Transcript: Consumer Power - Consume This podcast
In 1947, the residents of the small west coast town of Greymouth united to protest against the rise in beer prices. Their boycott of the local pubs lasted four and a half months and ultimately achieved success. This became the first major consumer activism in New Zealand history. In this episode, Jon Duffy and Sophie Stewart reflect on the history of consumer activism in Aotearoa, examine how Consumer NZ played a part in it, and consider what might happen in the future.
Sophie Stewart: Last time you went to the pub, how much did you pay for a pint? Did it feel too much? And if so, what did you do about it?
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Sophie Stewart: You're listening to Consume This with me, Sophie Stewart, née Richardson. Yep, that's right, Callum and I got married. Got hitched. It was a good time.
On this episode, we're celebrating the power of you. You, the consumer.
New Zealand consumer action long predates the establishment of Consumer NZ. Its beginnings can be traced back to 1947 and the Greymouth Beer Boycott. It was arguably the first major consumer action in our history. A whole town coming together to fight the system. So what happened?
Well, in 1947, Greymouth had 21 pubs and a population of around 9,000 people. That's about one pub for every 420 ish people. That includes women and children who didn't tend to frequent pubs, so basically what I'm saying is there were a lot of pubs. That should have led to fierce competition for consumer dollars. If one pub is too expensive, well, there are 20 others to choose from. But the landlords all got together and essentially formed a cartel to raise the price of beer. This ultimately led to one of the most effective consumer boycotts ever seen in New Zealand.
In the 1940s, public hotels were legally supposed to close at 6pm, but these hours were only nominally obeyed on the West Coast, where ignoring the rules was part of the frontier tradition.
Insert Wild West music, Tom.
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Sophie Stewart: Thanks.
To avoid profiteering and focus energy on the war effort, the government had introduced a range of price controls in 1939. This applied to everything from eggs to houses, and prices could only be increased by application to a Price Stabilisation Authority. As the war ended, the government faced problems. How were they going to remove the price controls without causing massive inflation?
As we entered a new era of prosperity, businesses began demanding price rises. In 1940, the price of a 10 ounce beer was set at 6 pence. That's about $2.90 in today's money. Bloody bargain as far as I'm concerned. Two years later, the price was raised to 7 pence.
Initially, this price rise wasn't implemented on the West Coast, and I'm just speculating here, but probably because hotel keepers feared protest from the drinkers. A fair concern as it turned out. But fast forward five years and Greymouth's hotel keepers wanted to bring their prices in line with the rest of the country.
Rumors began to spread that the price of beer was going to rise, but no publican wanted to take the decision alone. After all, customers would just go to another hotel where prices were lower. To solve this problem, the Licensed Victuallers Association, or basically the publicans, got together on the 29th of September 1947 and announced that the price of beer would increase immediately from six pence to seven pence in all west coast hotels.
Publicans knew it wouldn't be popular, but they didn't expect organised resistance. Pitchforks in the street. But for the people of the West Coast, beer was an emotive issue. The working men demanded that their unions take immediate action. The West Coast Trades Council rallied their members and held a public meeting.
Trade Union Official: "This meeting of the Trades Council and offices of the local trade unions recommends to all workers that if the price of beer is increased, they boycott hotels from the date of such increase. This decision being based on record profits being made by breweries, thus indicating that an increase in the price of beer is not warranted."
Sophie Stewart: There was scepticism about the boycott, but just days later, on the 2nd of October, the Greymouth Evening Star reported:
Greymouth Evening Star Reporter: "Plate after plate of food, counter lunches barely touched, providing ample testimony to the apparent effectiveness of the boycott. A tour of Greymouth hotels about 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon made it obvious that so far, the boycott has at least been fairly successful in reducing custom."
Sophie Stewart: Publicans tried to maintain a united front, but Paddy Keating of the Central Hotel in Greymouth kept his prices at six pence. Business boomed and he had crowds spilling into the street. The Central Hotel quickly ran out of beer before a local citizen stepped in and gave them a 36 gallon keg to tide them over. What a good bloke.
This standoff lasted four and a half months before hotel owners finally caved. On February the 5th, 1948, the LVA issued a statement saying that the pubs could choose to sell beer for six pence or seven pence and by the 13th the Greymouth star reported that all beer was being sold for six pence.
So my Consume This co-host Jon Duffy...
Jon Duffy: Hello.
Sophie Stewart: You've been known to enjoy a pint or two... Next time you're out at the pub are you going to be protesting the price because I think we should. I mean like $17 for a beer is getting ridiculous.
Jon Duffy: Yeah beer is super expensive in pubs these days But You Have to believe that you've been charged a fair and reasonable price and um.
Sophie Stewart: Nonsense, I want a $2.90 beer...
Jon Duffy: Well that may not be great beer. But you know the example that you raised is a really cool and interesting example of consumer power in Aotearoa and as we know it didn't stop there.
Sophie Stewart: I mean. Yeah. Hot on the heels of the beer boycotts, the 1950s saw post war austerity replaced by a prosperous new era of consumption. What we now think of as the modern consumer was born. But as we increasingly identified ourselves in relation to the clothes we wore and the products that filled our homes, a sense of unease grew about the brave new world of consumerism. Following the scarcity of the 1930s and 40s, we had more goods available at the grocery store and at the high street.
But concerns emerged that rising levels of affluence and more sophisticated marketing made us vulnerable to being ripped off for bad products we didn't need. There were also safety concerns about some of these new products.
Jon Duffy: Well, from our experience at Consumer NZ, these concerns haven't really gone away.
We still spend loads of time thinking about dodgy marketing, things like greenwashing and unsafe products.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah, and these concerns weren't restricted to Aotearoa, right? Following in the footsteps of the US, the UK and Scandinavia, Prime Minister Walter Nash launched the Consumer Service in September 1959.
And as you might have guessed, or you probably already knew, given that you're the chief executive, that service is what eventually grew into Consumer NZ.
Jon Duffy: So in a way, we actually have Walter Nash to thank for this podcast.
Sophie Stewart: Wow.
Jon Duffy: Uh, so how did we get from there to sitting here right now?
Sophie Stewart: Well, straight off the bat, the service was a huge success.
It tapped into the rebellious frontier spirit we mentioned before. Before the Consumer Service had even been officially opened 50 letters had been received. The topics included concerns over hair and weight loss products. I mean, you know, I think you're probably still getting some of those letters, Jon. The need for better information on insurance policies, again still getting those letters, and the high price of groceries. Um, we're still getting those letters. Yeah.
Jon Duffy: Um, Oh, we're definitely getting them on insurance and the high price of groceries and actually weight loss products. Yes.
Sophie Stewart: So six months after it opened, the consumer service had over 3,000 members It reached the 10,000 mark in under a year.
In 1963, the Consumer Service became the Consumers Institute with membership of 43,000. In 1986, the government withdrew its support, with funding drying up in 1989. Boo.
Jon Duffy: Well that's right, and even though that was sad, it is when we became an incorporated society funded by our members.
Sophie Stewart: you.
Jon Duffy: Yeah. So what, we lost an income, we gained in independence. And that's an independence we've retained to this day.
Sophie Stewart: Okay, so, Jon as well as being my co-host, you are the Consumer NZ CEO, so real top line for any new listeners out there. What does Consumer NZ actually do?
Jon Duffy: Oh, I've thought about this a lot. Um, because you know, there's all these people that turn up to work and I kind of look at them beavering away and I'm like, what is that person doing?
I think at its essence, we're problem solvers. So we identify problems. We undertake some form of research, and then we provide advice on solving that problem. And that, you know, it's obviously way more nuanced than that, but right at its heart that's it.
Sophie Stewart: Well, how do you go about doing that then?
Jon Duffy: Well, it all depends on what we're dealing with. So Consumer's got just under 50 staff with a really broad range of skills. There's designers, there's IT specialists, to journalists and lawyers. So we've got a few different levers to pull, and let's, of course, not forget podcast producers.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah.
Jon Duffy: They're really important and underappreciated, eh, Tom?
Sophie Stewart: Yeah. Thanks, Tom.
Jon Duffy: So a good example of the variety of the work we get involved in is PowerSwitch. So in 1999, we knew that too many people were paying too much for their electricity. Better offers were available, but switching was too much of a hassle.
We started PowerSwitch with support from the government, the industry we're involved and Consumer NZ members. The service helps you work out which power company and price plan is best for you. We've only got records back to about 2012, but Powerswitch manager Paul Fuge estimates that we've saved consumers around $20 million on their power bills in that time.
Are you paying too much for power?
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Sophie Stewart: Wow.
Jon Duffy: That is enough to buy everyone in New Zealand two 1947 style beers with some change left over.
Sophie Stewart: But only two today beers.
Jon Duffy: Yeah, 10 million dollars each at a Wellington pub.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah, that's right.
Sophie Stewart: So, I guess that's one thing when the market is working slightly inefficiently, but another when businesses are actively working against their customers.
Jon Duffy: Yeah, that's true. But it's not always possible to work with business. Sometimes business doesn't like us, and so sometimes we need to apply a bit more pressure.
Sophie Stewart: And how do you go about that? Thumbscrews?
Jon Duffy: Well, there's a couple of ways we can do this. Don't forget, we're an NGO. We don't have any regulatory powers or anything like that. So a lot of our strength comes from the trust in our brand and our ability to convince people to do the right thing right.
So one way we do that is to create as much noise as we can around an issue in the hopes that businesses do the right thing or the government steps in and forces them to, and we've been quite successful in campaigning for change across our history.
A good example is, you know, from 1956 to 1965, higher purchase consumer debt trebled. As this new era of consumption that we talked about earlier really kicked in and people wanted more and bigger, and used higher purchase to buy these big ticket items.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah.
Jon Duffy: And that really left consumers who weren't really used to managing their finances in this way, vulnerable to financial pressures.
Sophie Stewart: Especially when a microwave was $1,000.
Jon Duffy: Yeah, that's right. So we campaigned over the next eight years until Parliament came to the party and passed the High Purchase Act, which has now been in modern times incorporated into the CCCFA.
Sophie Stewart: Nice.
Jon Duffy: Similarly, um, after a five year campaign by the Consumers Institute, the government brought in the Small Claims Tribunal in 1977, which is now what we know as the Disputes Tribunal.
In 1991, we called for a Privacy Act of all things.
Sophie Stewart: Yay!
Jon Duffy: To protect people's personal information. And as you well know Sophie, the Privacy Act 1993 arrived two years later.
Sophie Stewart: Yes. And now we have the Privacy Act 2020.
Jon Duffy: And sometimes we need to take the law into our own hands.
Sophie Stewart: Oh, the thumbscrews are coming out.
Jon Duffy: Yeah. Um, and I guess a good example of that is our work in the sunscreen space. So in 2018, only four of the 19 sunscreens in our annual test met their SPF claims. And yeah, which is... uh, we've got a whole podcast on this particular issue that is one that is close to my heart as a beautiful ginger man. But over the course of our campaign, several businesses have been, they've been fined for making false claims about the SPF level of their products.
In 2021 the owner of a testing laboratory in the United States was jailed after a FBI investigation for falsifying lab reports. And one of our articles, actually from Consumer NZ, was entered in evidence by the FBI prosecutors in that case, which is pretty cool.
Sophie Stewart: It is pretty cool.
Jon Duffy: Pretty dodgy that it happened in the first place.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah.
Jon Duffy: Kind of a dodgy cool.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah, definitely dodgy cool.
Jon Duffy: So, you know, when all that's said and done, for all of the work Consumer NZ does, we are entirely reliant on the activism that's inherent to Kiwi consumers.
Sophie Stewart: We love a complain.
Jon Duffy: Well, we actually do love a complain. That's right. Because complaining is how change starts.
And you know, let's be completely honest. Consumers don't necessarily need us to get their point across, but we provide focus, and that's a really important part of engendering change as well.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah, that's quite right Jon. We've seen that recently, and consumers don't always need Consumer NZ to make their point known, um...
Jon Duffy: Yeah, Consumers can do just fine on their own when they see something they're not happy with. If DB Breweries had done their research, they might have known better than to mess with beer and the residents of New Zealand's West Coast. You might recall this in 20... Actually, you're really
Sophie Stewart: young. In 2001?
Jon Duffy: Yeah.
Sophie Stewart: I mean, I was here.
Jon Duffy: They tried to close down the Monteith's Brewery, moving production from Greymouth to Auckland.
Sophie Stewart: I was 11, Jon, gosh.
Jon Duffy: Yeah. West Coast,
Jon Duffy: West Coast Tasman MP Damien O'Connor labelled Monteith's parent company DB, and I quote, "dumb bastards". And 14 people were made redundant.
That decision lasted four days before the company bowed to public pressure and reopened the brewery in Greymouth.
Did you see what he did there Soph?
Sophie Stewart: No.
Jon Duffy: DB.
Sophie Stewart: DB, oh yeah. Dumb bastards. Nice.
Jon Duffy: Nice. And Kiwi consumer activists, they start young as well. So, and this is one I have to say that is very close to my heart... In 2004, two Auckland school girls, Anna and Jenny, conducted a school science experiment and discovered there was almost no vitamin C at all in ready to drink Ribena, despite claims made on the, on the package.
GlaxoSmithKline, which manufactures Ribena, was prosecuted by the Commerce Commission and fined $227,000 and ordered to make a nationwide campaign of corrective advertising in newspapers. Now, I have a particular soft spot for this case because I was the lead investigator on the complaint when I worked at the Commerce Commission all of those years ago.
The thing that stands out for me from this one was the sense of betrayal that people felt. That this iconic brand Ribena that people had grown up with, you know, it's like this war brand from England and New Zealanders had grown up having this shoveled down their throats, even though it was so high in sugar by their parents. And suddenly the one good bit about it, the vitamin C content, despite the high sugar content, was missing and people just felt ripped off. So that was a real eye opener for me, that case.
Sophie Stewart: I definitely felt that because my dad used to buy me a Ribena after school every day. A sparkling Ribena, which I still have a soft spot for to be fair, despite the lack of vitamin C. Um, but it was delicious.
So we've kind of touched on a bit, Jon that, you know, you can't do the work that you do without members and also consumers generally getting behind campaigns and pushing for change. How do you harness all of this consumer power that you've got access to?
Jon Duffy: There's lots of ways we can do it, but a really obvious example is using the power of petitions, right?
So, petitions are something that politicians really pay attention to. So, if you can get lots of people united behind an issue and get them to sign a petition, there can be really impactful change resulting from that.
So, if I think about some of our work in the last wee while, we launched a petition in May last year for the government to go beyond the recommendations made by the Commerce Commission's Grocery Market Study. 78,000 New Zealanders signed the petition. And as a result, the government announced that yes, it was going to go beyond the recommendations in that market study and make further interventions to help improve competition, which is sorely needed in that sector. So sure, Consumer NZ focused the laser, but the energy came from consumers signing up to that petition and giving it momentum.
So that's super cool. I'm super proud of the people who got in behind that and the work we did at Consumer around that issue.
Sophie Stewart: So, I mean, that's really awesome that people can get behind these sorts of movements and act collectively. Is there any other ways that people can get involved beyond just signing a petition?
Jon Duffy: Yeah, sure. I mean, there's lots of work that we do that involves input from consumers. So it could be as simple as providing us information on an appliance that broke down so that we can add that into our appliance reliability information. You could answer a survey. Or, or even provide us feedback on other types of things.
So there's lots of ways that you can interact with us, but I guess the best way is for people to get in the club. So become a supporter, or if you're able to, become a paying member and that helps us keep the lights on and do more stuff to help make life better for consumers.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah.
Jon Duffy: The power of the 175 odd thousand supporters that we have is that it's not just our staff out there in the supermarkets, in the retail shops, you know, on websites it's the wider community that's out there being our ears and eyes, and we really appreciate hearing from that community. It really amplifies our ability to make change.
Sophie Stewart: Well, that was a really great summary of consumer NZ's sort of current state, Jon, what does the future hold? What does that look like for Consumer NZ and consumer activism in new Zealand?
Jon Duffy: Well, I think as far as consumer activism goes. It's part of the Kiwi psyche to hold businesses to account. But it's getting trickier, right? It's getting murkier. And often we see examples where we've been able to uncover activity that actually consumers can't detect under their own steam. They need people who are looking into these issues to highlight them to them. So I think that will continue to be a really big part of what we do.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah. Sunscreens are a really great example of that, right? Like, how could I test a sunscreen in my own? Like, I'd have to set up a lab.
Jon Duffy: Exactly. You know, and it was even difficult for us. Like we had to crowdfund to support our testing of those products because it's super expensive. So your average consumer is not going to be able to send those products off to labs in France and Germany to get tested. Right. So, you know, at its core, we'll continue to keep trying to help consumers get a fair deal. And over the last couple of years, we've refined that down to some core focus areas, which reflect what consumers are telling us in terms of what they're concerned about.
So it won't be a surprise to you that the top of the list at the moment is the cost of living crisis. That's as simple as the affordability of what's on sale at the supermarket. So all of the campaign work that we've, and we've talked about it already in this podcast, but all the campaign work we're doing in the supermarket space, that's not to pick on the supermarkets. That's to help people afford to put food on the table, right? If we can get....
Sophie Stewart: I mean they're just the best representation of that at the moment, right? Like that's where people are feeling it is at the grocery checkout because they're like, if I can't afford to feed my family, then what else am I having to give up like to make do..?
Jon Duffy: Yeah, that's right. The electricity sector is similar, right? We hear these heartbreaking stories from our networks, budget advisors and the Salvation Army and places like that, where people are having what are called heat and eat decisions, right?
What are we going to do this tonight or this week? Are we going to put food on the table or are we going to have a warm house? And we can't do both. You know, what's our choice? And that's in a first world nation. It's not acceptable that people are facing those pressures. You know, we see a range of options for fixing those, but competition, better market structures are one of those solutions.
And that's why we've been relentless in our efforts, particularly in the supermarket space, to improve the structure of the market. And we're not there yet. So we won't be shutting that one down until we see positive results.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah. And I guess the electricity point is also related to one of the other areas of focus, which would be housing, right?
Jon Duffy: Yeah, absolutely. So housing fairness is so central to so much that goes on in our economy, because our housing stock is also a core investment for a lot of people, right? Much of our wealth is tied up in housing and, you know, we've been told for many, many years, hey, the best, the best investment you can possibly make is to try and get on the housing ladder and then buy more houses, right?
So, in some cases, people who aren't equipped to be landlords are being landlords, which has an impact on the quality of life for tenants. On the other hand, there are people who are fantastic landlords and, and really wanna take care of both their tenants and their properties, but it shouldn't be the luck of the draw, which are those two uh, extremes that you get right. We need better laws to protect tenants.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah.
Jon Duffy: Who are squeezed in the middle.
Sophie Stewart: And we've had the human rights Commissioner come out and say that housing is a human right.
Jon Duffy: And so it should be, you know?
Sophie Stewart: Mm-hmm.
Jon Duffy: I find it problematic that we are viewing housing investment as an investment rather than an obligation to provide a healthy home for someone.
And that's not to criticize all landlords, because I know there are people out there who take it really seriously and do a great job, but there are also some that don't. And the stats that come out of, of MBIE and other places really show that there's a lot of work to be done to get our housing stock even just compliant with existing laws.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah. And like to get that sort of healthy home, as you said, it's about a warm, dry, mold free place to live, which, you know, many flats don't quite make that mark and that leads into sort of health problems, right? We see more asthma in people who rent and have cold, damp houses and worse health outcomes for people who aren't living in healthy homes.
Jon Duffy: Yeah, that's right. So we another one of our core focus areas is health and well being and yeah, housing is a huge part of that, right? It's kind of the core of so much of what we do, but that also expands out into the work we do in the sunscreen space, for example, or our campaign to see direct to consumer drug advertising prohibited in New Zealand.
I find it absolutely bewildering that we are one of two countries, the other country being the United States, that still allows large pharmaceuticals to advertise directly to consumers. So those consumers turn up to their GP and say I want X product because I've self diagnosed that this is my problem, and I want you to give that to me. And the GPs sit there pulling their hair out going, no, I'm the professional, here's my diagnosis. You actually need this other product or no product at all. Yet we're allowing the pharmaceutical industry to continue to advertise directly to our people.
Another of our five core areas is data and privacy, and I know this is probably one that's close to your heart.
Sophie Stewart: Sure is.
Jon Duffy: But, I mean, we know that this is a rapidly changing area. We know that we probably don't have the strongest privacy protection laws in New Zealand, particularly the idea that you can breach the Privacy Act and not be guilty of an offence. I find that really out of step with other jurisdictions.
We're seeing behavior in larger sectors, the supermarkets included where biometric technology is being rolled out, rolled back once we called it out, and then potentially rolled out again. We're not really sure.
But, you know, using facial recognition technology to clock you as you go into the supermarket and then compare your image with an image of "undesirables" that are unwanted in that store, potentially dispatching a security guard to deal with you, take action against you... That's, that's all perfectly legal under our existing privacy legislation, but most people would probably be pretty surprised to find out that's going on. And that becomes a disclosure issue, right? How are we telling our populace that this technology is out there in the wild, being...
Sophie Stewart: And what are the implications of it? And like, also what are the implications of a data breach? If they're collecting your biometrics, what are they doing with them? How are they storing them? Where are they? Keeping them. How they're keeping them safe, all of those things. I've been victim of a data breach recently. It's led to a huge amount of scam calls come as a result of it. And now also I'm having to protect my credit file because my credit information was put at risk. So I now have to proactively go and tell the Credit Reporting Bureau's my data was breached and I have to get my credit file suppressed and like all these things.
And that's all on me. There's no... easy system for me to do that. I also have to proactively make a complaint if i want to, to the privacy commissioner even though they're doing an inquiry into this particular data breach that i was involved in. There's actually no outcomes for individuals consumers as a result of it. It's not like they go "okay we've got a settlement of a million dollars and we'll divvy that up between X number of complainants" or whatever. It's just, you know, oh, well, slap on the wrist. Don't do that again you naughty buggers.
So it's just really, it's not helpful, even for people who know their rights. And that's what I'm saying. Yeah.
Jon Duffy: And there is just so many facets to it.
So, you know... we are trying to break down some of the technical expertise that you need to even kind of exist in the modern marketplace. To understand all of these things and make it simpler for people and help them through these types of issues.
Sophie Stewart: Yeah, an example of like things getting more and more complicated would be like the climate and greenwashing stuff that we're seeing in supermarkets where you might have an eco label on something, but does that actually mean that it's more eco friendly?
Jon Duffy: Yeah, look at and it's not just supermarkets. It's across the marketplace, right? And we see this from our consumer sentiment tracker data. People, particularly post Cyclone Gabriel and the rain events in Auckland and Northland, have increased concern about the impacts of climate change, right?
They want to make good purchasing decisions. They're spending money with retailers and manufacturers. That money has power, right? So they want to make sure that it's going to the right type of choices. So they're really vulnerable to claims that may not be able to be substantiated about how sustainable a product might be.
So there's a huge amount of work to do. And to be frank, our regulators are overwhelmed. There is so much of it going on out there that even with all the best will in the world they wouldn't be able to keep up because it's so pervasive. So we really see room there for further regulation to actually level the playing field and make it clear to businesses, Hey, these are the rules. These types of expressions or claims are prohibited. The Europeans have done something similar and we're really strong advocates for that.
Sophie Stewart: That's a lot of work that Consumer NZ is doing. How do you fund all of that?
Jon Duffy: We have a mixed funding model. So we have members who subscribe to us and that's a little bit under 50% of our revenue, and then we get money in through various other things, particularly contracts with central government when they fund us to do a specific project.
But Yeah, you know, the bulk of the work, this extra work that we do comes out of subscriptions that our members pay to us to get access to our information. But also a lot of people just subscribe to support us because they believe in what we do. We wouldn't exist without those people. So yeah. If there's one thing people listening who aren't a Consumer NZ member could do if they want to support all of this really important mahi that we're up to, subscribe.
We'd really appreciate having you in the team. And actually the bigger the team gets, the more members and supporters that we have, the more powerful and impactful we can be when we're advocating on behalf of consumers.
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Sophie Stewart: This episode of Consume This was written and researched by Ruairi O'Shea. It was produced by Tom Riste-Smith.
Jon Duffy: It also featured the amazing voice talents of Nick Gelling and Phil Murdoch.
Sophie Stewart: Consume This is brought to you by Consumer NZ and made possible in part by the support of our members. Thank you. For more information about the huge benefits of membership, check out the Consumer NZ website.
Thanks for joining us.