In the autumn of 1957, a new magazine was put together in a converted garage by a handful of enthusiasts, who called themselves the Association for Consumer Research, an organisation, it announced in its first issue, that “exists solely to help YOU”. The magazine was called Which?. Those patronising capital letters typified the tone. “The housewife would probably be surprised to know how many pints of water she boils each year,” trilled an article headed Don’ts for Electric Kettles. This was followed by one entitled Aspirin: How to Use the Drug (by A Doctor). Presumably one of those wise, white-coated doctors who popped up so regularly in adverts of the period.
However, Which? was also putting down the kind of marker that would give it enormous impact on British life in the decades ahead. The inaugural issue contained reports on those two modish items: sunglasses and no-iron cottons. “It is clear from the tests that there is little relation between price and quality in sunglasses,” it pronounced. On the shirts, it said: “Rather too much is claimed. ‘No-iron’ usually means a great deal less-iron.”
British shoppers had never previously heard these kinds of judgments – forceful, well-considered, independent and, very soon, respected. Within two years, Which?’s publisher (by now called the Consumers’ Association), already had 150,000 members and was on its way to becoming a power in the land. A new era had begun in the relationship between the British public and business.
For millennia before that, the peasantry must have been at the mercy of short-weighers, beer-waterers, milk-adulterators and other charlatans. And the British were slow to realise there was anything they could do about it. Consumer Reports, the American equivalent of Which?, had started more than 20 years earlier, in 1936. But then the American public instinctively had a more robust approach to shoddy goods. In 1970, the difference was formulated by the Harvard economist Albert O. Hirschman in his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. These were the alternative responses that could be given by buyers when their shop starts letting them down. You could go elsewhere, say what you think or keep shtum.
Hirschman found a stack of other applications: these are the stark choices available to a partner in an unhappy marriage and a general forced by politicians to conduct a war he does not support. In all these cases, national characteristics would lend themselves to different responses. Ben Voyer, a lecturer in social psychology at the London School of Economics, explains: “Typically Americans are more of the voice, the British are more exit. The British are more shy.”
Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party, tried to come up with a definition of Englishness last month. He got himself into a bit of a tizz trying to differentiate Englishness and Britishness, but he insisted that stoicism was “a very English quality... I saw it in my constituency in the floods... ‘Mustn’t grumble’ is a very English phrase.”
As a serving politician, Miliband naturally had to flatter his audience. As a result, he got it wrong. “Mustn’t grumble” also contains that other very English quality, irony. It can be a disguised grumble. In fact, the English are very practised and skilful grumblers. And in a summer of continuing crisis, wretched weather and disruption on an Olympian scale, they are getting a lot more practice. What they are bad at is complaining. They either exit and grumble or stay loyal and grumble. They habitually refuse to tackle an issue head-on.
The Consumers’ Association institutionalised grumbling and gave it a collective voice. But more than half a century on how stands that great British institution: The Grumble? Is the consumer better off or worse off? The picture is alarmingly patchy.
The political mood of the early 1960s, as the long-running, consensual but sluggish Conservative government began to fall apart, is hard to conjure up now. “Modern” was the buzzword of the time, and it was typified by the washing machines and fridges and TVs that were spreading into every household. Consumerism came to mean not so much an obsession with such items but the belief that the buyers needed and deserved protection.
There was obsessiveness too. Although most men were not boiling kettles yet, the Which? approach of scientifically analysing each model was well attuned to a certain type of male mind: gadget-conscious and just a touch anal. Its all-round sex appeal, to both housewives and their husbands, was a great help to Which?.
Initially, there were fears of being sued. Instead, companies took the criticisms on board. The first issue criticised one make of kettle for its poor handle and spout; the next said the faults had been corrected. Which? became ripe for mild satire: Punch ran a spoof report on backscratchers and announced that the Itchmaster Deluxe was the best buy.
Its status soon translated into political power. The Consumers’ Association was careful to keep politicians of all parties onside, but more naturally aligned with the Labour party. Influence produced a raft of legislation: most famously, the 1968 Trade Descriptions Act (the phrase passed into the language), which placed the burden of proof on sellers to prove their claims were true. The 1970s Labour cabinet even had a secretary of state for prices and consumer protection, a job initially held by Shirley Williams, whose scatty-mumsy political style was perfect for the role.
Somewhere along the road, however, the organisation seemed to lose its way. Partly it was a problem of success. In 1963, it had concluded that more than half the toasters it had tested were potentially dangerous; it was scathing about the car industry. Its influence was a major factor in driving up standards: rogue products became rarer, and its task became fuzzier. One former staff member recalls: “There was always a tension between those who thought CA should be campaigning – that it was like working for Amnesty – and those who saw it as being more about testing washing machines.”
As the difference between one machine and another became more a matter of which was cheapest to run rather than which might blow up, it was hard to crusade. In the 1980s, Which? appeared addicted to recruiting new readers by running prize draws, precisely the kind of mildly dubious activity many people thought it ought to be criticising.
A new world would soon emerge, created by the revolution in the financial markets, privatisation of utilities and the arrival of the internet, in which consumers would need new defence mechanisms unconnected with killer toasters.
Tony Hetherington is “The Readers’ Champion” of the Mail on Sunday. He has been writing consumer help columns for 30 years, the past 17 on his current paper. His personal email and phone number are protected more fiercely than the editor’s: the column can deal with only about 4 per cent of the complaints that reach him, he reckons.
Hetherington’s column appears in the Personal Finance section, whereas the original help columns were on the main news pages. It’s symptomatic. “The one subject that hasn’t changed is holidays,” he says. “I still hear about the flight being overbooked or the room wasn’t ready or the cruise ship didn’t put into the right port. But nowadays it’s mainly about financial services. If your car breaks down you know at once. If your endowment mortgage breaks down you may not know for 15 years.”
When Hetherington staked out this territory, before the Financial Services Act of 1986, “people had a limited range of straightforward financial products: a current account, if they even had one; a savings account; life assurance; and a mortgage with a building society that had been around for decades if not centuries”. Life in modern Britain is more complex.
In many ways, the consumer is infinitely more empowered. Online forums burst into life whenever a company runs into trouble, as with the recent technical problems for RBS and O2, and regiments of public relations operatives rush into action like firefighters.
Legislation, much of it emerging from Brussels and Strasbourg, is stronger than ever before. New heroes have arisen, such as Martin Lewis of moneysavingexpert.com, who sends his weekly email to six million subscribers. And there are price comparison sites, such as the heavily advertised gocompare.com
I asked gocompare.com to find pet insurance quotes for my (sadly imaginary) friend Elkie the Elkhound. Within five minutes of finding the site, which included the time spent filling in the boxes with my own and Elkie’s entire life story, 39 responses flashed up, 10 of them turning us down, the other 29 ranging from £165 a year to £1,490. And this is one of the least complicated markets.
There are also signs that the British are becoming more assertive. Hetherington thinks it may be a generational trait more than a national one. “It’s true that we don’t like to make a fuss, but I find that particularly with older people. If you go back 30 years, people paid what they were asked and accepted what they were given. That’s changing.”
Andrew Smith, who has just finished a 10-year stint as editor of the Radio 4 programme You and Yours, is also inclined to be optimistic on this point. “I think customers are more concerned than they were. There’s a lot of self-help out there on the internet. People enjoy telling other people about their experiences and, if need be, warning them off. There’s quite a good consumer spirit out there and they’re annoyed when companies don’t deal straight.”
Is it thus just generational to be sceptical about the new consumer democracy? “No doubt in my mind,” says one lawyer. “The British consumer has more rights than at any time in history. Trouble is you can’t access any of them.” Indeed, we habitually sign away many of those rights every time we go to a website that offers us terms and conditions they know we will never read – until the moment we contemplate suing them.
A reminiscence: 11 years ago I moved to do a stint in the US and the family had to wrestle with the problems of setting up home in a new country that was more foreign than we realised. It would have been traumatic even if al-Qaeda had not chosen the month we moved to attack New York and Washington. My sense at the time was that the difference between the UK and US was that, back home, if you were persistent enough when confronted by boneheaded staff, you could always find someone who would see reason. No more. No one in a Bangalore call centre has the authority to let common sense override the rule book.
Corporate accountants used to be sad-eyed men who sat muttering in dingy back rooms. In companies whose main strategy is cost-cutting, the CFOs have overwhelming power, and the effect of their reign of terror has been cutbacks that poison companies very slowly. It takes time for customers to realise that a large store now hardly employs anyone to whom you can address a question, let alone knows enough to answer it.
And the trickery seeps into the system. Airlines are of course notorious for the vast differences between advertised prices and the reality, including the great pay-to-pay scam. Other businesses use free phone numbers for potential customers, and expensive ones for existing ones: the loyalty penalty.
“Energy companies set out to bamboozle consumers by having 400 different tariffs. There are thousands of ways of paying for mobile phones. My old mum is still paying £3 a week more for her fuel than I do,” says Mike O’Connor, chief executive of Consumer Focus. “It’s a two-tier market in which those who get the cheap deals are being subsidised by poorer people.”
O’Connor intends to get his mum a cheaper deal when he has a moment. But being a clued-up consumer is remarkably complicated. Even the time and costs of doing the basics – like printing out bank statements – are being outsourced to the consumer. And booking a holiday sensibly is now, at the very least, a morning’s work – much of this, of course, being done in company time. I would like to believe the companies most adept at chiselling their customers are the ones losing most productivity.
So who in this complicated world is on the consumer’s side? Gocompare.com does offer a capsule explanation of the conditions for each type of pet insurance, but sorting out the true difference between each deal would be very time-consuming – especially because (if you fail to check the right box) the two cheapest companies will be on the phone to you in moments. And, as Andrew Smith pointed out: “The problem with price comparison sites is that Company A has probably just put up its prices and Company B is about to.”
The Martin Lewis model is equally focused on simple cost-saving rather than qualitative analysis: his site offers plenty of useful tips but a worrying degree of self-regard. His photographs, with a hint of chest hair, are posed in the manner of an ageing rock star; and his biography page describes him as “the UK’s most searched person in 2009”. Actually, my search engine suggested he may now not be the most sought-after Martin Lewis: his blog ranked below the website of Martin Lewis, humorist. One senses that Martin Lewis, financial guru, is very pleased with himself. As well he might be. He has just sold his site for £87m.
This is a long way from the earnestness that characterised the early years of Which?. So where does one turn for reliable help and genuine judgments? Yes, Specsavers might cost much less than my local optician, but would they spot a cataract? Is Ryanair really a bargain once one factors in the fancy footwork? Are the cheap pet insurance companies cheap because they are craftier at finding small-print exemptions if someone dares to claim? I simply don’t know. “The paradox is the tyranny of choice,” says Ben Voyer. “Now everything you might want is available in hundreds of different versions. It’s impossible to make a rational choice and people quickly get lost.”
Someone recommended the wisdom-of-crowds-based website Qype to me and I looked up local shopping. It contained two recommendations, both for the nearest Tesco, both posted on the same date in 2008. “This supermarket is great!” said one. “Recommended – always has some sort of reduction in prices to enable you to grab a bargain,” said the other. Oh, thanks! Must try it.
There is always the government. Consumer Focus is the “statutory consumer champion”. There are, however, a number of problems with that role. First, because it is funded by government, it can be unfunded – so it can be a nuisance only up to a point. It could hardly turn itself into Greenpeace. Second, its name and functions have mutated so much over the years that hardly any consumer knows it exists. Third, the next mutation is on its way, with most of its role being taken over by the Citizens Advice service. Chances of it getting enough funding to have the expertise and clout it will require? Zero.
Other professionals say Consumer Focus quietly does a decent job. “The work we do is not about the issues coming through the door,” says O’Connor. “Our business is trying to turn the tap off, not mopping up. The consumer is worried about the price of energy now, but that’s nothing to the challenges coming down the road. We’re working on those issues. I’m quite happy for people to say they don’t know about CF.”
So one comes back to Which? – now the name of the organisation as well as the magazine. Others in the advice business say it has clarified its strategy and started to raise its profile again. It was the magazine’s July 2012 edition that named and shamed the banks and energy companies playing silly Bs by using expensive phone numbers. (It also revealed the best buys in balsamic vinegar.) But it is very much a members’ organisation, offering them specialist advice – but at a cost of £117 a year. “There is no consumer body now that the government is actually afraid of,” says the ex-staff member.
Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, recently spent some time working for the Australian equivalent, Choice. “In Australia there is a sense of expecting a fair go, saying that’s not on, dealing in a more muscular way with the unacceptable,” he says. “There’s an inertia here in a lot of big markets, a lack of mobility. They rely upon us not switching.”
Which reminds me. I really, really must extricate myself from my obnoxious bank. All I’ve got to do is set aside a week to sort it all out. Then I can stop grumbling. Maybe.
To read more by Matthew Engel, go to www.ft.com/engel
For more grumbling, see Mrs Moneypenny