Sucker punch

It might be frightfully un-British to complain but consumers can fight back against over-priced products, writes Clare Francis

Over the last few months an ugly truth has gradually dawned on sleepy Britons - we pay far more for virtually every product and service than people in Europe and the United States. The term "rip-off Britain" is now standard shorthand used by the media, consumer groups and even Government.

This discontent has stirred up enough anger to get several serious moves underway to make prices more competitive. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers, has announced an investigation into the prices of 100 different products. And the Competition Commission is investigating supermarket prices and accusations of profiteering. The latest Government move, on Friday, promised action against pubs and restaurants which routinely charge rip-off prices for soft drinks.

However, this is unlikely to go far enough. John Shaw, author of a new book on rip-offs,Corporate Cons, is incensed by the level of over-charging in Britain and believes that supermarket pricing is just the tip of the iceberg. "There seems to be a culture in Britain whereby every company in retail strives for unnecessarily high profits. Profit levels in Europe and the US are much lower - which is why consumers there pay far less for identical products," he says. A main contributing factor to Britain's high prices is that competition in many markets has been seriously eroded by the domination of a few large companies, Mr Shaw believes.

The Swedish furnishings company Ikea recently faced heavy criticism after a survey revealed that it charges higher prices in its UK stores than it does in Sweden, Holland and France. Ikea claims prices in Britain are higher than elsewhere due to factors such as greater transportation costs.

This claim is rebuffed by Phil Evans at the Consumers' Association, who attributes it to the lack of competitors. "Competition in Britain has been so poor, and the quality so low, that Ikea can come and offer good quality at prices that undercut the competition, even though its prices are cheaper in the rest of Europe."

New car sales have been a long-standing area of over-pricing, with many British consumers paying up to 40 per cent more for a car than those on the Continent. For example, Broadspeed Engineering, which arranges personal car imports from Europe, says a VW Golf 1.4 would cost pounds 13,420 in the UK, but in Europe you could pay just pounds 6,686. If you are looking for a new car, you may want to hang on: prices seem poised to tumble in the near future. But second-hand cars are already selling at bargain prices, and you should be able to negotiate a very good deal.

Eventually the internet should spell the end of higher prices over here. E-shopping has, according to Phil Evans, helped alter the perception of the British consumer and led us to question UK costs. In the meantime, you can learn to spot the pitfalls (see box, above).

Before you start moaning about prices, it seems that part of the problem is our traditional British reluctance to complain. John Shaw believes that if prices are ever to come down here, the consumer has to take a stand. Even though we complain between ourselves, we still buy the goods. "If consumers really feel they're being charged over the odds, then don't buy," Mr Shaw advises.

n John Shaw, `Corporate Cons' (Management Books 2000, Chalford, Glos, pounds 12.99). Broadspeed Engineering, 0906 960 8880 (pounds 1/min) or www.car-prices.com

FIVE WAYS TO AVOID FINANCIAL RIP-OFFS

n Mug up. If you're even slightly clued up about your finances you won't be such an easy target for the hard sell. Read the financial pages of the press and buy a decent book on personal finance planning (Which? publishes useful titles). Ask any salesman or adviser to make all recommendations in writing. Ask for clear explanations and find out what you'll pay in commission and charges - make sure you understand the way this information is presented. It's easy to hide the nasty small print, so be assertive.

n Never sign on the spot. Do not sign any kind of contract without having taken it home and read it through. And if someone comes to your house, demand the right to go through the literature afterwards before signing up. You have more rights to change your mind if you sign in your own time.

n Be prepared. Keep a file of cuttings, internet print-outs and other info on "good deals" - useful when you come to make big decisions, and you could save thousands. Simple "term" life insurance, for example, is often incredibly cheap, but offers from banks and mortgage-linked deals are still expensive. Compare with the offers from discount brokers, such as Lifequote (www.lifequote.co.uk). On investments, stockmarket ISAs carry a high initial charge: again, you can avoid this by buying via a discount broker, such as Financial Discounts Direct (0500 498477).

n Negotiate. Extremely un-British, but effective. If you use an independent financial adviser and buy an investment with a hefty commission (ie, some personal pensions, with- profits investment bonds, income draw-down schemes, annuities) you should ask for some cash to be rebated into your account.

n Don't be fobbed off. Junior staff in banks, building societies and travel agents may get it wrong. So, ask to speak to someone more senior - eg, there's a big problem at present with travel agents trying to insist you take out their overpriced travel insurance when you buy a holiday. If you have, or plan to buy, your own policy, it's almost certainly quite adequate.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Carlton Senior Appointments: Private Banking Manager - Intl Bank - Los Angeles

$200 - $350 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Managing Producer – Office...

Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advisor – Ind Advisory Firm

$125 - $225 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advi...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Finance Manager

Up to £70,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Sheridan Maine: Regulatory Reporting Accountant

Up to £65,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick