best buy logo 3 300x200 Best Buy throws in the towel. Is this the beginning of the end for big box electronics?By now we’ve all heard the bell toll for Best Buy UK. After the flurry of launch hype (Bitterwallet included) and high hopes for a US chain breaking in and destroying the doldrums of UK big box retail (Bitterwallet included) we’re left with nothing but 11 mega stores for Currys or Comet or a mini Ikea to move into.

The harsh part of the story seems to be that Best Buy did not fail because the UK incumbents were too smart, too strong, too price conscious. During the 2010/2011 period where they went head to head we’ve seen troubling revenue numbers at DSGi and Comet and no great spark of competitive innovation. It may be fair to say that Best Buy did not lose in the UK market because DSGi/Comet won but rather because they all lost and Best Buy was the one with the least to lose by jumping out.

Indeed, while we can surely imagine the suits at DSGi/Comet patting themselves on the back for holding off the US invader, the truth is probably that they themselves are next to fall. Inside the story spun out by Best Buy is the point that smartphones and tablets have meant that fewer buyers are coming to the electronic retail stores for the classic sectors of computing and TVs. As consumers we all know the desktop computer sector is dead and notebooks are quickly following (the slumping fortunes of Dell and HP also indicate this) and the golden days of the LCD cycle (do you even remember when you said goodbye to your monitor CRT or TV CRT???) are now far behind.

So for what will our modern consumer wander the aisles of a big box electronics store? Half the store filled with legacy entertainment formats (CDs, DVDs, MP3 players), passé electronics (desktop computers, TVs we already have) and the other half with overpriced accessories (hello dealextreme), AV equipment (another moribund mainstream sector best served by specialist retailers and online), white goods, cameras (digital consumer rush is over also) and a collection of random handsets equally served by the ten high street shops you pass on your walk to work from the station/carpark.

The big box brands profited greatly off the past consumer gold rushes – cashing in on the switch to LCD from CRT and the growth of personal computing. However they’re failing to stake any real ground in the newest gold rush – mobile and tablet computing.

So what say you? Are we seeing the end of big box electronic retailing? Without even touching the question of pricing (which is generally ludicrous) will we be sending our kids off to PC World to buy their jetpacks 10 years hence?

Picture 61 The days are already getting shorter at this London hotelIt’s because of hotel rooms like this that I’m already of the firm opinion that everything within a mile radius of Paddington station could be set fire to and London would be none the poorer for it. I swore I’d never return but the bank balance insisted otherwise, so it was with a heavy heart I paid £84 and checked into the Lancaster Court Hotel.

I could piss and moan about the fire doors being propped open; the room’s main lightswitch being at the normal height of a light switch, except on a draw string; no toilet in the room, and only one working toilet on three floors; a bedside lamp that had been screwed into the top of a piece of furniture purpose-built but serving no purpose at all; wardrobe doors that refuse to close etc.

None of that has irritated me as much as the WiFi set-up. Yes, you’ve got to pay – I think it’s shortsighted but it’s to be expected. What’s upsetting is how the Lancaster Court Hotel (and hotels using the same third party set-up, no doubt) redefines the length of a day:

Picture 51 The days are already getting shorter at this London hotel

What’s that? You checked in at 3pm and paid for a day’s worth of internet service? Your WiFi will be looking to suck your wallet dry further before you wake up, sir. This room cost £84 a night. Internet service costs £20 from an afternoon check-in to departure the next morning. No toilet for three floors? No problem – the WiFi takes the piss.

kindle drink book 240x300 Are Kindle Books a threat to your personal privacy?We quite like ebooks here at Bitterwallet. However, software freedom activist (no, I haven’t made that job title up) Richard Stallman has now told us we are wrong to like Kindle and that it and Amazon are evil privacy thieves.

In an article entitled The Dangers of eBooks, the founder of the Free Software Foundation warns that “technologies that could have empowered us are used to chain us instead” and has called on consumers to reject eBooks until they “respect our freedom”. Heavy stuff.

His issue is with the Digital Rights Management (DRM) code such as that embedded in Kindle books sold by Amazon as an example of such restrictions on our personal liberty. He also thinks it’s all a bit Big Brother (as in the original 1984 book, rather than a trashy TV programme) as a cash buyer can purchase a book anonymously from a book shop, but Amazon requires identification to by a Kindle book, and can therefore identify you and your reading habits. Best not purchase ‘Bombs 101’ or ‘How to rob a bank’ then. In an exquisite turn of irony, Amazon actually used its DRM in 2009 to wipe a book from everyone’s Kindles without permission. The book? George Orwell’s 1984

Stallman, founder of the GNU project offering free software, unsurprisingly also has an issue with the proprietary software used by Amazon on Kindles. He also points out that in some countries the Kindle book purchaser does not actually own the book. Amazon does. Sounds like we’re getting back into Spotify argument territory here…

Of course, companies like Amazon using DRM claim that the controls are necessary to ensure author protection, as in the absence of such tight restrictions, people could just share or swap ebooks. Just as they currently do with actual books, then.

Stallman reckons that levying a tax on ebooks and Kindle books that is then distributed out to authors based on their popularity, or building in a non-compulsory ‘thanks’ payment mechanism into ebook readers would help protect and reward authors. Bearing in mind that ebooks are already subject (in the UK) to VAT at 20% where printed books are not, and the fact that some paperback books are cheaper than their electronic counterpart, adding tax may not be the best move here. And how many people really ever pay for something when they don’t have to? Do you?

So what do you think- is the ease of Kindle worth sacrificing your anonymity for? Do you care if Amazon know what you are reading? Have you read 1984? Are you scared?

 Persistent text marketing, fictional solicitors and suspect ads. aren’t so friendly now.You’ve all heard of Wonga, with their jolly adverts and cartoonish website. Lending money to people at a ‘representative’ APR of 4214% is not a serious business at all. It’s fun! And with reporting a 400 per cent increase in people looking for payday loans since the beginning of the year, it’s popular too.

But a Bitterwallet reader who had availed himself of Wonga’s services contacted us, concerned about the SMS marketing he was receiving, and was powerless to stop. Now we don’t like to hear of powerless consumers, nor do we think pursuing people who, in all likelihood, have already got money worries with offers of easy cash, is particularly responsible of Wonga as a lender. So we investigated.

We started with the texts themselves. Now, as a Wonga victim customer you are required to give them a mobile number so they can text you a PIN number that you must enter on the website in order to get your cash. Clearly this is how they get your mobile number.

Our guy repaid his loan on time, but has been receiving text messages every couple of months ever since. And he can’t stop them. Upon logging into his account the only preference he can change states “Communications preference- Would you like to receive Wonga news, offers and service updates via email?” Absolutely no mention of SMS messages. And even when this box is ticked ‘no’, the SMS keep on coming. We asked Wonga about the continual receipts of SMS. They said it was “an isolated glitch.” We’ll leave you to decide whether you believe them.

But even considering the SMS messages themselves, as you can see in the picture, there is no option to unsubscribe in the SMS, something that directly contravenes the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (upheld by the Information Commissioners Office) which say they should ensure that “you were given an opportunity to refuse the marketing when your details were collected and, if you did not refuse, you were given a simple way to opt out in every future communication”. Wonga’s privacy policy offers the following gems on the subject of marketing communications “If you ticked “yes” but no longer wish to receive such communications, please visit the My Account page, login and change your communication preference at any time, or follow the instructions in the message itself.” The first doesn’t cover SMS and the second is non-existent.

So given Wonga have already breached these regulations, what about the principle of sending messages offering money to the cash-strapped? Not that Wonga have a great reputation here- they were heavily criticised last year when their sponsorship of the free new years eve tube allowed them to advertise “sometimes you need extra cash” to the drunk and happy, with not the merest whisper of an APR. A quick search for ‘Wonga’ also reveals less than transparent debt collection tactics, with customers receiving threatening letters from ‘Solicitors’ firms’ that are really just made up trading names of Wonga or its parent company Quickbridge UK Ltd.

Well, when we asked Wonga about how responsible this was, after raving on about how responsible a lender they are (something repeated ad nauseum all over their website) they sent us a copy of their Code of Conduct. And the number one operating principle?

“you will never be sold, encouraged or forced to borrow more credit than required”

So, sending an unsolicited text offering credit to someone who has not expressed a need for credit is clearly not encouraging them to borrow. As that would contravene their own code of conduct. But it’s OK- Wonga told us “we sometimes remind customers that we’re here to help if we haven’t seen them in a while, but we never hard-sell our service.” So that’s what it is. A reminder.

So we contacted the Office of Fair Trading, who grant Wonga its credit licence to see whether there was any official wrongdoing. And unsurprisingly, they offered no help. The SMS data protection issue is one for the Information Commissioner, and the OFT definition of ‘responsible lending’ is doing a credit check. No more, no less. However the OFT did say that they would take customer complaints into account when considering whether to revoke a licence.

So, aside from a slapped wrist from the ICO, which will most likely end up in an unsubscribe link in the SMS, will Wonga change? Unlikely. In an interview with the Guardian last week, Wonga founder and former investment banker Errol Damelin said “We are the good guys… [we offer] an important social service. To have social mobility you have to have credit available to people where it’s required and where it’s appropriate.”

So Wonga can legitimately call themselves responsible lenders, and consider themselves an aid to social mobility. Welcome to toothless regulation in the UK 2011.

o2logo mediacentre 300x224 O2 customers back on the line  but no compensation for loss of connectionIf you were an O2 customer in North or East London, East Sussex or Kent yesterday, you may have found your service a little lacking.  For 16 hours, people trying to use their phones in these areas could not make calls, or send or receive texts and e-mails.

The reason was not a technical glitch, or a satellite falling over, it was a good old fashioned smash and grab. Thieves broke in to O2′s East London network point and damaged equipment, which led to the service breakdown. O2 said it did not know how many of its 22 million customers were affected, and so are not offering compensation.

The company claim they cannot offer anything to customers because “the nature of mobile services means that it is not possible for operators to derive which customers may or may not have used their mobiles in an affected area”. Granted, it might be difficult to track or prove which sales reps, for example, drove through the affected areas and couldn’t get a signal, but what about the people who live or work there?

So O2 are copping out of the compensation. But should they have felt the need to offer compensation anyway? After all, they were not responsible for the thieves who damaged the equipment? On the other hand, they are a service provider, and for 16 hours they did not offer a service? What if someone missed an important and valuable call? What if someone died because they couldn’t speak to someone (OK this is unlikely, but nevertheless possible). O are we now just a nation of money-grabbers?

Thoughts please…

ecolabs Corporate Bullying  support Team Eco labs.orgSometimes it’s just not enough that you are a multi-million pound US corporation, sometimes you just need to pick on someone *much* smaller than you to make your cock feel bigger.

“With sales of $6 billion and more than 26,000 associates, Ecolab is the global leader in cleaning, sanitizing, food safety and infection prevention products and services.” EcoLabs, on the other hand,  is a small non-profit environmental education organisation based in London.

Despite the fact thatthe UK EcoLabs was formed and registered two years before the US company registered trademarks in the UK, EcoLab Inc. claims that the UK EcoLabs is infringing their trademark by using the name “Eco labs” and they are attempting to legally steal their domain name from them.

Now, we aren’t ones to get involved in other people’s domestics, but we think this one is a little too shameful to go by unnoticed. For two years running this voluntary group have had to pay legal fees to fend off takedown requests. Of course if you have deep American pockets, this is not a problem, but for a small not-for-profit?

EcoLabs put it best themselves “The prefix ‘ECO‘ is in common usage, being shorthand for the term ‘ecological’. The term LABS‘ refers to the research and development conducted as part of our communication design practice. Both words are so common that it is absurd for a corporate entity to assume the legal right to prevent others from combining these two ideas together. We are willing to share the common use of ‘eco’ and ‘labs’ with everyone.

“The legal costs to defend ourselves are high by our standards (since most of the work we do we do for free). Despite what seems like an enormous waste of time and money, we feel it is important to not back down. If you are concerned with corporate encroachment of the English language (or if you think our resources are worthwhile) please consider helping with our legal fees”.

They need £800 to defend their case in Minneapolis at the end of May, and have so far raised £50. The open rights group have joined the crusade and besides, where are you going to find a cheaper and more satisfying way to kick a big fat American butt?

kindle 300x168 Now you can go compare prices of Kindle books and iBooks. Sort of.

photo by kodomut on flickr.

A UK online bookstore is being hailed as the ‘Go Compare’* of the digital publishing world, after becoming the first e-tailer to stock all three main formats of ebook, Kindle, ePub and iBooks.

UK sales of digital books increased last year by 20 per cent to £180m, according to the latest figures from The Publishers Association and the demand for eBooks in the UK continues to rise, fuelled by the growing popularity of digital readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and titles by bestselling authors including Stieg Larsson.

Peter Crawshaw, Director and Co-Founder of , says “having the world’s first one-stop shop will greatly benefit consumers, making comparing and buying eBooks as simple and straightforward as possible.”

Not that we are cynical you understand, but we thought we’d have a go. We started with current trendy book The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest which costs £5.24 in paperback, £6.89 on ePub and £2.44 on Kindle. But there was no price comparison for iBooks. We then tried Harry Potter, and couldn’t find an iBook comparison price on any of them.

In fact, it took us a while, but we did eventually find a comparable book. Bloody Valentine by James Patterson, could be purchased in Kindle format for £1.56, which would save you 23p on the ePub price of£1.79 and a massive 43p on the iBooks price £1.99. All of which, incidentally, were more than the paperback price of £1.49. Or if Jeffrey Archer is more your thing, his latest novel The Fourth Estate sells for £7.99 on iBooks, £5.70 on Kindle or £5.24 in paperback.

Much of the problem is that Apple’s iBookstore is less well-stocked than your local Big Society funded library, so finding an e-book that you are interested in reading is the first challenge. And when you do find one, it is likely to be cheaper on Kindle, in paperback or both. So why bother? Even better, why not just read the millions of free eBooks that are out there- either because they are out of copyright or because we handily located these sources of free reading material for you last Christmas. We just keep on giving.

Anyway, nice try lovereading, but we ain’t buying it.

* other price comparison websites are available.

It’s that time of year again, when women across the country start thinking about finding swimwear for the summer. And as a responsible retailer of the people, Debenhams recently surveyed 14,000 of their own customers to find out what women were aiming for on the beach stakes.

The results revealed Raquel Welch and Kim Kardashian to be top of the beach bods. Sasha Nagalingam, Swimwear Buyer at Debenhams, said “Despite a forty year age gap between Raquel and Kim, the voluptuous shape they have in common is clearly coveted by women across the country.”

British TV newcomer, Amy Childs from The Only Way is Essex also made the list, further confirming the trend for ample bosoms and curvy hips. Sasha continued, “Looking great in a bikini is not about being a stick-thin teenager. Our results show women appreciate womanly bodies of all ages.”

Which makes it all the more surprising that their swimwear body shape guide is, well, less about about curves and more about stick-thin teenagers.

body4 Voluptuous Debenhams come up with new spot the body shape gameTake this lovely lady. Is she the quintessential pear shape- narrow of shoulder and coy of breast yet ample of buttock? Actually no, this lady is classic hourglass, boobs, bum and tiny waist. Apparently.

body3 Voluptuous Debenhams come up with new spot the body shape game

Or how about this one? She surely can’t be apple shaped- reasonable boobs, smaller bum but big fat tum with that tiny waist, so she must be athletic (slim built, in need of boob padding), right? Er, no. Clearly, with that  unnoteworthy chest and humungous arse she is pear shaped. Sigh.

In fact, if you look at all four Debenhams swimwear models side by side, you’d be hard pushed to know which was supposed to be any particular body shape, with the titles cunningly removed. And none of these girls could really be described as voluptuous or ample.

Come on Debenhams- at least pretend you mean what you say…

body52 499x159 Voluptuous Debenhams come up with new spot the body shape game

Screen shot 2010 10 25 at 08.25.00 How the supermarkets are disrupting our digital livesYesterday, Tesco announced it had taken a majority stake in Blinkbox, an online on-demand service for films and television shows. Today, tech site gdgt is carrying a commentary about Amazon‘s likely move into tablets. It’s an opinion that seems widely supported; the online retailer is apparently developing a tablet device, likely to be manufactured by Samsung, and likely to be marketed as a mainstream, low-cost alternative to the iPad.

Why is Amazon doing this? Because the retailer can make more money by aiding consumption. If Amazon creates a device for facilitating content, customers are likely to buy more from them. The same is exactly true of Apple; the sale of an iPod or an iPhone generates a one-off profit, but once in the hands of a user they’re a money-making conduit, selling music, apps and video to the owner for the lifetime of the devices. Hardware is profitable, but it’s far easier to make money by skimming revenue from the sale of content.

Amazon and Tesco are uniquely placed to disrupt; they’re established hubs of commerce – whether virtual or online – and they already have mainstream traction. They can add new product lines and delivery channels whenever they like – and they do; Amazon has obviously far outstripped its humble bookshop personae, while the Tesco brand has been stretched across new platforms and dozens of products and services to become synonymous with value.

The step into hardware didn’t prove too difficult for Amazon; they realised they could own and control a far greater share of the e-book market by creating the device that facilitated consumption. It took four years and three generations of product, but the Kindle is now very much a mainstream consumer product that will only grow in popularity.

Tesco may follow a very similar path with their acquisition of Blinkbox. They already have a consumer base that is purchasing third party content from them, but while DVD sales are hardly Tesco’s focus, the company can create a new delivery platform and instantly take a stake in on-demand media and establish themselves in what is still an embryonic market. And like Amazon, Tesco are perfectly placed to go beyond simply delivering the content, and create the hardware too; low-cost set-top boxes that aggregate many other on-demand services. Hardware, on-demand entertainment, monthly subscriptions, brand broadband servies and a mainstream consumer base – Tesco genuinely could deal a blow to current players like Sky and Virgin.

Nobody really saw it coming five years ago, but there’s now the very real prospect of an online bookstore and a supermarket disrupting the digital future and determining how we consume entertainment. But it’s not because they are global corporations with infrastructure and wealth, although that undeniably helps. It’s not about whether they are proficient in technology or recognised as entertainment brands. It’s because these businesses are inextricably rooted in community – they’re already an integral part of our routines and livelihoods. You don’t have to knock on a door to make a sale if you’re already in the house.

Fat tax – could you stomach it?

April 18th, 2011 15 Comments By Thewlis

DonnaSimpsonUnclothed 186x300 Fat tax   could you stomach it?Some things that come out of the good old US of A are good. Like Angelina Jolie. Or hamburgers. Other things are not so good.

Now, the state of Arizona has come up with Fat Tax, a levy of $50 (£30.60) a year for Medicaid patients who, let’s say, have let themselves go a bit. An Arizonian offical said “We want to be able to provide health care to people, and we want to stretch our dollars as far as we can. Part of that is engaging people to take better care of themselves.” People like 44 year old Donna M Simpson (pictured) whose weight is currently a mere stone short of her age, and who is well on the way to reaching her target weight of 72 stone, which would make her the heaviest woman alive. Or dead.

But putting this American oneup(wo)manship aside, those crafty US sorts may have come up with an alternative solution to the prospect of NHS cuts in this country. If we charged every fatty an annual fee for utilising NHS services, or maybe even only those affected by weight, we could make up some of the shortfall. We could even have a sliding scale starting at BMI of 26 (the ‘official’ definition of overweight).

Sounds plausible, in theory, but there are some issues that would need ironing out. For example, my own BMI might perhaps, possibly be a teeny smidge higher than 25, but I *do* have very heavy bones. And I have long hair. That’s got to weigh a couple of stone at least right?

So what do you think? A fat tax for porkers? A fag tax for smokers? A fun tax for wan…

[The Sunday Times]

If you’re a consumer-facing company, whether or not you bother with Twitter should be a no-brainer. Customers are able to discuss your brands and your products in public – they’re may be praising them, but you can be sure they’ll criticise them given the slightest provocation. So as a business, you have a choice; ignore the criticism and let it spread, or be part of the conversation to provide balance, support customers and correct mistruths.

Thorpe Park are on Twitter but their etiquette leaves a lot to be desired – to the point where they’ve been threatening teenage girls.

Avid Bitterwallet reader Kip got in touch with us about an incident that occurred yesterday. A Twitter user mentioned there had been a fatality on a ride at the theme park; the original tweet appears to have disappeared, but from the reaction of those involved, it doesn’t appear to have been sent with any malice. They were simply repeating a rumour that turned out to be untrue, but not before several other Twitter users responded and forwarded on the message.

It’s this repetition that caught the attention of Thorpe Park PR, who responded in typical knee-jerk reaction by sending a denial and veiled threat to anyone who mentioned it:

Picture 15 500x303 Its only their PR skills that died at Thorpe Park yesterday

Aside from Thorpe Park not being able to spell, the Twitter users they repeatedly menace for libelling them are teenagers; specifically fans of X Factor finalists One Direction. They’re kids – presumably Thorpe Park’s target market. That doesn’t stop the theme park’s PR team going on to harass another two teenage girls:

Picture 21 500x200 Its only their PR skills that died at Thorpe Park yesterday

You may think anyone claiming to be a fan of One Direction deserves the heavy-handed approach, but the fact is there were plenty of different ways Thorpe Park could have handled themselves instead of threatening teenagers. The PR people are right – it’s not a rumour you want circulating unchallenged – but Twitter users usually prove to be their own checks and balances. A lighter approach reassuring people that no deaths had occurred would have easily quelled the rumours – senselessly shouting about libel over and over again is only going to cause further attention.

So back to where we came in. Engaging customers – and potential customers – on Twitter is easy enough to do. Doing it well, without menacing overtones of douchebaggery, is considerably harder.

spotify logo Pirates are jumping the shark over Spotifys new serviceTo read the output from tech blogs this morning, you’d think Spotify had strangled a bagful of kittens in public. Maybe they well have, or indeed are planning to do so, but that isn’t what’s caused a meltdown in today’s coverage of the service.

In case you don’t know, Spotify is a music player that lets you create and stream playlists from millions of tracks. There’s a free service which limits usage and plays commercials; there’s an Unlimited subscription for £5 per month that has no restrictions; and there’s Spotify Premium for £10 per month that allows you to save playlists offline and sync your collection with your mobile.

Spotify has today announced that it’s changing the restrictions on the free service; instead of being able to stream 20 hours of music a month, new users will only be able to do so for the first six months, after which they’ll only be able to stream 10 hours a month. Also, new users signing up from May will only be able to stream an individual track five times.

To reiterate; Spotify isn’t axing its free service. It still exists and will continue to do so. Spotify are restricting their free service, because it’d be a idiotic business plan that sees a company give away free music to everyone forever. Spotify pays music labels for every track streamed, and since the service is likely to launch in the US shortly, there’s a good chance that the current model of usage won’t scale as well.

Regardless, the point of the free service is to encourage subscriptions – you trial it, you discover the various feature sets, you like it and you subscribe. It’s a business, after all, not some global initiative to ensure every man woman and child can listen to La Roux.

And yet, the first to comment on Spotify’s blog dismissed any suggestion of change out-of-hand, and did so in the most ridiculous way:

Picture 14 499x76 Pirates are jumping the shark over Spotifys new servicePicture 2 500x120 Pirates are jumping the shark over Spotifys new service

Those are perhaps two of the most selfish, self-absorbed comments I’ve ever read on a blog. Justifying piracy as a valid alternative to paying £5 a month for an all-you-can-eat music service is nonsensical. People who want to pirate music will no doubt continue to do so, but the fact remains that the justification for doing so made sense when the music industry held a monopoly on pricing and platform. That simply doesn’t exist now; there are dozens of digital start-ups are finding innovative ways to fund music distribution at minimal cost.

The sentiment has toppled the wrong way; pirates can’t claim to be sticking it to The Music Man anymore when third party services now provide access to music for pennies. It isn’t about liberating music or pleading poverty; it’s lazy and spoilt, and you can’t claim to value a product you are prepared to pay nothing whatsoever for, no matter how low the price goes.

As the founder of Instapaper, Marco Arment said: “People will pay for something they like because they want to ensure its future.” And as another commenter posted on the subject: “Saying piracy is free isn’t a good answer.”

postman pat special delivery service swimbag Postman Pat, Postman Pat, Postman Pat is another FatCat

I *think* it's his letters that you can have "anything anytime anywhere". But it could be his package.

Remember Postman Pat? There’s a knock, ring, letters through your doooor. Well, a few years ago Pat got a revamp for the 21st Century- in addition to now having a wife and son (called Julian – the son not the wife), Greendale now has some politically correct ethnic minority characters (Ajay the train driver and Sarah the vet) although somehow he has the same cat. Perhaps its stuffed.

Anyhow, while the vagaries of children’s television may or may not interest you, Greendale’s new ‘Special Delivery Service’ got me thinking- given that Pat delivers one parcel a day, and the SDS run a motorbike, truck and helicopter service (as well as his old van), how much must it cost to send one parcel Special Delivery in Greendale? £34,147?

And then it came to me. This must be one of those schemes where everyone pays over-the-odds for postage so that some rural village can get their postie to fly a parcel 2 and a half miles. A quick check of Royal Mail revealed that yes, we are.

Yesterday’s  record 5p rise in the cost of sending standard letters weighing up to 100g by first-class post, bringing the cost up to a massive 46p means we are a long, long way from the penny black. The cost of a second-class stamp has gone up 4p to 36p. A first-class, large letter stamp has risen by 9p to 75p, and by 7p to 58p for second-class mail. Even with inflation running higher than planned these days, these increases are excessive.

But it’s OK, there is a quango overseeing postal prices to make sure we’re not all shafted. Um. Regulator Postcomm gave its blessing permission for the increase in November, and the plans were announced by Royal Mail a month later. Quel surprise.

Moya Greene, CEO of Royal Mail Group, said that the decision had not been taken lightly.

“We have thought carefully about these increases as we are conscious of the difficult economic circumstances our customers are facing,” she said. Thought carefully, but still decided to go ahead and sting us all anyway.

“With the sharp declines in mail volume, our revenues are falling. That means if we do not generate more income, we will simply not be able to keep funding our six-days-a-week collection, sorting, transport and delivery operation to the UK’s 28 million homes and businesses.”

Well, they say that, but surely every other business in the UK is facing similar issues? Why should Royal Mail consider themselves immune and put prices up by record levels? Oh yes, it’s because they have a monopoly.

After all, Royal Mail letters more than doubled its profit in 2010 to a not inconsiderable £121m.  Could they not shave a bit off their profit? Or perhaps we could ask their top paid executive, Adam Crozier, who (including share options) was paid over £2.4m in 2010-  or the three executive directors who together took home over £5.5m

I’m not buying the sob story. But I will be paying through the nose to post a letter. And I bet it won’t even be Pat delivering it.

Barclays Wealth 300x257 Which is the crappest bank? Drumroll please...

...and they're keeping it

The FSA, responsible for the protection and enhancement of the stability of the UK financial system (and we all know what a good job they’ve been doing recently) has today published a league table of the worst offenders for the number of customer complaints in the last half of 2010.

The far and away winner of the dubious prize is Barclays banking division, with a massive 205,151 complaints, which is over 25% more than the number two on the list, Santander at 165,052, and more than third and fourth place combined (Lloyds TSB and NatWest banks, with 89,811 and 87,271 complaints respectively). Lloyds TSB’s general insurance and protection division made up the last of the top five.

So why are Barclays so bad that they are generating over 1100 official complaints a day, and that’s just on their banking operation- Barclays’ general insurance and protection division came in further down the top ten.

A Barclays spokesman was at pains to point out that they were only the worst in the banking section, and that there were four other sections they could have been worse in. Furthermore, Barclays consider they are moving in the right direction as these figures actually showed a 4% improvement on the previous figures. Whoop de doo.

Barclays’ general insurance division was also worst at closing complaints, with only 65 per cent of cases dealt with in eight weeks- NatWest managed to close 98 per cent of its complaints in the same timeframe.

Antony Jenkins, chief executive of Barclays Global Retail Banking, said: “Barclays is committed to reducing the number of complaints it receives and making substantial improvements to the overall service we provide customers. Our customers can be reassured we are making progress and are taking action to address the reasons our customers complain. Customers can expect to see improvements in our service in 2011.”

While it is good to know that Barclays do not think this is good enough, and that they are, apparently taking steps to “address the root cause” of the problem, we at BitterWallet do not think that a 4% reduction in complaints, which “reflects the work they have put in to customer relations” is, quite frankly, good enough.

With the latest accounts showing a profit before tax on the UK retail banking operations alone of £989m, we think they can afford to be a bit nicer to their customers…

Ryanair New Plane Logo 214x300 Screw mum over this Mothers Day with Ryanair vouchersFrom the department of stating the bleeding obvious, it’s Ryanair and their molecule-thin attempt to part you and your cash:

Ryanair confirmed that while Mother’s Day may be just around the corner 90% of mothers prefer going on holiday without their kids, while almost 30% would prefer a holiday without their partner and the kids.

The survey of 5,000 mothers across Europe, by Ryanair Mother’s Day Gift Vouchers, also found that 95% of mothers prefer to avoid other peoples’ children when travelling.

Ryanair’s Stephen McNamara said: “All mothers have to do is drop the kids off at the grandparents’ house on the way to the airport.”

Why, that’s delightful! All she has to is drop the kids off and turn up at the airport! That’s all!

Except for the bit where she books her flights and get stung by a £5 administration fee for using the vouchers, despite the vouchers being delivered by email and only being redeemable with Ryanair.

Oh, and the bit where she loses any balance between the cost of her flights and the value of the vouchers, which are only available in £25 or £50 denominations.

And the frustration of not being able to use the vouchers to take a partner with her if she wants to, because the vouchers are only valid for the named individual.

And the irritation of having to stump up a credit fee if the total cost of her flights exceed the value of the vouchers, regardless of how little the amount is.

Hopefully Mum will be savvy enough to clear the cookies on her browser to avoid getting completely screwed over by Ryanair’s thoughtfulness.