Just you wait: Consumers on the warpath

Woe betide ye corporations, consumer power is on the rise. When it comes to cheques they might have lost the battle but consumers look likely to win the war, experts and advocates tell Bruce Munro.

Former Dunedin Anglican minister Ian Nelson (91) feels ‘‘absolutely gutted’’ by the imminent...
Former Dunedin Anglican minister Ian Nelson (91) feels ‘‘absolutely gutted’’ by the imminent demise of bank cheques. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
At 91, Ian Nelson, for the first time in his life, feels redundant.

Thanks to banks ending cheques this month, one of the few things the retired church minister can still do to help around the house is being stripped from him.

Nelson got his first chequebook at the age of 22, when he started as a teacher at Cheviot District High School, Canterbury, in 1952.

Until a year ago, as he and wife Mary raised six children and he worked, first as a teacher and then as an Anglican vicar in six parishes including Waikouaiti and Green Island, followed by an enjoyable retirement, cheques were how he managed the finances. Utilities, purchases, bills, repairs, charities — it was all paid and accounted for by cheque.

"There was no other way to do it," Nelson says.

A runner and a hiker, even in retirement, his legs have lost strength in recent years. A lot of time is now spent sitting. But at least he could still help by getting the bills paid.

Then, he heard that banks planned to curtail cheques by the end of June this year. It was a blow.

But he has tried to adapt.

"Last year, with the help of a grand-daughter, we got quite a few of the bills on to direct debit," he says.

With cheques disappearing in less than a fortnight, internet banking a mystery to the nonagenarian couple and neither of them now driving, Nelson feels at a loss to know how they will be able to continue to support some of their chosen charities and how they will pay for expenses such as tradespeople’s repairs.

But perhaps the biggest impact is the sense, not just of helplessness but uselessness.

"I feel absolutely gutted," he says.

"Why have the banks done this? It’s not as though they aren’t making a good profit.

"I’m reminded that the love of money is the root of all evil. Not money, but the love of money."

Prof Robert Aitken, Marketing Department, University of Otago.  PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Prof Robert Aitken, Marketing Department, University of Otago. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Decidedly more upbeat is Robert Aitken, who is speaking by phone just a couple of days after his inaugural professorial lecture.

A newly minted professor in the University of Otago’s marketing department, his main areas of research are the negative impacts of marketing on children and the tension businesses face between making a profit and addressing social concerns.

Consumers might have lost the battle to retain cheques, but they will win the war to bring business practice in line with their wishes, he asserts.

"I think consumers have increasingly more power," Prof Aitken says.

"More power and more commitment to wanting change.

"Consumers expect more openness, more transparency, they expect to know what a company stands for.

"These trends were happening anyway, but Covid has accelerated that."

He points to the 2019 banning of single-use plastic bags.

Plastic bags, he says, became a touchstone for concern about the environment.

"They were a clear example of absolute wastage that was unnecessary.

"It was a very direct opportunity for people to say ‘hold on a minute, we don’t need that’."

Taking a less triumphant but still positive stance is Gemma Rasmussen, head of campaigns for Consumer NZ.

Consumers have been winning some victories for decades, but they now need more help than ever to make their voices heard, Rasmussen says.

She cites safety improvements to prams as an example.

In the 1970s, after several toddlers died in "mousetrap" pram accidents, voluntary safety standards became compulsory.

"Today, prams for sale are held to a higher safety standard than ever before."

In this 2018 photograph, plastic bag free campaigners Sophie Ward and 
...
In this 2018 photograph, plastic bag free campaigners Sophie Ward and Gina Dempster, of Wanaka, jump for joy over the Government's announcement that single-use plastic bags would be banned in New Zealand by mid-2019. PHOTO: ODT FILES
But while legal protection for consumers has increased, so too have the complexities, Rasmussen adds.

Protecting our data and privacy, shielding ourselves from complex scamming and the conundrum of not always being able to make informed, ethical, and sustainable purchasing decisions are among the challenges consumers face.

"Consumers are certainly more empowered than they used to be, but the space they exist in is far more complex," she says.

In the face of these challenges, consumers are getting more vocal about what they want, Prof Aitken says.

"Increasingly, consumers are looking to put their money into companies that align with their beliefs," he says.

"That is spreading more and more widely, which increases the expectations."

Those who do not measure up, will increasingly discover there is a price to be paid.

Prof Aitken points to the public relations debacle that is the end of cheques.

It is almost two years since banks first signalled their intention to do away with cheques because few people were using them. The clamour of protest started immediately and has continued to simmer to the bitter end.

In February, semi-retired Waihola farmer John Galloway (87), who writes 30 cheques a year for sizeable farm expenses, said the banks’ decision to chop cheques was letting down some of their most loyal customers.

Computer illiterate, profoundly deaf and without a local bank since the Milton branch closed in 2016, Galloway faces a 64km round trip to Balclutha to do banking.

"[There’s] still thousands of loyal customers, like me, who are just being abandoned without a care," he told the Otago Daily Times.

Interviewed at the same time, Clutha Budget Advisory Service co-ordinator Lee-Anne Michelle said Galloway was not alone in his concerns.

During a presentation to South Otago Grey Power, everyone present had expressed worries about the change, she said.

Those voices appear to have gone, ultimately, unheeded.

The Weekend Mix asked New Zealand Bankers’ Association chief executive Roger Beaumont whether the industry was concerned it had made a PR blunder by ending cheques.

This week, in response, Beaumont said banks understood change could be difficult for some customers.

"When these often challenging decisions are made, banks put in place significant programmes to communicate and support their customers through the change," he said.

Asked how much profit New Zealand’s banking sector had made in the past year, Beaumont directed The Weekend Mix to financial audit firm KPMG’s 2020 bank survey.

The KPMG report, released in February, says the banks had "a challenging year", with the sector’s net-profit-after-tax down almost 28%, to $4.14 billion for the year.

Delving a bit deeper reveals that most of the drop was due to impaired asset expenses, a forecast expense which, although used in the calculation, turned out to be much less in reality. In other words, it was largely a theoretical decrease, not a real one. It is business as usual for banks making big bucks.

It is emblematic of the losing side Prof Aitken says banks have found themselves on when it comes to consumer expectations.

"We are dealing with enormous corporations that make decisions beyond the immediate influence of ordinary consumers," Prof Aitken says.

Banks often market themselves as offering a personalised service. But removing cheques is the opposite approach.

"It is a great example of businesses doing what is more efficient for them than for what people want," he says.

"Even though it is only a few people using cheques, they are still people’s mums and dads and grannies and uncles.

"There will be a backlash."

A groundswell big enough and loud enough to be heard by decision-makers is key to consumer power, Prof Aitken says.

A successful consumer campaign has a simple, clear message about an urgent wrong that needs to be righted. It also gives people a clear action they can take.

"People are more aware of the consequences of their consumption.

"If you feel ... you can contribute to it and it will make a difference ... then it has more opportunity to be successful."

Sir Ian Taylor is trying to elicit exactly that sort of consumer response.

The founder of Dunedin technology company Animation Research Ltd, Sir Ian is incensed by TV3 Newshub’s decision to get rid of its Otago office by the end of this month.

TV3 Newshub Otago reporter Dave Goosselink.
TV3 Newshub Otago reporter Dave Goosselink.
The closure will make veteran reporter Dave Goosselink and camera operator Grant Findlay redundant.

A spokeswoman for Discovery Networks Australia and New Zealand, owner of Newshub, has said the company’s focus is unchanged.

"We remain committed to regional news and will continue to cover this comprehensively."

Sir Ian announced his anger and his call to action late last month, in an ODT advertisement.

"In the past, when some faceless person up north made a decision that impacted on us, there was very little that we could do about it," he said in the half-page advert.

"Well, we can do something about it. We control the remote. Let’s just turn them off," he said, urging Otago and Southland people not to watch TV3 news this month.

A drop in viewer numbers could impact advertising revenue, causing the company to reconsider the closure, he said.

Sir Ian had hoped Southern mayors would speak up in support of his campaign.

Contacted by The Weekend Mix, seven of the eight mayors south of the Waitaki River say they endorse Sir Ian’s call to switch channels between 6pm and 7pm each day until the end of June.

Waitaki mayor Gary Kircher was the first to get back.

He is echoed by the others, except for Invercargill mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt, who did not respond.

"I certainly support Sir Ian’s call, and will consider what I can do locally to promote his stance," Kircher says.

"If a news agency purports to provide national coverage, they should ensure they cover the nation appropriately."

Consumer NZ head of campaigns and communications Gemma Rasmussen. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Consumer NZ head of campaigns and communications Gemma Rasmussen. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
More consumer campaigns are on their way, Rasmussen and Prof Aitken say. And they are likely to be successful, they predict.

Consumer NZ is calling for a mandatory sunscreen standard.

"Our independent testing has found there has been consistent failures of SPF label claims from manufacturers," Rasmussen says.

"In a country with one of the highest rates of skin cancer and melanoma in the world, shoppers need to be able to trust the SPF claims on a sunscreen bottle."

Because the campaign can show a clear need for change that will positively impact consumers, it is likely to succeed.

Rasmussen also sees a battle coming over the rising cost of food.

"With Kiwi consumers facing one of the most concentrated industries in the world, with just two major players ... there’s not a lot of healthy competition in the area."

The Commerce Commission is now investigating the supermarket sector.

"We see the investigation into the supermarkets as just the beginning, with plenty of campaigning for a fairer supermarket industry on the horizon," Rasmussen says.

Prof Aitken says another battle, for the "right to repair", is just beginning.

Consumers are not encouraged to repair items they buy. With many goods, trying to repair them voids the manufacturer’s warranty.

"If we are going to be much more frugal in our behaviours, more conscious in our consumption, then we have to be given the right and the ability and the information to do that."

Businesses will ignore that call at their peril.

"Those companies that give you the workshop manual and ... give you some advice on how to do it, they will become the market leaders."

Ian Nelson, feeling the frailties of age, probably would not see it this way, but he is playing his part as a consumer warrior.

For decades, he and his wife lived modestly, saved diligently and invested wisely. For decades, they had accounts with three banks that used their deposits and their interest payments to make handsome profits.

But with the end of cheques looming, causing anxiety about how bills would get paid and monies would be managed, Nelson has taken a decisive step. He has closed accounts with two banks, consolidating funds in the remaining one.

He is just simplifying, trying to cope with a bewildering imposition, an unnecessary impost levied primarily on the old. Not that the banks that have lost his custom will know that. Uncomprehending, they will simply feel a small sting and probably ignore it. They should not. Because, while a small sting might not win a battle, enough small stings can win a war.

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