Consumer Watch

Wendy Knowler fights for your rights...

Wendy Knowler masthead
November 30 2011 at 11:32

With many large national organisations, there’s a disconnection between what head office thinks is happening on the ground, and what is actually going on.

Here’s a typical example – perfect column fodder as we head into the silly season.

Earlier this month, Denis Johnson of Swellendam wanted to post several cards overseas.

The cost, he was told at his local post office, was R5.05 each. But there were no 5c stamps, nor were there any 10-, 20- and 30c stamps.

So Johnson called a friend who was in Cape Town that day, and asked him to buy the required stamps. “Well, he tried three post offices on the way back to Swellendam, with no success,” he said.

Then Johnson tried the post office helpline, and was told that the 5c stamp had been replaced by a 6c stamp, so he went back to his local post office where this news was greeted with a laugh. Not true, he was told.

“So I wonder if you could shed some light on this?” he asked me.

I obliged by raising the issue with Johan Kruger of the SA Post Office’s communications division, who got back to me to say that there was “no evidence of” a shortage of those stamps at all, anywhere in the country.

“Our point-of-sale system keeps track of stamp sales at each post office and tells the staff when stocks are running low, prompting them to order new stock,” he said.

“Should a post office sell a huge number of stamps unexpectedly, that office should immediately ask the local area office to get stamps from another nearby office.”

Fresh supplies took just three days to arrive, he said. In fact, on that particular day in mid-November, Kruger said, there were 1.1 million 5c stamps available countrywide; similar numbers of 10c and 20c stamps, and about 500 000 30c stamps.

I relayed this news back to Johnson, who responded with some real-life information of his own: “Swellendam have been unable to obtain 5-, |10-, 20- and 30c stamps for between three and 12 months, and 5- and 10c stamps are also not available at the post offices in Bellville, Worcester, Robertson and Ashton.”

Back to Kruger I went, who thanked me for the detailed information. And a day later, the problem was on its way to being resolved.

“Five-cent stamps came from George!” Johnson told me.

Let’s hope the “broken telephone” form of communication between those post offices and head office gets sorted out as a result of this incident.

For what it’s worth, report stamp shortages to 0860 111 502.

* Staying with matters 5c-related, news broke last week of the copper 5c coin’s imminent demise.

The subject of so many Consumer Watch mentions, thanks to a tendency for some cashiers to withhold it as change, the coin is to be discontinued with effect from April.

I happened to buy something at a branch of Ackermans on Thursday, the day the announcement was made, and as the cashier plopped a 5c coin into my hand as part of my change, I muttered something about the coin’s phase-out.

“Oh my word!” he said. “We’ll have to change everything! Every single price we have ends in 95c!”

Prices ending in 99c are still the norm – despite 1c and 2c pieces having been discontinued almost 10 years ago – in the apparent belief that we consumers think R10.99 is far cheaper than R11.

Reputable retailers “round down” their prices to their customers’ benefit, offering 5c change if between 1c and 4c is strictly due.

So when the 5c supply dwindles, if the retailers stick with their 99c pricing, they will lose out on 9c when rounding down to 90c. And no doubt, in time, complaints will emerge of sullen cashiers refusing to hand over 10c pieces as change.

For me short-changing isn’t about a few withheld cents that most of us could manage without.

Stores should either adapt their prices to the current coinage, enabling them to provide customers with exact change, or, failing that, be prepared to “round up” the change.

If the failure to give customers the correct change or a larger amount is routine practice in a store, you have to wonder what other consumer-unfriendly practices they’re employing.

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