Day to day living

Check this out

There has been a revolution in supermarket checkouts over the past 12 months or so. Supermarkets are demonstrating a hitherto unprecedented level of trust in their customers by allowing them to check out their own shopping. This saves on wages and potentially saves the customer time. There is a risk that some customers will take advantage of this idea by not checking items out, or by committing card fraud - however, these risks can be mitigated against to some degree with random checking, and any rise in theft must have been shown to be less than the benefits to the supermarkets.

There are a few systems in place right now:

Scan at checkout

Seen in Tesco, B&Q

The idea here is that the customer shops as usual, and then proceeds to an automated checkout where they scan each item. Once scanned, the item is placed into a 'bagging area' where a scale checks the weight of the item matches what was scanned. As bags become full they can be removed.

Advantages

No special training is needed. A voice gives instruction. The customer can decide to use the system after shopping.

Disadvantages

Some items don't scan well - and there isn't an obvious way to type in the number from scratch. Some light items do not register as being placed in the bagging area. Once the system has been used a few times, it is easy to 'run ahead' of the system and scan faster than it can cope with. The insistence that every item is placed in the bagging area adds delay. There is no obvious way to tell the system 'here is one pot of yoghurt, I have 5 more just like it'.

Verdict

I will use these systems, but for more than a few items I find they're more trouble than they're worth. I find the voice nagging and slow. It'd be better if I could scan my clubcard at the start and it'd remember my preferences 'expert user, no voice' - these could be adjusted online.

Handheld Scanner

Seen in Sainsbury

The idea here is that as the customer shops as usual, they scan the barcodes of the items. At checkout, there is a 'fast' lane, where the customer's scanner is checked. Occasionally a random 'rescan' is done (I am guessing that the probability of a rescan goes up if previous scans were in error - and that some level of error will cause them to revoke the fast-track rights). The 'Electric Death' site suggests two errors lead to always rescanning. This seems too absolute to me, as wait long enough and virtually everyone would have two errors. There would have to be some 'aging' to this, i.e. an old error is 'worth less' than a new - and correct rescans improve the customer's rating (with new rescans counting for more than old). I'd like to know how this has evolved since the system was introduced.

Advantages

A very fast checkout most of the time, and a running tally of the shopping bill.

Disadvantages

Not every item is 'in the system', so occasionally there are 'problem items'. I assume this is because the scanner doesn't connect to the main database each time. These items must be kept separately and rescanned at checkout. Most of the time, if I get a problem item it'll remain on the shelf.

Why not record the barcode of the 'problem item' on the scanner and pass this to the checkout for checking on the main database?

The scanner does not adjust for offers in the running total. These are corrected for at checkout. Also, at checkout, the system has sometimes allowed a tagged item to go home without the tag being removed - this is a pain.

Some customer training is needed to use the scanner.

Verdict

I like this system a lot - it operates as fast as the user and drastically reduces time at the end of the shop when you just want to 'get out of there'. The rescan is a pain when it happens, but seems intelligent (i.e. to reduce in frequency with accurate rescans). They will sometimes not have a 'fast track' lane open, but what's really nice is that if you approach the checkout with a scanner, and there are queues then they'll rush to open a 'scanner only' lane for you.

The big problem is that so far I've only seen it in Sainsburys. Also, the system is not connected between stores - if I register for the system at Store A, and go into Store B then I need to register there as well. This is rather daft in this day and age - the stores should be able to communicate this information.

Universal Problem

One big problem with all checkouts in the UK is the Chip and Pin device. This is usually mounted in an easy to see location, so the customer can't miss it. Unfortunately they were not designed in such a way that when the pin is entered, the keypad is obscured. Thus one can stand and read pin numbers as people type them - a recipe for muggers.(*) Why weren't they designed with a deeper 'shield' -so that if you needed to look you had to remove the hand - but with the hand in, the keypad couldn't be seen?

Ah well, as things stand right now - I'll shield my pin, and the mugger skimming numbers will focus on the easier targets all around me. An ex-colleague had his pin cloned by an oik who had the cctv trained on the card reader, they got the card number by freeze-framing the card as it went in, and the pin by watching the fingers - if the handheld is detachable, detach it to avoid this issue!

(*) I once decided to be helpful to a friendly-looking lady in a queue by saying that she should hide her pin for this reason, that she entered it in a way that the number could be read (I knew it by standing behind her). I got back 'if I get mugged in a minute I'll know who to blame then!'... yeah, muggers forewarn their victims! And they wonder why people aren't helpful any more?

Mustard

I found myself in Tesco the other day, doing a shop. I also found myself getting really annoyed.

Why?

It was the pricing policy. With a range of items, it can be hard to compare prices, so they 'helpfully' put on the shelf label something like 57p/100g.

Some may object to the SI system being used there. I don't, in fact, I think it's a crying shame that we're stuck halfway between the imperial system with its funny numbers of subunits and the SI system.... but that isn't an argument I want to get into here, it's a distraction from the main point.

Tesco Mustard Pricing

What I objected to was the lack of consistency of which units were chosen for the shelf label - not between different types of item, but between different types of the same class of item. I won't always go for the cheapest item - but if I am paying more it's helpful to be able to fairly compare how much more I'm paying!

Mustard, for example, had prices per kg, prices per 100g (okay, annoying but not too tricky) and prices per 100 millilitre... what? To make a direct conversion I would have to carry around the density of that brand of mustard in my head. I could make an educated guess of about 1gram/millilitre (i.e. asume it's mostly water) - but that could easily be 10% out, making the final price per 100g roughly 10% out - rendering it pointless.

I didn't really care what the basic unit was for price comparison, only that it was the same unit. By mixing units like this the labels are obscuring the information that they're trying to make clear.

I thought that what's happened is they've got some bit of software doing this which says 'If it's over X pence per 100g, give the price as pound sterling per kg' and the same bit of software chooses whether volume of mass is the appropriate unit (kg is a unit of mass, not weight, there is a difference - imperial doesn't make the distinction). Why on earth can't they make their pricing software say 'It's mustard. Look at the results of the other mustard calculations, and if the majority are prices per 100g, then we'll force that for all mustard and flag up any lines where the mass is unknown for referral to the supplier'.

Actually, it's not even that - as some of the pricier mustards are per kg. What is going on?

It is not an excuse to say 'some jars are labelled in millilitres, and some in grams therefore it's all we can do'. Tesco have enough clout to be able to say to their suppliers 'give us this data if you want us to stock your product' - and this certainly wouldn't explain the 100g vs kg inconsistency (which is annoying but not insurmountable by the customer).

The only reasons I can think of for the status quo and for this bit of logic being missing are:

  1. Genuine oversight.
  2. Deliberate obfuscation, whilst trying to appear helpful (i.e. making more expensive products as price per 100g or price per 10g, whilst making cheaper products price per kg)
  3. Incompetence.

Whichever is the truth, the lack of consistency within product lines got really annoying, and I decided to fill out a comment form. At the front of the store was the 'customer feedback' display board, which contained the usual selected quotes asking for things they'd implemented years ago, with the smug 'reply' underneath. No forms were to be seen...

I went to 'customer service' for a form, waited to be served, and then had to wait for them to hunt for a form for me. I didn't get the impression that they got asked for these often. Hint to Tesco: If you really want customer feedback, make the forms really obvious - don't hide them away.

I've requested a reply. Let's see what they say. I hope they sort it out; every little improvement would help...!

As an aside: Interestingly, the kilogram is the only base unit with 'kilo' in front of its name. I wonder how that happened?

Charges for Browsing

The BBC have a report about bridal shops making a charge to look at wedding dresses. This is to try and stop people who come in to try on the dresses as recreation.

Whilst I can see that this may be a problem for the shops, I know that when we got wed we would have seen it as outrageous. Monica toured lots of shops before she found 'the dress' - and I'm pretty sure she would have simply walked out if anyone had tried this.

Ah well, whilst the majority of people hand over the cash without quibble, these things will go on - after all, it is their wedding day and this does give people licence to extract money in any way they can....

US 'Gas' Prices

I'm sick and tired of reading sites in the US complaining about how expensive 'Gas' is. Just over 3.50USD per US gallon is cheap by the standards of basically everyone else in the non-OPEC world. Crikey, even their pumps are wearing out! I wonder what will happen when the petrol price approaches that which I'm used to, maybe they won't be able to afford the bun for their burger? Update: As if to make my point about the zeitgeist in the US at the moment, in sweeps the excellent Yehuda.

In the UK, the price is about 1.20UKP per litre (it's changing right now), that's 9.7 USD per US gallon. When I started driving (mid nineties), the price then was 4.50USD per US Gallon (at today's currency rate).

Granted, much of that is tax - which (alledgedly) is a green tax designed to try and shift people onto public transport. I might believe it if public transport was more ubiquitous and less expensive (if you're in London, fine... but otherwise...)

If people in the US didn't seem to put such a premium on driving cars that do 12miles per gallon, then they might have a point. I get about 40 miles per imperial gallon (about 35 miles per US gallon), and there are several cars out there that do better. We do see vehicles with such SUV-like poor fuel economy this side of the atlantic, but they tend to either be the exception (people with more money than sense). Alternatively they are used in particular circumstances - e.g. for driving around a farm, not nipping to the shops.

Stop whinging, yanks - your prices may look high to you, but they're still cheaper than I've ever had to pay (except when I visited the US in 2002). Your country is the biggest producer of CO2 per capita in the world (both per capita and in total) - from the point of view of everyone else, something which improves your fuel economy could well be a good thing.

The oil may look pricey, but oil is a finite resource - you ain't seen nuthin' yet. That's even if you decide to take the short term fix of drilling in new areas, like Alaska (or using the increased price to make it economical to extract that 'hard to reach' last drop from an existing field).

What we really need is serious research and serious funding for technologies which are oil free. If we wait until we need these, it's too late, and that's world war three right there. (I remember saying this back in the 1980s, when I was a teenager - that's twenty years of research down the pan right there).

In the meantime: 'High' petrol prices? Drive less. Swap to a motorbike. Use public transport. Ride a bicycle. Walk. Don't take pride that your car does 12miles per gallon - that's just moronic.

For Governments, we need public transport that's cheaper than cars, and certainly trains that are cheaper than planes (especially when travelling as a couple or as a small family). In the UK, we need a more connected system - e.g. train routes that bypass London (an M25 for trains), if you will.

At least some folks over the pond 'get it'.

In short. Higher oil prices are something we will all have to get used to - it's a fact of life. In the UK we've recently had protests on the matter - and I can understand this, livelihoods are at stake. The French fisherman have been protesting too. Whilst accepting that, do realise, USA, that your prices are not high by the standards of everybody else.

The sad thing is that the electorate over there (and to be fair, in most places) respond to short term thinking. A recent example was people talking about 'tax holidays' on fuel, this is one area where Obama gained lots of credibility with me, and Clinton (in particular) lost all credibility by totally ignoring all expert opinion.

What we really need is the new President to 'do a Kennedy'. JFK stood up and said that by the end of the decade Man would be on the Moon. They went all out, and they did it. Admittedly, they then dropped the ball (where is my space elevator?) - but they did it.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the new president, be it McCain, Clinton or Obama, said 'By the end of the next decade we will have developed technology to remove our dependence on oil.'?

They could cite reasons including energy security ('The Arabs have the Oil'), the environment ('Save the Planet'), and sheer economics (rising prices). As long as the first reason didn't become 'The Arabs have OUR Oil'....

Halloween

I hate Halloween, with its imported US custom of ‘Trick or Treat’ (otherwise known as extortion). In essence, I come home in the evening, wanting to relax. The doorbell goes. If I answer it I’ll find some oiks mumbling ‘trick or treat’.

At this point, I am supposed to give them something which will increase childhood obesity and make their teeth fall out. I will also have had to go out and buy this stuff - there is no way to have the right amount. Either I’d run out and feel guilty for latecomers, or have tonnes left over and have to eat it myself - I have no willpower in this regard.

If I refuse, then I’m liable to get eggs thrown at my house which I have to clean up.

Either way, I’m out of pocket.

It’s a ghastly idea, really horrible - and one that is relatively recent in my experience. It certainly wasn’t commonplace in the 70s and early 80s.

It’ll be Carol Singers next month. Don’t get me started on ruddy Carol Singers and their two lines of ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’….

Amazon Annoying

I've recently wanted to buy a couple of xd cards. No problem, on to Amazon, ooh, good price. Add to basket - more than enough to qualify for free delivery. Checkout... click... click 10 quid postage?! For two items the size of postage stamps?

It turns out that I'd clicked on an item supplied by a third party vendor, and with these, unless you go digging, the postage costs can be a bit of a shock (it is possible to find out in advance, but it's several clicks to find out - and you have to know where to look).

I've had third party suppliers through amazon before, but sometimes I'd just like to turn them OFF. If I qualify for supersaver delivery, I'd rather pay the 6 quid and get that extra item with free postage, instead of 5 quid and have to pay a delivery fee.

... and sometimes, I just want to know who I'm dealing with!

I know I can select which vendor to use on amazon, but is there a way to limit searched to particular vendors? e.g. 'Amazon only', or '98%+ vendors' only ... or 'vendors who don't rip off with the postage costs only'

Is there a way to do that?

Hassles with multiple vendors for one batch of items is really putting me off amazon - the 'click to add to basket' has become 'check that you're buying from the same person to add to basket, so that your order isn't liable for multiple extortionate postage costs'

DVD Annoyances

This morning, whilst having my breakfast, I thought 'I know, I'll put an episode of Stargate on in the background'. I've a DVD boxed set of season 8 waiting to be watched. In went disc 1.

Several minutes of adverts, which couldn't be broken into, to buy DVDs of.... Stargate.

Arrrgh! Recursive Dilemma, Batman!

I can't stand those ads on DVDs, they do nothing but annoy. If they must go on the disc, then make them skippable, please... or better still, something selected from a menu option. I just hope that they're not on every disc in the set. I fear they will be.

Still, the episode began and the annoyance was overlooked, until next time...

Season 8 of SG1 and Season 1 of Atlantis go together, and can be watched separately or in parallel. We watched the first episode of SG1. It's quality stuff, for me the episode really finds its stride about the time when Jackson and Weir start discussing Lord Yu ("don't... every pun has been done to death"), and Carter and Teal'c start talking to Thor ("That's understandable.."... "For Some")

Stargate really is quality stuff.

Headlines

When I see a headline which reads like this one from the Times of India, India among top 13 countries in scientific papers - surely I can't be the only one whose first reaction is 'so, you're at Number 13, then?' After all, who gets the number 10 slot and says 'we're in the top 13?'

If you've spotted other examples, please let me know.

Gotta Have a bit of Bubbly at the Shareholders'....

It's really bugging me how, in popular culture, shareholders are being painted as rich fat cats with evil intent. A classic example is the Nationwide adverts. A woman complains of being charged for taking her money out while abroad, and is told that that's like their 'tip' which pays for 'The Bubbly at the Shareholders' meeting'.

There are other examples, e.g. when a company makes a profit, there seems to be implicit disapproval (e.g. Tesco). This forgets that if a company with a turnover of a 100billion making a 1billion profit is equivalent to a company with a turnover of 100million making a million.

Now, all things being equal, I'm perfectly happy to concede that if Company A pays dividends to shareholders, and Company B has no shareholders to pay, then Company B is likely to provide better value to customers. It's common sense. However, all things are not equal.

Let's take a look at the best buy tables for financial products right now

The top three results for an instant access savings account are HSBC (6%), Citibank (5.84%) and Bradford and Bingley (demutualised BS) (5.8%). The Post Office comes fourth. Nationwide, offers 4.7% on their Instant Access account. (Based on saving £3000)

True, if you can put aside 200 quid a month, their regular saver account looks attractive, at 6.5% - until we see the Halifax at 7% (admittedly, that's a one year term though). We can do even better, with Alliance and Leicester at 12%. To be fair, it's not as straightforward as that, and here's where my argument is undermined. The higher rate is for one year, and after that you have to start from scratch, transferring the total to a regular account (6%). I think the 6.5% with Nationwide can be over a longer period. So assuming it's not fixed term then after about 20 months the 6.5% from Nationwide would be better (if I've done my sums correctly).

However, interest rates can, and do, change - 20 months is a long enough timeframe that the 'best solution' shifts, and 12% over one year could well be the better route in that case.

It doe annoy that Building societies, for example, regularly play the "we're not paying shareholders" card, but the interest rates, especially for 'starter' accounts, can be appalling, e.g. the Britannia offer 2.55% with their flexible savings account on amounts over £100000... okay, they offer more on their 'direct savings' account, but still, there are a significant number of people who want the 'security blanket' of a passbook.

In other fields, Pharmaceutical companies are sometimes castigated for the prices of their pills (and I'm completely behind the argument that prices should be lower when it comes to countries in places like Africa, supplying these nations at cost is good PR for the company too). When paying for the pills the implication is often that the company is profiting from illness and that this is inherently bad. It is true that the company profits from illness. However, it's conveniently forgotten that though each pill costs pence to produce, the first pill cost billions, and that has to be recovered in order to make the next wonderdrug. Yes, the shareholders are making a profit from illness, but without their investment that cure would not have been developed at all. There are also issues about third parties making 'copycat' drugs once someone has paid the development costs. That's a whole other issue.

Putting the nitty-gritty arguments about individual sectors of the economy aside, what really annoys me about this tendency to see shareholders as evil is the fact that it's share dividend and capital growth that pays for things like pensions. If you have a pension, you are indirectly a shareholder.

It's true that there are corporations which do not 'play nice' and seem to exhibit the short term view of maximising shareholder profit only. Guess what? These are corporations which, unless they have a monopoly (which is another matter) tend to die. Whilst it is the long term aim of a company to maximise shareholder return, this in turn gives rise to the aim of 'pleasing the customer'. It's in shareholders' interests for the company to please it's customers. Though the sole aim of the company is to maximise shareholder returns and a company which fails to supply what customers want, in the way they want it, will soon not have customers and fail. The message here is that if you want better interest rates and terms from your bank, be prepared to move your account - it's easy these days, they do all the paperwork for you.

Of course, I'm not saying that organisations with shareholders are whiter than white. Of course not, I'm simply saying that they're not necessarily evil.

This 'shareholders are fat cats' outlook allowed Gordon Brown to remove some tax benefits for dividend income on shares around a decade ago. This was reasonably popular at the time, presumably as it was seen as targeting the rich. However, it had a direct impact on the success of pension funds, and the subsequent difficulties which some have experienced.

As you've no doubt realised, the demonisation of shareholders is really annoying me. Shareholders are regular people, like you and me - even if they haven't bought shares directly. It's real people, investing in businesses which provide jobs and pay taxes. It's people putting their own money at risk - of course, they're doing it in the expectation of a reward - and why not? After all, that's why people save money in savings accounts...

Giving money to a good cause is called 'Charity'. Companies are not charities, nor should they be.

Disclosure: Yes, I have shares. The only company mentioned above that I directly have shares in is Tesco (though I will have an interest in FTSE100 companies via a tracker).