New Consumer NZ CEO Jon Duffy on what makes him tick.
We sat down with new CEO Jon Duffy for a chat about product obsolescence, how to haggle, and the future of Consumer NZ.
What does it mean to you to be leading Consumer NZ?
It’s pretty amazing. It feels like a lifetime ago when I first became aware of what was then the Consumers’ Institute under David Russell. David’s media presence made Consumer NZ a regular part of everyday life. David was followed by Sue Chetwin, and they both did such a wonderful job embodying consumer advocacy in this country. It means a great deal to be following in their footsteps and I am humbled by the opportunity.
Consumer NZ regularly goes into battle against big companies. What’s the biggest battle you’ve ever had as a consumer?
The motor on my (relatively new) Fisher & Paykel washing machine blew up. Fisher & Paykel told me that, because my model had just gone out of production, I would be getting “upgraded” to the next generation washing machine. Awesome! (I thought.) The only point I needed to note was that the upgrade would cost me $400. Not so awesome!
Long story short, it took me three days, a series of “escalations” and eventually the threat of a complaint to the Commerce Commission to get Fisher & Paykel to agree to replace the broken washing machine.
While I was pretty frustrated with how I was treated, what really concerned me was that even with years of experience in consumer protection, it took me three days to talk Fisher & Paykel round! How many people would have just accepted they had to pay the $400 and carried on? Pretty disappointing behaviour from what was once an iconic New Zealand manufacturer.
Have you ever had a case of buyer’s remorse?
That Fisher & Paykel washing machine once it broke down!
What’s the biggest change you’d like to see to beef up consumer protection?
It’s interesting to think about what would happen to existing business models if producers were made to shoulder more responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products.
How different would the consumer experience be if manufacturers and retailers were accountable participants in how we use their products, throughout the goods’ lifecycle – from minimising and reclaiming packaging to managing disposal at the end of a product’s life?
Currently, there is little incentive for businesses to ensure the manufacture, use and disposal of their products are done in a way that’s the least harmful to society. Clever law could provide this incentive and encourage businesses to think of the big picture beyond the economics of the next sale.
What annoys you most about products that can’t be repaired?
It’s that built-in obsolescence is a design choice made by manufacturers. It bugs me that the choice to hard-code the lifespan of a product and not offer replacement parts forces consumers to be participants in a process that, in many cases, ultimately harms them and society as a whole.
How do you think our consumer laws measure up internationally?
There are certainly areas where New Zealand is lagging. Protection for airline passengers is an obvious one, highlighted recently by the Air New Zealand refund saga. New Zealand could learn a lot from the US and EU rules in this area and put consumers first.
We’re also behind many other countries in how we treat data protection. We have a shiny new Privacy Act but there’s no ability for the Privacy Commissioner to take meaningful enforcement action against companies misusing our data. We’ve missed the opportunity to give our data protection law some teeth.
You joined Consumer NZ from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. How different are consumer and privacy issues?
Not that different at all really. Privacy and consumer protection are both about fairness and trust, so there’s a huge overlap. Historically, the two areas have been thought of as quite separate but this is changing.
The rise of the digital economy means we are vulnerable to the misuse of our data in the same way we’ve always been vulnerable to unsafe products or misleading advertising – the protections should be the same.
Price discrimination, where companies use what they know about us to generate a price they think we’ll pay at a specific point in time, is an example of how consumers in the digital economy are more vulnerable than their analogue forebears. That vulnerability will only increase as data collection becomes more sophisticated. Consumers need effective protection.
ANZ Bank is being taken to court by the Financial Markets Authority for selling customers credit card repayment insurance they couldn’t claim on. Do you think we need a banking inquiry?
Early in my career, some wise old heads taught me you should never take it at face value that “there’s nothing to see here”.
An inquiry in Australia found some pretty shocking behaviour from the banks. To convince us that there was no need for a similar inquiry in New Zealand, banks here made out that they behave differently.
Yet, we have ANZ, New Zealand’s largest bank, off to court for spending years selling New Zealanders junk insurance. The biggest players in a market often set the tone. If they can’t be relied on to act in the best interests of consumers, then maybe there is something to see here after all.
Do you haggle? Any top tips?
Not really. I probably should because you never know what you might get for the effort. That said, if I’m switching bank, power or phone company I get in boots and all and push suppliers to offer their best deals.
But those are notable exceptions for me. In reality, I’m like many of us where a lot of the goods or services I use require that I accept them as they come, with no room for negotiation.
If I’m switching bank, power or phone company I get in boots and all and push suppliers to offer their best deals.
We can’t negotiate with the giants that supply so many of the things we buy, so good consumer law with effective protections against unfair contract terms is extremely important.
Some industries in New Zealand are very concentrated – take the supermarket sector. That makes the case for strong consumer laws even stronger, right?
There are only two significant players in our supermarket sector. The barriers to entry are so high that this isn’t likely to change any time soon. In highly concentrated markets, lack of competition can result in consumers paying more or having fewer products to choose from. It can also mean that the industry giants can treat suppliers unfairly or, at worst, drive them out of the market altogether. Consumers lose when that happens.
For suppliers, not only are there limited options for selling their goods, they may also be competing for shelf space with the supermarkets’ own home-brand products.
The conditions are set for bad behaviour. No wonder then that there’s a bill before parliament that proposes extending the unfair contract provisions in the Fair Trading Act beyond consumers to small business. This could help balance the incredible power the supermarkets wield over suppliers.
It’s clear that something’s a bit off in our supermarkets. It’s time to seriously consider a market study, like the one the Commerce Commission recently completed into retail fuel, to find out whether consumers are getting a raw deal.
How would your colleagues describe you (and would your mother agree)?
My mother doesn’t tend to agree with anyone, especially me, so this feels like a bit of a trick question. I don’t know really – hopefully they would see me as supportive, energetic, positive and ambitious – all the things I hope to bring to Consumer NZ.
What does the future hold for Consumer NZ?
Sixty years ago, the first editorial in Consumer talked about misleading claims, lack of consumer knowledge and the need to help consumers make the best choices. These core issues haven’t changed that much, even as our world has become noisier and more complex.
There’s lots to do. Our surveys tell us that environmental concerns, such as water quality and packaging waste, top the list of concerns for consumers.
These are huge issues but we have great people on board to help us address them. Our dedicated staff and our board, but, most important, thousands of Kiwis support us through their memberships and donations, the surveys they fill in or simply their interest in, and positivity about, the work we do.