After the wrap-up, no more rip-offs

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The Independent Online
TAKE a deep breath before you head out for some last-minute Christmas shopping. The festive season will cost us an average of pounds 725 each according to Switch, the debit card provider. Switch also suggests that one in 10 adults spends more than pounds 1,500 on presents and the associated food, drink and decorations (although I certainly don't know any of them).

The shame is that even those on very modest budgets are being forced to spend more than they should. There's a growing awareness and anger that we are being taken for a ride by shops, car dealers and supermarkets. Why should Timberland boots cost pounds 130 in the UK when you can get them for pounds 78 in Spain? A Nikon camera is pounds 300 here and pounds 219 in Germany.

The US is even cheaper - Timberland boots cost pounds 60. A CD is pounds 8 in the States and at least pounds 13 here. Even a bottle of single malt whisky costs less in the US (pounds 17) than it does in the UK (pounds 20).

With luck, we may see the price gap starting to close by next Christmas. Earlier this year the Treasury asked the European Commission to carry out a massive Europe-wide price survey. That's now going ahead and the results should be published next spring. The report should force more openness on pricing structures.

The introduction of the euro currency in 11 other EU countries on 1 January will also help. Prices on all goods will be quoted in euros as well as the local currency, making it easy to compare them.

The Office of Fair Trading is also due to report early in 1999 on whether British supermarkets make excessive profits, to the detriment of customers

(a rhetorical question, you might think).

In the long term the outlook for our pockets is good. The problem of rip-off UK prices may eventually solve itself through the combination of European currency convergence and massive growth in internet shopping - giving us easy access to cheaper goods from abroad.

Abbey's token gift

IT'S TIME to announce the Most Pointless Christmas Gimmick of 1998. The winner is Abbey National for its offer of a year's private health care for any baby born on 25 December 1998. "A very special birthday present", worth pounds 250. Abbey gushes that one lucky Christmas baby will win free private cover until he or she is 18. Apart from the slightly distasteful and divisive aspect of this, Abbey isn't exactly pushing the goodwill boat out. Children have extremely low claim rates for private medical cover, and are included at no extra charge on many adult policies.

Abbey would have been more generous if it had offered free private cover to one lucky granny, who would be much more likely to use her policy. Or, even better, donated cash to a health charity.

Merry Christmas to you all.