FIRING LINE: Lot of the Bajan consumer
Whither the fate of the Barbadian consumer?
This is perhaps the question of the day.
The recent moves by Cable & Wireless and CIBC FirstCaribbean have served to remind us, once again, of how the consumer is perceived in the marketplace.
We are at the bottom of the totem pole. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be fooled by the pretty ads and seemingly generous offers, but in reality firms have two objectives.
Firstly, they want to make a profit and secondly they are striving to either attain or maintain market dominance. How the consumer gets treated in between there is only so good as the companies need us to help achieve their goals.
What we often fail to realise is that the only power we have in the marketplace is our purchasing power. Firms will do what is in their best interests and in a mostly uncompetitive market like ours the consumer has two choices; “like it or lump it”.
This is exactly the choice that the two firms have placed before us and most likely this will not be last.
We should perhaps refrain from making “bogeymen” of the two firms because it is in the very nature of the businesses to behave this way in the face of some perceived market threat or opportunity.
In the current environment, we can expect that more and more firms will look to consolidate, merge and do whatever it takes to maintain their market dominance. I am 100 per cent sure that if the other market players had the opportunity they would do exactly the same thing or something similar.
Both firms, I am sure, would have weighed the likely fallout and risks associated with their moves and would have concluded that despite any initial disruption they would perhaps still be able to break even over the long term.
A large part of that conclusion would be an analysis of consumer trends. They know us. They know how we behave and what matters to us.
I am no market expert but my sense is that these firms rely heavily on the fact that the Barbadian consumer complains a lot but when it comes down to it we are essentially loyal and ultimately unaware of the power that we have (we behave much the same way in politics after all).
Moreover, we like convenience. The Bajan consumer is not one to deprive themselves of a service or product to make a point. After all we have to live and we can’t take the money to our grave, right?
They know us quite well.
What this means is that we will always be in the exact position that has been carved out for us – at the bottom with self-induced powerlessness.
The only saving grace is the Fair Trading Commission (FTC). If not for the FTC, the position would be absolutely dire. The only concern is that very often we do not have our own independent advocate in the deliberations of the FTC.
This agency will adjudicate when the case is brought before it but very often what we need is someone to tell us what our options are and the likely implications in the midst of the situation.
What we need is someone to speak on behalf of the elderly, in particular, who would most likely be impacted by the introduction of user fees on paper telephone bills. The FTC will not tell us what obtains in other jurisdictions when it comes to the charging of user fees by banks and how consumers in other countries have responded and forced banks to change their policies.
In 2011, in response to the introduction of user fees of $5 by one bank, one person started a petition which snowballed and forced not only the bank which was being initially targeted to rescind its policy, but several other banks and financial institutions also, to change or remove offending fees in the face of public pressure and dissent.
This was heralded as a victory for consumer power over corporate interest. This move also started a wave of investigations into the hidden charges and interests rates charged by banks.
• Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.