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August 23, 2009

You might as well sell all your stocks and shares in online retailers. If the OFT is serious about its study of pricing and advertising on the Internet, there will be no sellers left – hardly anybody plays fair.

Take my weekend shopping experiences, one sparked by a TV advert and online info and one sparked by a specially e-mailed voucher.

The voucher promised 15% off ‘everything’ at a DIY store and, believe me, the word ‘everything’ was in very large type. So large in fact that it had acquired a new meaning. In this very special context, ‘everything’ meant ‘lots of things, but not the thing you just drove to the shop specially to buy’.

The second trip arose from a very widely advertised special price that turned out to be available only to holders of discount cards, the said cards being available for a fee. That crucial fact was clear enough in the store but very well hidden online and you’d have needed the eyes of an eagle and the speed reading skills of Spock to spot it in the TV ad.

While both of these experiences ended happily – the first because the DIY store staff had had a long day and didn’t want to argue and the second because the great British public doesn’t like small print (‘here mate, use mine’) – they only served to reinforce my deep-seated suspicion of online retailers. I would call it retail paranoia, but they really are out to get me. The strange thing is that, because price is king in online sales, most people are refusing to be put off and just accept that marketing includes big fat lies.

Of course it is not just online. My favourite example of the ignored lie is that any product you buy that is meant for cooking (pan, oven, barbecue etc) will tell you that you should clean it only with ‘warm soapy water’, perhaps using a nylon brush for the more stubborn stains. I tried cleaning my barbecue in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions (‘splash with a little lavender water and caress with a merino wool cloth’ or words to that effect) but it didn’t work too well. Nobody believes these lies and they are routinely ignored. Most people have a similar view of online pricing but I don’t think that the OFT will be as cynically dismissive as the general public and we may well see a revolution and honest pricing may rule. Fat chance.

But it would actually be worth a try. In the world of e-commerce (and politics of course), public cynicism is at such a pervasive level that any company that can overcome would prosper. Sadly, even those that I would once have trusted seem too often to be persuaded by the ‘lowest price is king’ philosophy into headline offers that don’t really stack up.

In my view, the OFT might be better advised to expend its resources on enforcement than conduct a study which will tell us what we already know. There is a lack of effective enforcement even though any number of unfair practices can be readily established.

I could go on and identify more misleading practices and descriptions but I fear I would start sounding like Victor Meldrew. In any case the ‘self-cleaning oven’ wants a hand getting back into the oven housing.

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