Wednesday, 30 July 2008

I'm Picky about Pens

My Pick of the Pens - The Uni Ball VISION elite micro 0.5

I always carry a pen. Perhaps it's a hangover from my cub scout days. Every meeting we had to tip out the contents of our shorts pockets for 'inspection'. We had to produce a pencil, some paper or notebook, 2 handkerchiefs (one clean for use as a bandage) a length of string (in case your shoelace broke) and a 2 pence piece for the public payphone. All these items date me but the portable writing habit lives on.

I'm picky about pens (surprise!) I have a Mont Blanc and Tombow in my desk drawer but they haven't been used for years. They're too posh for my trouser pocket and the Mont Blanc fountain pen will leak if I use it on a plane.

My pick of all pens (I've tried many) is the Japanese manufactured Uni Ball Vision Elite 0.5 micro.
I don't know why the Japanese make the best pens, but they do. I only ever write in black ink and I never use a biro. These Japanese roller balls are my favourite - they write with rich black, non fade, permanent liquid ink and produce a wonderfully consistent line. This model has the added benefit of being 'Flightsafe' - so it won't leak aboard a plane.

These inexpensive pens (around £2.20) are refillable, so for the last year or so I've been hanging on to each pen when it ran out. They are a beautifully simple retro design and comfortable to hold, so to simply toss them in the bin when the ink runs dry seems sinful.

Of course no one sells the refills in the UK - or so you'd think if you visited any stationers. But online search and shopping changes all the old laws of supply. I've been saving my exhausted pens because a year ago I found a UK based company which sells the refills by post. They boast they are the only distributor supplied by the manufacturer.

Yesterday I made my first order from for a box of 12 Uni Ball refills at £12.38 (12 complete pens cost £22.99). My order was confirmed by email and another message arrived when they were dispatched. The package was delivered by first class post early this morning. I always appreciate a company which actually does what it says - so I emailed Cult Pens to praise their service - promising to spread the word. Michael emailed right back to thank me for the feedback. So here I am spreading the word.

If you're as picky about pens as me I'm sure you'll appreciate Cult Pens' passion for pens

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Public Libraries - The Best Free Show I Know

The Shiny (but deserted) new book stacks in reopened Ealing Central Library

The Central Library in Ealing reopened this morning. It has been closed for almost 2 years for a refit which was plagued by problems. The changes are modest for the length of time the library was shut.

Across the same shopping mall cut price clothing retailer Primark complet
ely reconfigured the old Bentalls department store in a fraction of the time it took Ealing Council to refit the library. A graphic illustration of the difference in efficiency between commercial and public works.

When the library revamp was proposed there was local controversy over plans to reduce the height of the book stacks - and horror at a proposed library cafe. Ealing doesn't lack cafes but it does lack books. The Council persisted so now the book stacks are shorter and a modest cafe has been added. Who knows where the extra shelves worth of books went?

I was one of the first borrowers through the door at 9am this morning. The local press turned out and library staff greeted visitors with balloons. We were promised 20,000 new books on the shelves. The sparse turn-out wasn't disappointed.

When the new branch of Primark opened across the Mall the police were called to control the crowds. Police weren't required for the library opening.
There was no crowd.

The reopened Ealing Central Library -
Empty rows of new computers offer free Internet access

The Primark opening across the Mall -
Crowds queue to pay

I was pleased to see the library shelves are lined with (long overdue, excuse the wordplay) new books and I borrowed 7 of them (borrowers are allowed 13 items). As the books were scanned out on my card I overheard an older man complain 'Who on earth at the Council buys these books?' It is true that the emphasis in fiction is firmly on 'popular' rather than 'literature'.

I'm glad the library is back in action. Its the best free show I know.
Thousands of free books will transport your mind anywhere you desire.

I'm sure word will soon spread that the library doors are open again but sadly I don't think Primark need worry too much about the new competition.

The Council are trying hard to promote their free show - they even provided a free recyclable cotton shopping bag for me to carry away my new books. Welcome back Ealing Library.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

DVD Rental - from Tesco Vending Machine

This week a large shiny new vending machine appeared at the exit of my local Tesco. Surprisingly, given its size and eye-catching location, it seemed to go largely unnoticed for the first few days.

I did pick up a leaflet from the dispenser (empty in this photo, but by the arrow numbered 1) which promised a free rental for first timers, although of course you still had to swipe your credit card. I'm wary of swiping my credit card at machines I'm unfamiliar with, so I resisted - despite the enticing selection of all the latest DVDs - which I guessed were probably also in brand new, pristine condition.

Yesterday evening I picked up the leaflet again and looked up the website for .Here I discovered they are not, as I assumed another Tesco venture, but a US company launching their brand in the UK for the first time. They have very few locations at the moment so perhaps this is a soft trial rather than a huge rollout.

The website is impressive because it gives a real-time stock display for each location. When I noticed that the Oscar winning There Will be Blood was sitting in the machine just up the road and could be mine for the evening for free I decided to try the service out.

Yesterday was a very warm evening but there was a bit of crowd by the previously ignored DVD vending machine. The couple in front of me didn't rent but only it seemed because they couldn't agree on a movie. I followed the instructions, entered the voucher code TRY4FREE, swiped my Amex card (Amex I've found to be very reliable when it comes to sorting out rogue transactions) and the machine slid out the DVD. It even promised to email me a receipt if I typed in my email address (the website promises not to sell your email). When I left the store there was a crowd of people looking to rent DVDs.

Later in the evening I had another look at the live stock inventory and it was much reduced, so clearly the service is taking off. £1.50 is very little for a new release (even Sky box office is £3.99 - although of course it is delivered on demand). The only downside is the open ended agreement on your credit card, adding £1.50 each day the DVD remains out - and a £25 charge if it isn't returned. There is a free telephone number in case there are any problems.

The stock is updated with new release DVDs every Monday, and for $12.99 (which I assume is a US translation typo on the website for £12.99) you can rent an unlimited number of DVDs - no waiting for the post, or long waits for popular selections (as with most postal DVD rental outfits).

I'm surprised to have found a DVD rental vending machine an attractive proposition in the download on demand world, but I did.

As a conclusion to this consumer innovation, I'm reading a new book Predictably Irrational by economist Dan Ariely. He argues that we humans don't act as standard economic models predict we should. Instead we follow our emotions - which often give us the wrong signals. So we make mistakes, but our mistakes are predictable. 'Free', he says, is a very powerful motivator. The downside of free is usually zero. We'll pick up free stuff at a convention - key fobs, binders, t shirts - because they're free, even if we throw them away later. We queue for free admission days at museums and galleries - even though queues are longer than on paid for days. Free is a powerful driver to overcome consumer resistance.

The power of 'Free' may explain the queue at the DVD vending machine - rather than the attractiveness of renting DVDs from a vending machine placed by the exit in Tesco.

In the US DVD Vending is big business. Research shows consumers like the physical contact with the actual product much more than a download.

Incidentally There will Be Blood is an outstanding, if bewildering movie.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Freeganism - Free Food from Supermarkets

Reduced fresh produce bought from Tesco last Friday - still fresh today

The Telegraph reports the rise of Freeganism (you can watch a video of Freegans in action by clicking on this link). Apparently Freegans are people who don't pay for food, instead they scavenge from supermarket skips eating food thrown away because its reached the 'sell by' date.

'Sell by' dates are listed on fresh food for good reason. The food we buy has to be safe to eat. When we buy fish, poultry, milk and eggs we have to trust supermarkets have got the 'sell by' and 'use by' dates right. Otherwise serious food poisoning could result from digesting harmful bacteria - especially for vulnerable consumers (children and the elderly) who have lower immunity thresholds. Supermarkets don't want to kill their customers. Tragically there have been some fatal mistakes.

I wouldn't eat poultry or fish from a skip, or come to that pretty much anything else. However recently I have become a convert to my local Tesco's 'Reduced' section - especially the fresh produce. Last Friday I bought 3 Honeydew melons reduced from 86p to 24p. They'd reached their 'sell by' date. I ate one on Saturday - honestly it was a bit under-ripe, so I've left the other 2 to ripen. I also bought 250g of Finest brand Tulameen raspberries. These were reduced from £2.49 to just 75p (250g of 'regular' raspberries were available for £1.49). The raspberries were marked 'display until' 18th July 'best before' 19th July - Saturday. Today, Monday, they are in good shape. Of course I'm profiting from Tesco's strict stock control. Farmers may not be.

I've been reading a couple of new books about the food industry 'Eat Your Heart Out' by Felicity Lawrence, who also authored 'Not On The Label' and Raj Patel's 'Stuffed and Starved'. I've been guilty of turning a blind eye to all the horror stories about food processing and the relationship between agriculture and supermarkets. My eyes have been opened. Now I know how little supermarkets pay farmers, I understand how they can afford to operate such generous discounting when the sell by date arrives...and even feed the Freegans scavenging in the skips at the back of the loading bay.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Incredible Shrinking Food - the New Price Hike!

Dairylea cheese packs have shrunk from 180g to 160g. Packs still contain 8 triangles - but the shrinkage is equivalent to a 10% price hike!

Food price inflation is now so rampant that manufacturers fear pushing the price of their products much higher in case they drive buyers away. Nearly all supermarket shoppers have finally begun to check the prices of items they put in their trolleys. Consumers are trading down, experimenting with supermarket own-brands, 'basics' brands and even sampling budget supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl. They can't afford to continue simply paying more each week.

With food price inflation running close to 10% one manufacturer has come up with an ingenious new solution to raising prices without appearing to raise prices. They've kept the price the same - but shrunk the pack. The famous circular carton of Kraft's Dairylea cheese triangles is still the same diameter and still contains 8 individually wrapped servings, but the pack weight has reduced from 180g to 160g. So each slice is now thinner - but will the customer notice? Is a thinner slice less noticeable than a price hike? The reduction crudely equates to a 10% price increase - almost 10p a pack.

Keep your eyes open for other instances of incredible shrinking food packs - it's a trend which is bound to catch on.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The 4- Hour Work Week - really?

Passing through Waterstones bookstore tonight I chanced across a book and concept which has previously passed me by - Timothy Ferriss's New York Times bestseller 'The 4-Hour Work Week'. Arriving back at my desk I looked him up - what's his secret to doing less and earning more I wondered - wouldn't we all like to share in that secret?

For £10.99 Timothy Ferris will tell you about e-commerce, outsourcing the chores in your life to a personal PA in India for $5 an hour and how it costs much less than you think to enjoy the luxuries you mistakenly believe only millionaires can afford. The author advocates abandoning the 'deferred life plan' based on the ethic 'slave, save, retire' and proposes regular 'mini retirements' so you can enjoy life now, not later. Readers in the US have apparently just loved his book.

Actually I didn't spend £10.99 finding this out (sorry Mr Ferriss) I simply visited his website read his blog and checked the reviews on Amazon. 'Can you actually make any money out of writing a blog about that stuff?' asked the Chief Executive's partner. As usual she asks a good question.

A blog reference to a typical Timothy Ferriss's working day suggests that he actually works more than 4 hours a day. He explains that some of this stuff isn't work - because he enjoys it. Some of us are lucky enough to enjoy our work, some not. Whichever, I'm not sure that it stops counting as work just because we enjoy doing it. So maybe the title is a misnomer, but the real question for me is how Mr Ferriss really makes his lifestyle pay.

I earn money from my blog - because I email posts to Chief Executives - who when they investigate the complaints I make - decide to make refunds or send me money. This year I've had money from companies including Abbey, o2, BMI, Norwich Union Direct, Direct Line and Sainsbury's. But I couldn't for a minute claim sufficient money to retire to a hammock strung up between two palm trees - as Mr Ferriss's book jacket imagines.

Perhaps if I sold you my Adventures in Consumerland secrets in book form at £10.99 things would be different?

Monday, 14 July 2008

BBC TV Licence - It's all in the Data Base

2007/08 BBC Annual Report and Accounts

Recently I highlighted just how un-scientific the BBC's TV Licence Fee detection and collection methods are . They simply involve posting increasingly threatening letters to households which don't have a TV Licence. Never mind whether these households own a TV or not. Last week the BBC published its Annual Report and Accounts. The figures reveal that Licence Fee evasion remains steady at 5.1%. In other words the threatening letters aren't working.

Another blogger hilariously reveals that although TV Licensing's increasingly threatening letters are signed by 'John Hales', Mr Hales' changing signature wouldn't pass any bank fraud test - leading to the suspicion that even John Hales isn't even real!

TV Licensing's John Hales - would you accept his signature on a personal cheque?
Thanks to for posting the signatures

The BBC recently ran an advertising campaign 'Your Town, Your Street, Your Home - it's all in the Data Base' (see it here) which has been criticised (according to the Telegraph) for employing a menacing soundtrack of helicopters, dogs barking and door knocking. Last year Gary Streeter the Conservative MP for SW Devon tabled a motion signed by 60 MP's complaining about the bully-boy techniques employed by TV licensing - threatening old ladies who don't even own a TV. Last week even former Director General Greg Dyke labelled the Licence as an unfair tax - costing both rich and poor alike. Serves the BBC right for sacking him.

Now the BBC Trust - the newly self appointed BBC Regulator is to investigate the Licence fee collection methods. They say in the Annual Report:

"We have begun a review to ensure the right balance is being struck between the need to raise maximum revenue and the need to avoid heavy handedness, especially with people who do not own a television set and therefore do not need a licence."

It'll be interesting to see what conclusions the BBC Trust arrives at when they report later this year. Recently the BBC Trust gave the BBC a clean bill of health over the amount it pays its presenters - including the £18m it pays Jonathan Ross.

Of course while the TV licensing bully-boy tactics remain in force the BBC could begin production on another of its cheap and ubiquitous documentary series. Tonight at 10.35 BBC One follows the work of the River Police. Last week the BBC's cameras were on the beat with the Benefit fraud Inspectors. What next? BBC One 9pm - Its All in the Data Base - "Watching cheap voyeuristic TV without a £139.50 TV Licence? we've got your number mate, you're nicked."

Perhaps The BBC Trust should investigate the impact of the BBC's decsion to stream its channels live on the internet instead?

This above all else will surely lead to the end of the TV Licence? No one will tolerate having to buy a TV Licence to surf the web - where they'll soon find the BBC's programmes for free (even the ones not already free on the iPlayer).

Thursday, 10 July 2008

London Underground's generous ticket refund Charter

The information screens London tube travellers dread seeing:
Severe Delays or worse Suspended

Like many Londoners I try and avoid going underground in the Summer. The Victorian built 'tube' has no air conditioning and won't be getting it anytime soon. Most Londoners' worst nightmare is being stuck on a train when the service on one of the ageing lines is suspended. Every Summer at least one 'Trapped Underground for 3 hours' story makes the headlines. No wonder London Underground advises passengers to carry bottled water.

Last week my travel plans were disrupted when the Circle, District and Hammersmith and City Lines - which cover much of the same areas of London - were simultaneously suspended. This was due to the failure of the drivers' radio link - a common problem. So common in fact you'd think it would be sorted out.

Most London commuters are used to delays. What many London Underground travellers don't seem to know is that you can reclaim the cost of your ticket if there's a delay of more than 15 minutes (except due to adverse weather, notified changes to service, security alerts). I'm convinced that's why late at night you'll only ever see the next train shown as due in 14 minutes. If you check your watch it will often actually arrive after at least 15 minutes.

Claiming a refund is a simple matter of picking up a Customer Charter form (sometimes prominently on display at stations, usually not) or claiming via the Transport for London website

Remembering to claim is the biggest obstacle, but with a single cash fare journey in Zone 1 costing £4 (without a season ticket or pre-paid Oyster Card) I usually try and have a couple of forms handy in my bag. If a 15 minute delay occurs I fill out the form and post it in the first postbox I see after emerging above ground. I'm convined that LU will work harder to minimise problems if it costs them revenue (critics of this view would say depriving LU of revenue makes maintenance even more unlikely).

London Transport actually has one of the most generous travel compensation schemes. Partly I suspect because so few people claim - and mainly because you get a credit for another journey, not real cash. 15 minutes isn't considered a big travel delay these days. Most mainline rail operators won't give you a penny until the delay exceeds an hour and even EU rules don't require airlines to make any amends for the first 2 hours stranded on the ground.

So well done London Transport for your generous compensation scheme.
Shame you don't publicise it.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Google Street View - Privacy Controversy

Google Street View camera car snapped in London's Golden Square and posted online by

The BBC's 6 o'clock news (and elsewhere) reports on the concern privacy campaigers have about Google's latest mapping tool 'Street View'. Google's camera car has been spotted on the streets of London. It has a large camera stalk mounted on the roof, so its pretty conspicuous. One respondent on the BBC's blog says the vehicle was even pulled over by uniformed police outside Westminster's Parliament building!

How Google Street View works

Privacy campaigners complain that people caught by Google's cameras will be shown for all to see in places they don't want to be seen, or doing things they shouldn't be doing. Google says it blurs faces and car registration plates and it's incorporated a facility for users to report inappropriate views which can be accessed on its site.

I'm planning and researching a forthcoming trip to Northern California at the moment and I've found Google's mapping tools invaluable. I like that I can see all the hotels (and reviews from Tripadvisor) displayed on the graphic map and then click into the satellite view, or even the street level view to see what the area really looks like. So much more reliable than the guide books - and I've discovered a couple of hotels I had on my short list which are right next to the Freeway down ramp! (not something many hotels make a virtue of on their own website photos!).

I'm a strong supporter of personal privacy - but I don't see how Google Street View hurts us. I'd go further and say it helps us. The BBC news report asks how you would feel if your house is shown online? Passers-by see my home everyday. The aerial photo image of my street has been accessible via Google Earth for several years without incident.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Abbey's latest ISA Investigation

Abbey's latest investigation into ISA delays

Three weeks ago I wrote 'Complain to Spain' when Abbey's Customer Complaints department told me it didn't matter which board director I complained to about the administrative delays Abbey's customers were expected to endure, my letter would end up on her desk.

I wondered what would happen if I emailed Emilio Botin, the Chairman of Banco Santander - the Spanish bank that owns Abbey. I discovered a 'contact the Board' email response form on Satander's corporate site and fired off my enquiry - asking why year after year Abbey ran into problems processing customer's new ISA accounts. Last Wednesday I got another letter from Abbey - promising an investigation, followed later that day by a phone call.

Apparently the senior team at Abbey had just become aware of the ISA delays customers were experiencing and now the complaints were mounting (Abbey previously let slip there was a backlog of 700 unprocessed applications, that was 6 weeks ago). A full investigation is under way. The manager phoning last week wanted to know what the outcome had been when I complained about a 50 working day delay to confirm my ISA was open.

My quick search on the web revealed more Abbey ISA complaints on the forums of from savers who had sent in cheques but now couldn't access their money at all - because their Abbey cash ISA's hadn't been opened yet. These customers are also experiencing delays of months.

Abbey has promised to send me another £50 as a goodwill gesture - for the dissatisfaction I expressed to the Board about the way my original complaint was investigated. That was last Wednesday, no cheque has arrived yet. Instead today's mail brought another letter from Abbey - their investigation is taking longer than expected.

Only Abbey would dare write to tell its customers the investigation into the delay is also delayed!

Friday, 4 July 2008

02's apology

o2 Broadband: 9/10 customers would recommend us

The story so far: I complained that o2 gave my email address to three different market research companies - without my permission - a breach of their promise and the Data Protection Act.

Today I received an email from o2's Head of Customer and Market Insight. She's sorry to learn of my 'disappointment at the way your personal information has been handled'. o2 stop short of admitting a breach of the Data Protection Act, although the email admits our partner agency's rules were broken when my details were passed from one research company to another.
"We're investigating what's happened and how we can prevent similar mistakes in future, so I'm grateful that you contacted us."
o2's email goes on to reassure me that the researcher working on the mobile phone survey is:
"fully aware that her contact details have been passed to o2 customers."
(I must have misunderstood her when she told me she would have to change her personal email address as a result). In answer to my complaint about the number of third party emails I received after taking o2's survey, they answer:
"We understand the concern you have raised in being contacted three times in short succession. This is not the experience we want for our customers, and as a result of your complaint we are now looking at our sample management processes in detail and will put some extra rules in place to avoid over contact."

o2's reply leaves 3 unanswered questions, so I phone and leave a message. Later this afternoon I got the opportunity to ask o2's Head of Customer Insight in person.

Question 1: Why doesn't o2 doesn't brand its market research invitations with a logo and o2 email address?
We do, your invitation to take the first Broadband survey has an o2 logo.
I'm sorry to contradict you, but I have it on the screen in front of me, and it doesn't have the o2 logo.
We need to look into that. But we don't brand all our research, because if respondents know who the research is about it skews the answers we get. So the mobile phone research you were invited to take part in, isn't o2 branded.
I'm sorry to contradict you again, but the first line of that invitation reads 'We are conducting market research for your mobile phone provider o2' - no respondent could be in any doubt about who the research is for - so if anonymity is your intention it's failed. Why do you offer respondents small amounts of money to take the one of your surveys - instead of paying £2 to make a phone call, why not just make it a free call number instead?
That's an interesting point, we'll look at that. We don't offer a cash incentive for the first survey because we need to be able to demonstrate to senior managers that customers aren't bribed to give positive scores.

Question 2: o2 warns customers against revealing their email address - why does o2 let third parties make direct contact with its customers?
When we give our agents your email address they are bound by the Data Protection Act and don't use them for any other purpose.
But one of your agents - TNS - did pass my contact details to another party - in breach of the Data Protection Act.
Yes and they shouldn't have done, and we are investigating that mistake.

Question 3: It was very difficult initially to make my complaint heard - despite the fact that any customer phoning o2 has to undergo lengthy security questioning - all in the name of Data Protection. Customer Service don't have any training in how to deal with a Data Protection complaint, even though they ask Data Protection questions in every call. They can't even name o2's Data Controller.
The Data Protection Act is very complicated. We do need to look into that, but I have never received a Data Protection complaint before.

o2 spend a lot of money with research agencies discovering what their customers think. This customer's insight is free - although o2 has generously waived my broadband subscription charge for the next three months (oh, and I cheekily asked for a free usb mobile modem, so I can write this blog on the move... yeah, dream on).

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Marks and Spencer bags itself a profits warning

Has M&S scored a disastrous own goal in its food department? From May it began to charge customers 5p for a carrier bag (10p for the Bag For Life pictured above). All the profits go to charity. So M&S doesn't benefit by a single penny, but judging from feedback on the Telegraph's website lots of shoppers have been turned away by the charge. Instead of stumping up for this unwanted 'green levy' they shop next door instead. 5p is a hell of a price to pay for such a huge loss in sales.

This morning Marks and Spencer issued a shock profits warning. The share price slumped 20% on the news - with shares trading around 260p - last year they were over 700p. Food sales are down 4.5% and the Head of Food, recruited just a year ago (from Waitrose) has eaten his last meal in the M&S canteen.

My mother says the M&S ready meals quality has gone down. The packs have got bigger, but the contents smaller. I hardly buy any food from M&S anymore - the prices are ludicrous.

The threat to the environment from plastic bags has, I suspect,
been grossly exaggerated. Ealing council has recently begun to recycle residents' plastic waste. Since introducing the new measure Ealing has hit the 30% recycled waste target every month. I'm not surprised. I manage to fill a large bag with plastic every week - even though I actively avoid buying plastic packaged fruit and vegetables. I don't throw away plastic carriers either. On a recent trip to Norwich the local Council was dispensing free re-usable cotton bags at a large branch of Salisbury's. I've been using the same cotton bag ever since. I think M&S will soon be rethinking its own bag policy. After all if you buy socks or pants they give you a free bag, but not if you buy bread or milk.

The news is full of shock horror stories about rising food prices. Today I was doing my accounts and sorting receipts. Among them a Tesco till receipt for exactly a year ago. By coincidence I bought some of the same items in Tesco yesterday. I compared the receipts. A pint of milk is up - from 35p to 42p, and 500g of Tesco Greek Yogurt from 78p to 98p. A can of Heinz soup last year was 59p, this week its 69p - but the same offer applies this week as it did exactly a year ago - buy 4 x cans for £2. Weetabix also has the same special offer as a year ago - buy 2x24 packs for £2, but last year a single pack cost £1.54, this week its £1.78. A kilo of loose carrots in July 2007 was 67p in July 2008 they cost 87p. The good news - a single lime is still just 15p (every lime helps perhaps?) I think I'll keep a few more supermarket receipts on file for next year.

Saving till receipts is a surprisingly effective method of keeping track of your cash.