foods.  Shamrock refuted that the product was actually theirs and said that "there must be another company called Shamrock Foods".  In the same town?  Riiiiight. 

Chelsea Foods' "response" consisted merely of cutting and pasting the Wikipedia entry quoted above into an email, ending with the incrediby rude final line "As for your comments regarding the affordability of the people [sic] living in the Croft House on the front of the box, can I ask how you would know?"  Simple, Mr. Keith Mead from Chelsea Foods.  Tea and its relative price over the centuries just happens to be something about which I know quite a lot.  So, Rule #1 of responding to requests for information - don't assume that your customer is ignorant of the facts. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Bloody broccoli

The offending sign has been permanently replaced with one simply extolling the virtues of broccoli.  Thing is, if "British Broccoli is in-season", why isn't there any for sale?

According to a message left on my answering machine by the Genie from Sainsbury's Careline, the higher price of Basics Broccoli is "due to the requirement for processing and packaging".

This issue isn't dead yet, methinks...........

Coming soon to The Informed Consumer:
The Gas Board
The Rainforest Alliance, Galaxy and OrangUtans
Plastic bags
Tea bags

If there's a consumer issue you feel strongly about, drop me a note!

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Even more bother about broccoli

I swear that, one day soon, I'm going to be banned from my local branch of Sainsbury's.  I went in again today to pick up some bits and pieces I forgot yesterday and found myself once more in the vicinity of the broccoli.  Proudly displayed above was an enormous sign, designed to look as if the words and pictures had been written on a blackboard with chalk.  "BRITISH BROCCOLI!"  it announced.  "Fresh and in-season!"

Well, it was like a red rag to a bull. I stood there and peered at the "Country of Origin" label on every bin of broccoli under the sign.  Without exception, it had all come from Spain.  I called over a member of staff.  "Where's the British broccoli?"  I asked.  His quick scan of the shelves revealed the awful truth.  There was none.  "Well", he said, "we can't sell any if we haven't got any.....".  "So", I replied, gesturing to the sign, "why is that up then?"  He took the sign down. 

I'm going back in a couple of hours to see if they have put it up again. 

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Bothered about broccoli

Suddenly, something came over me.  I got fed up with the excuses and the waffle, and decided to take matters into my own hands.  I came home, dumped the shopping in the hall and set up this blog.

I was shopping in Sainsbury's this afternoon.  Not an unusual occurence, although I find since the opening of a couple of Pound Shops in the High Street, I spend less and less time (and consequently a heck of a lot less money) in there.  I'd actually gone in there to ask about their bread (more on this another time) and got sidetracked buying vegetables.  Onions, potatoes, a few mushrooms....and some broccoli.  Specifically "Basics" Broccoli.

Now, everyone knows the definition of "basic".  Bog standard, no-frills, the plainest version.  The lowest level in the scale that starts at the top with "Premium", then "Superior" then "Standard".....and then Basic.  A range defined by Sainsbury's on their website: "A range of Sainsbury's quality food and grocery at low prices, helping budget-conscious shoppers lower the cost of their weekly shop".  The florets were packed in a plastic bag and, frankly, didn't really look that great.  A bit limp, perhaps, and quite small.  But hey - "Basics".  You get what you pay for, after all.  Not nearly so nice-looking as those big, green, firm heads of broccoli in the crate immediately to the  right.  Still, they're probably much more expensive. 

But there, in a tiny black font somewhat smaller than the one you are now reading and very difficult indeed to pick out against the dark purple background of that part of the label, was the price of the "Basics" bag of broccoli.  £2.63 per kg.  And the price on the label on the crate of the other stuff?  Those big, green, firm heads of broccoli in the crate immediately to the right?  £1.97 per kg.  66p cheaper per kg than the Basics range. 

"This can't be right" I thought, and waved at a staff member.  I explained it to her and she admitted that she couldn't understand it either. She summoned "someone from the vegetable department" who, frankly, looked like she spent her spare time ripping the heads off puppies for fun.  She looked at me like I was a piece of dirt on a tomato and summoned "the Manager of the Vegetables".  I explained again.  Ah, said the Manager of the Vegetables, Basics Broccoli comes from, you know, broccoli that isn't from plants of the same standard.  The skinny ones, the rejected ones, the ones that haven't really made the grade.  But, I replied, why then is it more expensive than the stuff that has made the grade?  You know, the free-range broccoli stalks that have been lovingly tucked into their beds each night by a Sainsbury's Manager.  The broccoli that's had its picture taken on the Log Flume at Alton Towers?  Oh, she said, that comes from Spain.  But, I pointed out, the "Country of Origin" label on the "Basics" broccoli also says..... Spain.  Oh, she said.  I don't know, she said. I'll take it up with the Buyer she said.  And, without bothering to say goodbye or take my contact details, the Manager of the Vegetables walked off to shout at a couple of cucumbers who were larking about in the loading bay. 

So, I came home and summoned up the Genie from the "Sainsbury's Careline".  I repeated the story and the question: why is Basics Broccoli more expensive, kg for kg than the non-Basics broccoli?  "A possbile labelling error" was the Genie's only offered theory.  My theory: IT'S A FIDDLE.  That's why the price per kg is in such small, black type against such a dark background.  They're counting on the fact that people will automatically assume that the "Basics" range is better value for money. 

He promised to have someone investigate and call me back.  That was an hour ago. We'll see how long it takes them to respond and what they say.