Modern Life is Irksome, Part the First

Sometimes my TV channel of choice is marginally more intellectually challenging than E! Entertainment! Network!  and lately I watched some talking heads discuss the problem that some people are paying too much for their electricity.  The problem is, claimed the heads, people aren’t switching companies to the one offering the lowest price.  If only people would switch companies, they collectively sighed, their household debt would evaporate.  It was the verbal equivalent of a pitying head-shake at the laziness and stupidity of many consumers, with a raised eyebrow of blame.

Now.  I’m going to leave aside the contextual issues including that, for example, many consumers of electricity surely find the switching process extremely challenging (they might for example be older and unused to internet-slash-call-centre trauma, or not speak sufficient English, or have a disability).  Let’s assume we’re talking about the person accustomed to, able to cope grudgingly with, and infuriated by, commercial labyrinths.  Like me.

I have quite strong, yet inexpert, opinions regarding the true nature of the ‘problem’ that some people aren’t switching back and forth like politicians.  I have not yet heard my opinion expressed within the current narrative that more competition is better and people are stupid.

I am, like so many people living Modern Life, time-poor.  Switching electricity company would be bearable if I only had to do it, say, thrice lifetimely.  But that’s not how it works.

Each of the largest six power companies (92% of market share between them) have hit upon the obvious corollary of commercial competition for an essential resource: periodically ensure that theirs is priced lowest, for a Limited Time Only.  So the consumer is bombarded with price packages that include a (relatively) fair rate that rests slightly lower in the murky depths than the second-cheapest deal.  However, there’s a nasty bite in those depths: after the first year or so, the Introductory Special Offer Super Hot Deal disappears and the poor chump who hasn’t diarised a year in advance to research electricity offers during a particular month, and organise switching company, suddenly finds their wallet open and their hard-earned notes blowing away.

To get somewhere approaching the best deal, you have to switch companies anything up to once a year and choose from a quite bewildering array of tariffs.  Will you be boiling the kettle every day and twice on Sundays?  How many people live in your house and do they shower in the middle of the night?  Do you open the window after a particularly malodorous fart?  Given that the last time I engaged in the switching process it took up quite a bit of my time in research, providing meter readings to two separate companies and then listening to them argue over who had made a mistake when they recorded what I told them, several trees sacrificed to confusing paperwork, a month of actual earth time to switch the supply and a further few weeks to refund me for the financial loss resulting from the aforementioned error, this is irksome.

I further note that the average Modern Life household is not expected to limit this approach to electricity.  See also: gas, broadband, telephone, mobile telephone, TV, savings account rates, and insurance deals and find yourself swirling around in a competition-driven nightmare having lost all sense of which way is up.  Or don’t, and get screwed.  Depressingly, a parasitic industry has sprung up amidst the carnage: the switching ‘service’ that uses computer algorithms to do the research and organise the switch for you and pretends the process isn’t that cumbersome.

Before I carry out acts of tedious household expenditure, I perform a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis and recall that I am reasonably cash-rich and very time-poor.  The generalised ball-ache of switching is significant.  The saving might be a few quid or maybe as much as a three-figure sum and I don’t know which in advance.  Even then, it just isn’t worth my time, folks.

Last time I switched company I vowed never again.  Why oh why, I wailed amid rending of garments and through rose-tinted goggles, can’t we return to the days where you signed up with a company and paid a fair and transparent price for your power, building a happy mutual relationship with them, rather than being fiscally whipped for not shopping around constantly to get the best deal?  Put simply, I do not have time for this shit.

So I dropped out, at least where power is concerned.  I finally found a company that appears to share my perspective.  They charge all customers the same (slightly higher) rate regardless of when they became customers or how they pay (aside: many power companies charge poor people with no credit-rating exorbitant rates to load up a plastic pre-pay access key with credit – this should immediately be made illegal).  There are two tariffs, your choice depending on how much you care about renewable resources versus how much you can afford to care.  They don’t have call-centres or choice-menus.  For as long as they continue this approach to their business, they will have my custom.

I resent being impliedly categorised by the meedja and politicians as a lazy simpleton for not constantly switching companies.  I am making a calculated choice taking into account my priorities and resources.  I resent that my options are to either engage in the switching shenanigans, or to pay more.  I resent that many more people who simply don’t know they are being overcharged, or are too busy getting on with life to be able to address it, continue to be overcharged and that according to the received wisdom they are faulty consumers not properly clicked in to the glorious world of commercial awareness, rather than that the companies are mercenary for taking advantage of them.  It is the government’s responsibility, having privatised the power industry, to sort out this mess so the burden rests less with consumers.



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