Saving money on gasoline

July 31 2008 by Ellen Roseman

Luckily for me, I have a round-trip of about eight kilometres to work. I drive my husband to his office and park at Loblaws for $5 a day.

So, high gas prices haven’t hurt our household much. But for long-distance commuters, the rising cost of filling up the tank has thrown their budgets out of whack.

I’ve been scouring the Internet to find a breakdown of wholesale and retail prices, as well as tips on getting more for your money. It’s been “a gas” tracking down the information.

Let’s start with Fuel Focus, an attempt by the federal government to educate consumers about gas prices without doing anything to regulate them. It’s badly out of date, showing gas at $1.40 a litre for the week of July 15, ignoring all the recent price slippage.

The Toronto Gas Prices website shows you a range from lowest ($1.24) to highest ($1.28.8). That’s for regular gas.

As I wrote in my column this week, motorists now pay an wider spread for premium gas. In Toronto, premium ranges from $1.36 to $140.4 a litre. What used to be a 10-cent gap is now 12 cents. Maybe those still using premium gas have European or high-end Japanese cars and they’re fairly insensitive to price.

Dan McTeague, Liberal MP and consumer affairs critic, is a long-time student of pump prices. He goes out on a limb each afternoon and predicts tomorrow’s gas price in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. You can subscribe to his RSS feed and get the upcoming price in your inbox each day, so you can fill up fast or wait a few hours to save a little money.

Petro-Canada, the only Canadian owned oil company, is trying to be more hip and consumer-friendly by starting a blog. The latest post (July 31) talks about the high octane issue. And on July 29, it discusses best practices for corporate bloggers, such as disclosing their true identity and any conflicts of interest. Remember the CEO of Whole Foods pretending to be someone else, while downgrading a rival retailer?

The Pump Talk blog has three writers and an editor, all Petro-Can employees. They refer to the always well researched MJ Ervin, a Calgary consultant to the petroleum industry, which publishes weekly pump prices across Canada. At least, this survey is relatively up to date, with prices from July 29.

Canadian politicians have studied possible gouging by oil companies again and again. To see a list of the two dozen federal and provincial inquiries and a brief synopsis of the results, go to the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute .

In March 2006, the Competition Bureau said it had found no evidence of a national conspiracy to fix gas prices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But last month, it laid charges against 13 individuals and 11 companies accused of fixing gas prices at the pump in Quebec. You’ll find details here about the case and information here about how you can help the Competition Bureau in its work to root out potential price-fixing in the Canadian retail gas market.

Before leaving the Competition Bureau, don’t ignore its warning about the waste of time and money buying so-called gas-saving devices. It links to a test of more than 100 devices by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and charges laid against the distributors of several devices (Econopro, the Fuel Saver Pro and the Platinum Vapour Injector) in Canada.

Did you hear that the temperature of the fuel you pump into your tank affects how much you spend and how much fuel is ultimately consumed? There are watchdogs in the United States to protect consumers against hot fuel here and here.

Finally, I found a neat website dedicated to making all cars get 40 miles per gallon or better. (I wish I knew how to convert 40 mpg to metric measurements.) Only Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid are reaching that goal now, but you can get quick ratings for all 2007 models here

Please add your suggestions and tips. And can someone explain why diesel gas, which used to be much cheaper than regular gasoline, is now more expensive?

How to invest in a bear market

July 29 2008 by Ellen Roseman

In today’s Globe and Mail, you can find several experts giving advice to investors about what to do when stock prices fall.

George Vasic, strategist at UBS Securities Canada, recommends a portfolio of 12 large-cap Canadian stocks that is heavily weighted in dividend-paying issues and has substantially outperformed the S&P/TSX 60 index since its inception in 2004.

But then you read John Heinzl’s column about Dr. Doom, a U.S. analyst so pessimistic about the U.S. economy that he lives in a rented house and keeps the vast majority of his and his clients’ money outside the country, a healthy chunk of it in gold and energy stocks.

To say Peter Schiff is bearish is like saying Tiger Woods is an okay golfer, or China has a small problem with air quality.

Apart from gold and energy producers, which benefit from a plunging U.S. dollar, Schiff likes conservative, dividend-paying stocks such as pipelines and utilities. He’s especially fond of Europe, Asia, Australia and Canada, where his holdings include Barrick Gold Corp., Goldcorp Inc., Crescent Point Energy Trust, Baytex Energy Trust and Pembina Pipeline Income Fund.

You might want to sell everything you own and start over. But then you remember the calming words from Tom Bradley, former head of Phillips Hager & North mutual funds and now running his own shop, Steadyhand Investment Funds Inc.

It is not the time to bail out on your long-term plan. There may be more pain and suffering in the near term, but it will be nothing like the devastation clients experience when they make a radical shift at the wrong time (i.e. loading up on technology stocks in the late 1990s or moving into cash in 2003). When markets are extreme and volatile, it is a bad time to change direction. Your plan was put in place for just this circumstance.

So, what are you doing with your investments? Rejigging or staying put? Any tips for others as we head into what could be a long bear market?

Is your credit card being upgraded? Part two

July 28 2008 by Ellen Roseman

I did another column last Saturday on this issue (see my earlier blog post) and asked readers to respond. I got an earful.

Many CIBC Aerogold Visa cardholders are just waking up to the fact that they didn’t reply to the negative option marketing letters. Their lack of attention means they will get a new Infinite Visa card in the mail, whether they wanted it or not, and their existing Aerogold card will be cancelled.

The status quo is not an option for cardholders who failed to react in time. Either they get an Infinite card with a new number — or they can apply for a new Aerogold card with a new number. In either case, they have to switch all the pre-authorized debits they had linked to their old cards.

The interesting thing, which I didn’t know about, was the impact on retailers. Here’s the story from one who wrote to me.

With these upgrades, the Visa issuer (CIBC) can and does charge a merchant a higher percentage to accept this card. e.g. old Visa Card merchant was charged 1.75 % …new Visa Card merchant is charged 2.00%…. Go speak to some merchants and ask them how much more they are paying now to accept Visa with these changes…and there is nothing they can do about it.

And here’s what another retailer says.

I feel that “the other side” of credit card fees – i.e. the fees the merchant pays so that the cardholders get their points – does not get enough press. Recently, Chase Paymentech sent a letter to all merchants increasing fees once again (including for debit purchases). Which brings me to your column – the reason CIBC wants to switch cardholders to the Infinite card is that this card brings a higher transaction fee to the banks and Chase Paymentech. A little too convenient to my liking. Unfortunately, since Chase Paymentech controls Visa, Mastercard, and debit card transactions, we are all sitting ducks for this semi-monopoly. American Express is not an option, as their fees are even higher!

Check out the new Visa Infinite website and you can see the high-end image being promoted. This card, offered by TD and RBC as well as CIBC, is aimed squarely at the American Express target market. No wonder Visa is raising the fees charged to retailers. It’s what goes with being an elite card, such as Amex platinum.

MasterCard went public a year ago and Visa recently followed. Do you think their attempt to offer upgraded cards has something to do with their stock issues? Remember that they now have to meet expectations of shareholders for continuing increases in revenues and profits.

Smart companies listen to their customers

July 22 2008 by Ellen Roseman

The title says it all, Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000. Author Pete Blackshaw left Procter & Gamble in 1999 to start Planet Feedback, which he later sold to the Nielsen Company.

He’s in the feedback game to make money, he admits, by selling information back to companies that want to improve their performance.

Here’s what he tells companies to do in his new book:

–Make your call centre lines as user-friendly as possible. Give consumers an option to speak to a live representative right away.

–Beef up the consumer profiling process. Include questions about online behaviours, such as: Are you active on Internet forums? If yes, which forums? How often? Do you post text, images, video, audio or all four? Do you blog? Do you have a page on Facebook or MySpace?

–Warm up the website interface. The feedback forms should be worded in a way that makes consumers feel their opinions truly matter to the company.

–Don’t bury the feedback form. It’s usually pushed down to unreachable depths in the website. Invite feedback on the front page. If your customers can’t find an outlet for their complaints, they’ll take them elsewhere and do more damage.

–Make sure your feedback system accommodates how your customers communicate. Make sure your website can accept new formats if consumers want to send a video, forward a URL or provide a personal podcast.

Many companies don’t formally monitor what’s being said about them online. Blackshaw says they have to understand the power of consumer-generated media and shift dollars from paid advertising to their consumer affairs departments.

Reforming consumer affairs to create a more genuine, credible listening infrastructure will require investment, attention, commitment and engagement throughout the organization.

I congratulate everyone who posts comments at this blog for trying to convey a message to corporate Canada. Thanks to you, Bell Blues just passed 500 comments.

I now have a search engine that picks up readers’ comments, as well as my own posts. So, keep those comments coming. Together, we can make companies listen to what we have to tell them. We can make them hear the valuable advice that often goes unheard through conventional channels of communication.

Online florist Bloomex pays attention to online gripes

July 15 2008 by Ellen Roseman

Last February, I wrote a blog post about consumer protest groups on Facebook. And I mentioned Bloomex (among other companies) that has dissatisfied customers taking up battle in cyberspace against them.

Dimitri Lokhonia, the Ottawa-based founder of Bloomex, decided to respond online. He said some “unhappy customers” were actually small retail florists, whose business was threatened by a lower-priced national rival.

That comment opened the floodgates to many new complaints about Bloomex, usually angry, sometimes hysterical.

You could tell people were tired of calling and sending emails to a company that let them talk to customer service reps, but not escalate their issues. They were getting nowhere with requests for help or compensation, despite including order numbers as Lokhonia asked them to do.

I wrote a Toronto Star column in March that Bloomex didn’t like. It stayed online, despite threats of legal action. I watched the complaints continue coming in and wondered whether this online florist would wilt.

But things are perking up. Lokhonia met me at his Toronto production facility last week and we spent a couple of hours together, going through some of the online complaints. He told me about hiring a new public relations manager, Michelle Robitaille, who would review all of the complaints and explain what happened.

Robitaille has worked in customer service for more than a decade. She describes herself as being a tough customer, someone who questions corporate bafflegab and pushes for what she wants. While forced to deal with Bloomex policies, which I find quite restrictive, she’s willing to admit that this online florist can and does goof up.

Last May, the company put in new customer service and tracking systems, which are designed to improve overall performance. Bloomex’s new approach to customer service “will dramatically reduce hold times, eliminate the need for customers to repeat information after arriving at a live customer care representative and even allow customers to chat live with a service agent, resolving their issues faster and more conveniently,” says a press release.

Robitaille has now gone through 16 emails I sent. Here’s how things stand, in her words.

In 6 of the orders, we retained our original decision. Please bear in mind that some of these decisions were to refund the client, but no compensation was provided for dissatisfaction. Many of these cases were of people not wanting to follow company policies. They do not reflect errors or mistakes made on our part.

In 7 orders, people were refunded in full or partially. Again, this is a combination of both clients who were unsatisfied with our product where a refund was issued and a combination of errors made on our part, where a full refund was issued.

In 2 orders, we did a re-send of flowers to the client to compensate for our error, with the client’s agreement.

One person received a credit of $75 for our errors in his 2 orders.

Finally, I’m dealing not only with complaints you sent to me, but with other unhappy clients who posted on the web. I have done that on several different occasions if I am able to find the client in the system (via order # or last name).

I have issued 4 refunds for orders outside your blog site complaints, and issued 2 re-sends, and 2 credits in lieu of our new systems, to regain the trust and patronage of past clients.

I’ll try to post some of these complaints and company responses in the next few few days. Meanwhile, here’s how to get in touch with Robitaille. Write to publicrelations@bloomex.ca.

What’s bugging you?

July 9 2008 by Ellen Roseman

People are getting more annoyed, testy and disgruntled in their dealings with big companies — and sending me emails about it.

I heard from lots of people (both personally and at The Star’s website, which now takes comments) about my column last week on call centres and my sequel.

Not surprisingly, Bell Canada took much of the flak when it came to “broken telephone.” But Rogers also gets static about its heavyhanded attempts to switch former Sprint customers from one telephone technology to another.

I’m also getting complaints about the marketing of new Visa Infinite cards by “negative option.” If you say nothing, you get a new card with a new number. You have to speak up in time to get out. Readers are surprised that banks can use this discredited technique.

Some provinces have banned negative option marketing, but the federal government never did. Even in Ontario which has rules against it, companies like Direct Energy can get around the rules as long as they initially signed up customers before the implementation date (July 2005).

Sometimes, it’s the smallest things that make people angriest. See the correspondence below between Direct Energy and a customer who refuseed to pay $75 to have his rented electric water heater picked up after 20 years.

So, keep this grudgefest flowing. Tell us what makes you really irritated.

How two Air Canada fares, $99 each, cost $408.41

July 3 2008 by Ellen Roseman

This week, I booked a return trip to New York at Air Canada’s website. I chose flights at $99 each on Tango Plus. Here’s the result.

Flight 1 – Departing airfare (Tango Plus) 99.00
Flight 2 – Returning airfare (Tango Plus) 99.00
Surcharges 115.00
Taxes, Fees and Charges
Canada Airport Improvement Fee 20.00
U.S.A Transportation Tax 31.18
U.S Agriculture Fee 5.06
Air Travellers Security Charge (ATSC) 7.94
U.S Passenger Facility Charge 4.56
Canada Goods and Services Tax (GST/HST #10009-2287) 17.05
September 11 Security Fee 2.53
U.S.A Immigration User Fee 7.09
Total airfare and taxes before options 408.41

How did my cost more than double by the end of the booking process? I clicked the FAQs and got a mealy-mouthed explanation.

What are the additional charges in my Fare?

Note: This information is intended as a guideline only. Actual fees and surcharges are subject to change and some exceptions apply.

Your fare may include NAV CANADA surcharges, Fuel surcharges and Insurance surcharges where applicable. Ticketable Airport Improvement Fees and the Air Travellers Security Charge (ATSC) are included in taxes component of your fare.

Fuel Surcharges: For travel within Canada, the fuel surcharge is either 20 / 30 / or 45 CAD each way based on distance. For travel between Canada and the U.S., the fuel surcharge is 50 CAD/USD each way.

NAV Canada Surcharge: Nav surcharges within Canada are either 9 / 15 / or 20 CAD based on distance. For transborder itineraries, 7.50 CAD / 7.50 USD each way. This surcharge is collected to cover the fees that Air Canada pays to NAV Canada to operate Canada’s Air Navigation systems.

Insurance Surcharge: In order to account for the rising costs of aviation insurance, Air Canada along with other North American carriers have implemented an insurance surcharge. This insurance surcharge is 3 CAD, each way for travel wholly within Canada. (Some exceptions apply).

ATSC: The Canadian Parliament has enacted the Air Travellers Security Charge Act to fund security personnel and security equipment in response to the events of September 11. For domestic itineraries, the ATSC is 5 CAD one-way to a maximum charge of 10 CAD. For transborder itineraries, the ATSC is 8 CAD / 7 USD one-way to a maximum charge of 16 CAD / 14 USD.

Airport Improvement Fees: Many airports in Canada and around the world have implemented Airport Improvement Fees (AIFs). Some Airports collect these fees at the airport at time of departure, other’s are collected at the time of ticketing and are reflected in the additional charges portion in your fare.

How do airlines get away with quoting such deceptively low fares? Why isn’t there a law?

Well, a law was passed a year ago, saying that airlines had to advertise an all-in price. But it was never enacted.

Consumer groups were outraged. They sent a letter of protest, asking why transport minister Lawrence Cannon refused to go ahead and continued to consult with the industry.

The search for consensus that has been commenced by the Minister serves to obscure the real consequences of the Department’s failure to act.

First of all, passengers of the approximately 80 million flights per year in Canada will continue to be subject to a disgraceful shell game of airlines advertising one price, and then selling a ticket for an amount which may be many times greater than the advertised price.

Secondly, the practice carried on by airlines is strongly opposed by the overwhelming majority of Canadians who want it changed.

Thirdly, the government has taken sides with the airlines against close to 15,000 travel agents working at over 3,500 outlets in Ontario and Quebec, many of them small family businesses. The government is content to allow any cost of misrepresentation by airline advertising to fall on them.

Fourthly, it is inexcusable that a government would adopt a policy that allows misleading and deceptive marketplace conduct to continue in order to allow certain preferred constituents to thrive.

Now there’s more pressure on Ottawa to act. A private member’s bill was passed June 12 by a vote of 249 to 0, calling for an airline passenger bill of rights.

Michael Janigan, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, pushed for a passenger bill of rights when Air Canada acquired Canadian Airlines International Ltd. in 2000. But he didn’t get enough political traction back then.

“We can’t rely simply on the goodwill of airlines to protect passengers,” Janigan said.

The bill’s sponsor, Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal MP Gerry Byrne, has heard “grumblings” the government may not follow the spirit of the motion. But he is optimistic it will, given the unanimous support it received.

Both Mr. Byrne and Mr. Janigan suggest the issues passengers face exceed mere inconveniences. They each cited examples of passengers unable to exit the airplane for hours, with limited access to water, food and restrooms.

Fallacious fares are just a symptom of a bigger problem, the abuse of passengers by airlines. Let’s all push to get these new laws into force.

Waiting for a response to your emails

July 2 2008 by Ellen Roseman

Why, oh why, do companies encourage you to use email for inquiries –and then wait up to 10 days to send out their email responses? Sometimes, they never get around to replying at all.

I did a recent column about Canadian financial institutions and how most of them take way too long to respond to emails from customers. It was based on a mystery shopping survey by Surviscor, whose results are here. (Just use the toggle at the top to switch from online banking to online brokerage.)

If you check the results, you see something interesting. BMO leads in online brokerage, but scores poorly among online banks. CIBC has a high score among banks, but a much lower score among brokerages.

Why don’t these financial institutions get their acts together and provide consistent service throughout all their divisions?

Surviscor looks at the speed of response, plus the validity or correctness of the response, before giving out scores. That’s important because customers want not only fast answers, but reliable answers.

I’d love to see such a survey done for the big telecom firms, such as Rogers, Bell, Telus, Primus and others. Would they do any better than the financial institutions?

As for me, when I have a serious problem, I still pick up the phone and call. I only send emails to companies that are otherwise inaccessible. And if I do send an email, I expect a response within 24 hours, no matter whether I write on the weekend or during the week.

Don’t you think that’s reasonable?