With small businesses across Australia increasingly under threat from the games that can be played by shopping centre landlords, franchisors and larger businesses, it’s certainly time for all small businesses to have access to an independent small business commissioner in their particular state or territory.
With Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, and New South Wales all having a state-based small business commissioner to help their small businesses, businesses in Tasmania, Queensland, the North Territory and the ACT are certainly missing out on the considerable benefits that a state or territory small business commissioner could bring at very little cost.
And no one should get too excited about the so-called new federal Small Business Commissioner. We have had lots of talk of a federal small business commissioner during the year, but it has only just been created. Obviously the Federal Labor Government is a big talker.
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Have you ever thought about what consumers want from their shopping experience?
Well, identifying what consumers are looking for every time they go shopping is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, different consumers may want different things from their shopping experience.
Why would you shop at a bricks and mortar store or a shopping centre when you can buy the same product at a much lower price online? And online retailers don’t just have a considerable price advantage over bricks and mortar stores. Online retailers can offer a much broader range of products.
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We always hear about how important small business is to the economy, but we don’t often hear about governments standing up for small businesses when it comes to effective competition and consumer laws. Why? Quite simply because small businesses are all too often the ignored members of our society.
The small business sector is a big employer and small business people put in some of the longest working hours operating their businesses. They can be super efficient because it’s their money on the line. There are no corporate overheads or bloated performance bonuses because the money they make is generally put back into the business.
Small businesses survive on their excellent customer service and help drive innovation and product choice in their chosen areas of the economy. While they keep the big players honest, they can be victims of abuses of market or contractual power by those big players.
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Are you fed up with paying more and getting less for a whole range of goods or services? Are you getting annoyed with the constant increases you face on basic necessities such as electricity, gas water, mortgages, and even car parking?
With survey after survey revealing how much financial stress that Australian families are being put under, it’s time that all governments, starting with the Federal Government, start doing something about the escalating cost of living.
What can be done? Well, two things stand out. First, Governments need to make sure that they don’t increase taxes and charges and where possible they should be actually reducing taxes. The harsh reality is that struggling Aussie families are being bombarded by hikes in Federal taxes and fees and now face the prospect of new taxes such as the so-called carbon tax.
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So the ACCC has allowed another acquisition that over time will be detrimental to competition and consumers.
If you were not otherwise distracted by the upcoming extended long Easter/ANZAC day weekend, you would have noticed that last Thursday the ACCC put out a media release stating that it will not be opposing the Woolworths acquisition of the Cellarmasters Liquor Group.
Now apart from sending out the release just before a long weekend where for obvious reasons less media attention would be given to the ACCC failure to act, the ACCC’s decision not to oppose the Woolworths acquisition is not surprising. In fact, the ACCC only opposes a tiny number of mergers and acquisitions under our existing competition laws.
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Walking down the aisle of the average supermarket, the local shopper is bombarded with labels claiming a whole range of virtues including the Australian-ness of their product.
“Manufactured in Australia”, “Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients” and “Australian Owned” are just some of the catchcries that food manufactures use to get our attention and convince us to buy their product. This is an effective marketing tool, evidenced by explosions of claims on labels that line our supermarket shelves. But as always the devil is in the detail. Or - when it comes to food labelling - the devil is in the definition.
Australian consumers want to buy Australian-grown food not only to support Australian farmers but also because they have confidence in the standard and quality of food products grown and packaged in their own backyard. Often the Australian-ness catchcries touted on food labels are not clear and can be extremely misleading, making it difficult for the consumer to determine which part, if any, of the product was indeed grown in Australia.
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With Australia continuing to have some of the fastest growing food prices in the developed world, you have to wonder if Australian consumers are being milked by the major supermarket chains.
After all, Coles and Woolworths control over 87% of Australian supermarkets over 2,000 square metres. That clearly gives them plenty of market power which allows them to push up grocery prices and hence Australia’s food inflation.
Sometimes, however, they keep us guessing about their real agenda. So while we are hearing a lot about fresh milk prices coming down, we don’t hear much about what’s happening with other prices being charged elsewhere in the supermarket or at petrol bowsers linked to Coles or Woolworths.
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The Communications Alliance and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association got one thing right in their recent assessment of Australian “customer management”; there are a significant number of “problem areas” in their industry but they’ve got nothing to do with our collective inability as customers to understand “how things work”. Customer service dropped dead in this country a long time ago, we just took too long to see the warning signs.
Consumer affairs writer, Natasha Bita reported in yesterday’s Australian that although they admit to having a problem with keeping their customers happy, Australia’s telcos are refusing to agree to legislation that would bind them to “minimum levels of customer service” for fear it would make them “inefficient, confusing and undesirable”.
That’s an interesting choice of words for an industry that received 215,154 complaints to the Ombudsman from consumers last financial year. Not to mention a fairly apt description of the current status quo.
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While enjoying a nice Saturday afternoon news came through that Julia had announced her new ministry. Immediately this author combed through the list looking for the name of the new competition minister. Alas, there was no specific mention of competition on the list of portfolio responsibilities. Nor was there specific reference to consumer affairs on the portfolio list.
Now that’s disappointing. Was the omission of an express mention of competition and consumer policy an oversight? Or was there an implication that these were not considered sufficiently important in the new Labor minority Government?
Well there is an old saying that if you have a choice between a conspiracy or a stuff up, then you first go for the stuff up. That makes sense as references to conspiracies usually attract suggestions of paranoia. So let’s stick to the possible stuff up theory.
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Have you ever wondered where you can buy the cheapest petrol or groceries? Well, if you have, then you would know that such information is not readily available.
You may try and search for the information, but in Australia you will soon find that there is generally no single place to get it. Yes, there may be some pricing information out there but it may be very limited, out of date or not in a readily accessible form.
In practice, this lack of full price transparency places you, the consumer, at a severe disadvantage. How many times have you driven by a petrol station offering one price only to find another service station down the road offering a cheaper price? What if you had decided to go into the first service station to buy your petrol only to later drive by the cheaper service station down the road? We have all been there and felt ripped off in the process.
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We don’t torture people in this country. Instead we allow large telecommunications providers to roam the malls and high streets where they sign people up to what are euphemistically called ‘service contracts’.
These service contracts entitle the telco to subject those same people to cruel and unusual treatment designed to disorient them, make them doubt their senses and generally elicit feelings of such helplessness that people begin to identify with the telco and renew their contract.
I speak from experience. Last month, my wife’s BlackBerry went bung so I returned it to an Optus store. Despite having a large ‘Optus Yes’ sign out the front, the message from the staff inside was ‘Optus No’.
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If it wasn’t enough that Australians consistently face some of the fastest growing food prices in the developed world as a result of the dominance of Coles and Woolworths, the major banks have decided to join the price gouging club.
With the Commonwealth Bank showing strong profit growth and Westpac announcing a profit upgrade, it’s clear the four major banks are some of most profitable in the world. Profitable banks are a good thing I hear you say. Yes, but profiteering banks are not a good thing for the economy and consumers. When does profitable become profiteering?
Simple. It’s when competition has diminished to a point where the four major banks can raise interest rates at will. It’s competition that keeps everyone honest and where that competition is removed the remaining players can price gouge. It doesn’t take an economics degree to work that out.
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One of the Rudd government’s appealing election commitments two years ago was to act on supermarket prices.
Once in power they asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to examine competition in the supermarket sector and promised to establish a web site to provide price information to consumers so they could better choose where to shop.
As then Consumer Affairs Minister Chris Bowen said in the first few months of office: “One of the things we’re trying to do, is give consumers much more information, and when you’ve got more information you’re back in charge. When you’re driving around trying to work out where the cheapest supermarket is, then really, you’re not in charge.”
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In the run up to Father’s Day the electrical stores are spruiking like it’s Christmas. You can be sure that along with any of the hot deals from digital cameras to TVs will come one innocent –sounding question.
At the very point of sale when you’re about to hand over the cash for dad’s gift you’ll be asked “Would you like an extended warranty with that?”
It sounds simple enough. An few extra years’ “protection” for a hundred bucks or so, depending on the price of the item.
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Big retailers are scared, it was reported this morning, to say what they think about the checkout-counter effects of the Federal Government’s plan to help save the planet with its emissions trading scheme.
The supermarkets are worried they will enrage environmentally-conscious customers if they dare to so much as suggest there might be some unpleasant side-effects to the ETS.
In case you’ve missed it, The Australian reported retailers are worried the cost of groceries will go up, by about 5 per cent, under the Rudd Government’s plan.
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