Keep consumer flag flying

30 October 2016 - 02:00 By MEGAN POWER

Six years ago, almost to the day, I opened up a conversation with you - the Sunday Times reader.

You started talking to me immediately and, to your credit and my delight, you've never stopped.

It confirmed two things for me: that consumers were being treated badly; and that the need for a consumer column in this newspaper, after an absence of many years, was huge.

And so began an incredible journey. It came just months before the powerful Consumer Protection Act came into play; a remarkable piece of legislation that has been a triumph for the rights of ordinary people.

It came as readers, mistreated by retailers, service providers and manufacturers, had given up hope of being heard, much less recognised and respected - let alone refunded.

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Since this column was launched (initially in the Business Times) in 2010, I have interacted with tens of thousands of people from every corner of this country, all needing an ally in taking a stand against consumer abuse.

At a time when many feel helpless in the face of rising unemployment, rampant crime, educational crises and government corruption, clawing power back, no matter how seemingly mundane, has been immensely empowering.

And that's exactly what we've done together, with the CPA in hand.

From challenging repudiated insurance claims and dodgy cellphone bills to unsavoury banking practices and defective goods - and everything in-between - consumers have staked their claim.

I stopped counting the amount of money won back for consumers way back in 2012, soon after it hit the R2-million mark.

But consumers have gained far more than hard cash; they've regained lost ground and redefined the rules of play.

A lot of it is about principle. And while lawyers are quick to remind me that legal battles are not fought or won on principle, day-to-day consumer skirmishes often are.

But instead of helping to right wrongs after the fact - after much angst, cost and time on the part of consumers - there's a case to be made for fixing things at source, before they go wrong.

And that's my next move. To descend, some would say, into the belly of the beast. Several in this case. Not to kill, but to guide. And hopefully make them more agreeable animals for consumers to deal with.

I reckon my years of listening to your stories, and resolving your complaints, have given me some unique insights into what consumers want from the customer journey.

So this is my final column. There'll no doubt be suppliers out there glad to see the back of me.

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They're the ones who pay lip service to consumer protection, go on the defensive when they're called out on their shortcomings, and view complaining consumers with contempt.

The ones who fail to grasp that the CPA - although having heralded an extraordinary shift in the balance of power between business and consumers - is in their long-term interests too.

They're also likely to be among the shameful group of noncompliant businesses that refuse, despite being eligible and legally bound, to participate in the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud scheme; an exceptionally efficient office accredited under the act as an alternative dispute resolution channel.

Fortunately, there are many businesses that actually want to get it right, if for no other reason than to improve their profits. These are the ones that have listened, learnt, and changed policy based on what consumers have had to say.

They'll keep doing so if consumers continue to speak out.

This newspaper, for one, will keep the consumer flag flying. With social media alongside traditional media, consumers now have unprecedented platforms from which to force change. All we have to do is keep the conversation going.

For any consumer-related issues, please e-mail readers@sundaytimes.co.za

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