I am nervous about meeting the Walkleys. This is the family that has been banned from all Sainsbury's supermarkets because they refuse to shop in the "normal" way. "They are abusive, aggressive and disruptive," says a Sainsbury's press officer. This makes me wonder whether they are the family from hell, or at least the family that the home secretary Jack Straw is most likely to arrest the next time he gets one of his civic urges. But it is what the press release doesn't mention that catches my eye.
Over the past 15 months the Walkleys have become obsessive price-checkers. It all started humbly enough with a bottle of wrongly priced Dolmio sauce at their local in Hemel Hempstead. Sainsbury's policy is that if there is a discrepancy between the price on the shelf label and that charged at the check-out, you get your money back and the product for free. The Walkleys started to find lots of errors and, as frustrations mounted, perfected the guerrilla tactic of bulk-buying these items. Since last January, they claim to have had pounds 12,000-worth of free stuff, including gallons of Rolling Rock beer and lifetime supplies of such staples as pinto beans, Nivea moisturiser, custard and Lucozade.
I'm not sure what to expect, other than a bottle of Rolling Rock, as I head off to meet what has been called the "Gang of Four" in deepest Hemel Hempstead. It seems wise to be wary because so far all the opinions I've received have been negative - though it must be said that these were based on nothing more specific than a thorough knowledge of the English psyche. "They are not champions of the consumer," said one friend. "They are in it for the freebies. And who wouldn't be?" He had a point. At times England does seem to be a country in search of a free upgrade. But there was a chance that everyone out there was wrong, and the Walkleys really did just want the price to be right. Even Ralph Nader had to start somewhere, so why not in Hemel Hempstead?
I drive to a road that is on the rump of suburbia. The Thirties-style semis sit back from it with room to spare. This is a relaxed version of net-curtain land: not so much a place for twitching as for swishing. I expect to have a conversation with someone about where to park, and I do, but it is very amiable. I am ushered into a warm front room with a nice three-piece suite and a stone fireplace with a gas-effect fire. The kettle is boiling. "Coffee? I'm afraid it's Sainsbury's," they say. I say that I don't mind but perhaps they should. After all, isn't this drinking with the enemy?
This is the home of David Walkley, who is 63 and a former environmental health chemist. Now he is an asbestos surveyor. His son Peter, 27, runs a computer software business with his wife Fenella. They live across town. Richard, 25, is the baby brother and runs another computer business from Braintree in Essex. Their mum, Diane, is the only one who hasn't been banned. She says that she can't be in any photographs. "They don't know what she looks like," says one son.
The two brothers have appeared that morning on GMTV and we watch the video. The label that appears under their names says "Banned From Sainsbury's". At one point the presenter says to the boys: "Does the phrase `get a life' ever spring to mind?" We laugh, though perhaps a little uneasily. The Sainsbury's statement calling them "abusive, aggressive and disruptive" is flashed up on the screen. "How embarrassing," says their mum. "It is not! It's funny," insists Richard. There is an autographed postcard of the GMTV presenter on top of the fireplace.
Obsession has got a bad image these days, though I'm not sure why. The Walkleys insist that they are not obsessed but I would disagree. Peter has put together an aide-memoire. It is many pages long and chronicles the past 14 months in great detail. It is cross-indexed. It takes almost three hours to plough through. The Walkleys' recall of prices, products and weights is phenomenal. Some of the conversations are just a maze of figures. At times they almost seem to be speaking a private language. Events tend to be remembered in terms of products. So there is a "Nesquik and tissues" day, or the "Pampers Handi-wipes" moment. And what about the 14 packs of Scottish salmon? Everyone looks at one another; no one likes salmon any longer.
Fenella is wearing a T-shirt that says "Been There, Done That, Seen That, Bought Everything". She is quick to cut through the detail to make a point. "It is not against the law to be a pain in the arse," she notes. She seems to have an acute grasp of the law, though all the family are fluent in weights and measures. At one point David brings over a photocopied shelf- label for something called "Cadbury Chocolate Trifle" and talks me through it. There is a mistake to do with the weights that makes the unit price wrong. This I find baffling, but David says it's easy.
The saga can be divided into clear phases. At first it was a game. After the Dolmio incident the Walkleys started to find other mistakes. They liked getting the products free but noted that errors were sometimes not corrected for some time. This became a topic of conversation. No one was bored - yet. By summer, Richard and Peter had begun to look for problems farther afield, at Sainsbury's in Watford and St Albans.
Then came the Libby's orange drink incident. It was Richard who found an error in the labelling and decided to fill his trolley up with the stuff. The result was pounds 121-worth of orange drink. Did he wonder what he was doing at the time? "No, I thought, this is great!" he says. It became a bit of a competition. It was the World Cup, and beer was on sale. Peter found a price problem and filled up his cabriolet with 19 cases of Rolling Rock worth pounds 278. This, by the way, was on a Saturday night. I look incredulous. "Well, it didn't take long," says Peter.
Then the second phase began. This was the co-operative one. The Walkleys were on a bit of a mission now to help Sainsbury's identify its errors, and not just in pricing. Weights should be correct, and spellings too. At one point, Sainsbury's offered them vouchers for every error. Peter and Richard welcomed this. Fenella wasn't too keen. "I was bored. All this stuff was stacking up in my dining-room. There were tons of pinto beans." Richard and Peter spent two days checking thousands of products at the Watford store. They say they found 1,025 tickets with errors of one type or another. (Sainsbury says only a handful were pricing.) Peter typed up half the list and sent it to Sainsbury's, which told them to stop now.
Next came solicitors' letters to sort out the vouchers-for-errors deal. The Walkleys then had a period where they did get on with their lives and avoided Sainsbury's. "I prefer Waitrose anyway, and Richard lives next to a Tesco," says Peter. But they had the odd price flutter and even appeared on Watchdog to check out Asda, Tesco and Safeway. They found very few errors and say that the ones they did find were put right. They cannot praise these stores enough.
By now it was getting personal. The final phase is told in so much detail that it is the verbal equivalent of a painting by Seurat. Sainsbury's warned them to shop "normally" but Peter couldn't resist going to a new store. He got a refund on 28 items. Sainsbury's had had enough, and issued a ban.
Sainsbury's believes the case is now closed. The Walkleys beg to disagree. David is particularly incensed because, though obsessed with prices and weights, he has never indulged in bulk-buying. Fenella says he has been "personally wounded". He does seem very upset. When we go to take the photographs, David will not be stopped from popping in to Sainsbury's for some creme brulee. This is hardly a staple. He says that he wanted to use his loyalty card to prove that he was there, and also he wanted to check on a price. "Was it still wrong?" asks Peter. "Still wrong," says David.
The younger three have a different attitude. They have started their own website (www.overcharge.force9.co.uk) and plan to keep up the pressure. So, I ask, do they ever wish they had just stopped with the Libby's orange drink incident? Richard thinks for a very short moment: "This country is too soft. Everyone just plods along and says, Oh yes, that's OK. It doesn't matter if we are getting ripped off. Somebody's got to make a point. We want things to change. We bought ones and twos of things. It didn't change. We bought fives and sixes of things. It didn't change. So we bought tens and twenties of things. It was to prove a point, to make them listen and make them realise, bloody hell, these guys are going to carry on."
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