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The customer is always right

During the road-trip,(4700km in just over a fortnight),  it was a joy to listen to Radio 4, most of the way up through France, and of course in the UK. Of several snippets that captured my interest was an interview with Lady/Baroness X  (sorry, both title and name elude me) on the harmonisation of European Consumer Rights. (And no I can’t find it on the Beeb either). I’m fairly sure I recognised her name from reading http://lordsoftheblog.net

In the UK, consumer rights are pretty well protected, with most large retailers, and often smaller concerns too, offering customer service that exceeds the statutory requirements. For example most will happily let you take clothes back, just because you didn’t like the colour, with the proviso that all the sales labels are still attached. I once took a very expensive party dress back, because the fabric went weird after washing. (And no, it wasn’t labelled dry-clean only, I’m not that cheeky!).

If a product is faulty the customer can insist on a full refund, after all if Brand X washing machine breaks down after a week, the consumer is hardly likely to trust the same make and model as a replacement. It showed that we’ve been living in France for too long, when we took Mother’s set-top box, which started misbehaving within 2 days of purchase back to the retailer fully prepared to do battle (UK TV is going digital), only to find them offering us the next model up to compensate for the inconvenience. In the end we changed make and model.

Over here I’ve lost count of the number of lifeless gadgets cluttering up the house that seem pre-programmed to give up the ghost as soon as they leave the shop. I’m informed that our house insurance covers lawyers fees, but who in their right mind would want to go through that sort of hassle for a toaster!   (The way I got ripped off when buying this laptop is another example of Customer Service à la française).

In fairness I must say that things have improved greatly in recent years – the local supermarket made no fuss when I took back an MP3 that didn’t work – well I say no fuss, they said it was the OS on my computer, but when I pointed out that I’d tried it with Windows 2000, XP and Vista, and that if they wanted I’d go home and try it on 98 & 95 they shrugged gallicly and admitted defeat. (another gallic trait, je taquine).

In short, UK consumer protection regulations, let alone the retail practices that go beyond them, outclass the rest of Europe by a long shot.  And, in order to standardise rights across Europe, the British consumer would have to forego some of their legal rights.

Given where I live, despite the myriad petty annoyances, it should come as no surprise that I am pro-European.  And in general I’m in favour of harmonising regulations across the EU as the whole economic point, setting aside the political for now (if not forever), is to free up the movement of goods, services and people, but why oh why can’t we cherry pick the best bits of each countries legislation rather than the citizens of country X having to lose hard-won rights.

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6 Responses

  1. Losing rights is less of an issue methinks than their non-adoption and non-enforcement. The UK is reputed to adopt and then do a pretty good job (even goldplating), meanwhile blaming Brussels in the event of any blowback. That’s despite having participated in the decisions; Brussels is endlessly convenient as a whipping boy.

    Some continental neighbours don’t enact agreed legislation, don’t apply if they do or do so in way that defeats the entire point of it.

    Still, things are changing. I think the growth of transnational corporations in Europe such as non-UK banks in the UK is a good thing. But the poor old British worker works the longest hours for the poorest deal socially and will be working longer hours in future to get out from under the increased taxation after the next election.

    For what it’s woth the 2006 Companies Act represents a decisive break with the traditional so-called Anglo-Saxon (/American) model of capitalism, red in tooth and claw, and adopts a VERY European approach…. (consultation with workers, social and environmental obligations) and it will NOT be undone any time soon.

    Mark Mardell has a good farewell to Brussels podcast on his BBC blog.

  2. I agree with you about the differing styles of implementation and about ‘our’ using Brouxelles as a bouc-émissaire, however I think, especially given the UK’s fraught somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards the EU, that curtailing citizen’s right is not the way to go.
    I have a really ***ty time of it here when things don’t work as they should, more often with services than with goods nowadays, and watching Watchdog from time to time I do realise that the UK is not perfect, but it’s a darned sight better than here. The larger the corporation the more they treat the customer as an annoyance, at best, a piece of manure at worst.Have experienced examples far too numerous to go into here – food for another post methinks.

  3. But where do you see citizen’s rights being curtailed (other than by the surveillance state)?

    Everybody likes to complain about bad service but believe it or not WE LIKE IT

    http://business.theatlantic.com/2009/08/we_prefer_bad_customer_service.php

    Saying the UK is schizophrenic about the EU is putting it very kindly. My impression is far worse than that and I am convinced that the bulk of the UK population is about as rational and well informed on the issue as the birthers are about Obama and that the UK is quite likely to leave within a few years. I hope to be wrong but I wouldn’t bet against this just now.

    Unfortunately there is nobody lampooning stupidity in the UK in the way that Bill Maher and Jon Stewart do in the US.

  4. Mm, cutting nose off to spite face is an English proverb that I haven’t yet found an equivalent to in French or German, so it may be a national trait. The trouble is that no-one is explaining to the populace that as 60% of our trade is with the EU and that the majority of EU legislation is advantageous to us etc. It’s one of those issues, like the death penalty, where politicians have to ignore the will of the majority in the national interest. That’s a thorny issue in it’s own right.

  5. Things have undoubtedly improved in France. I broke two of the wheels off my desk chair and sent my husband (yes, I know, coward that I am) to replace them. To my amazement he didn’t have to ask, they were replaced without question.

    Compare that to the time, 15 years ago, when our car had a failure of a part that had just been replaced during a service. They just kept blocking us and blocking us, ignoring letters, saying it was impossible, and we ended up defeated.

  6. Yes things have improved greatly, but I still find myself psyching up to do battle when problems occur, anticipating the hurdles to come. (Is that why you sent your husband?) It’s still a pleasant surprise when there’s no hassle, whereas ‘back home’ ( a phrase I tend to use more in the UK referring to here) there’s no emotional preparation needed and it takes me aback if a retailer isn’t helpful. In short, French retailers are getting there, some even being better than in the UK – certainly for getting advice the staff often actually know about their product, but the service industry still leaves a lot to be desired.

    Just posted your Darwin post.

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