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Guest Comment: Kevin Brennan, minister for consumer affairs, on why it pays for customers to know their rights

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Every day more and more people are choosing to buy goods and services online. But while many enjoy bagging a bargain in the comfort of their own home, there are still those who lack confidence or feel that their consumer rights are being ignored. It will be the retailers that tackle these issues head-on that will reap the rewards.

In research published this week, out of 2,000 people surveyed one third claim their rights are ignored, whether shopping online, on the high street or in their home. Overall, a significant percentage (36%) felt they were most likely to be overcharged or misled while shopping on the internet.

Interestingly, those aged between 16 and 34 said the internet posed a greater risk than the high street, whereas the majority of people aged 35 plus feel that they are more likely to be overcharged or misled shopping on the high street.

Through the nationwide ‘Know Your Consumer Rights’ campaign we hope to improve the understanding of consumer rights among both businesses and consumers. Our principle aims are to educate consumers about their key basic rights and help businesses get the staff training they need.

This can only be a good thing for everyone: Consumers, businesses and the economy. A good knowledge of consumer rights, wherever and however people shop, can bring significant benefits to businesses. Good customer service develops customer loyalty and knowledgeable staff will be able to resolve disputes more easily and confidently, saving time and money. And ultimately, consumers who know their rights and are confident to use them are more likely to engage with shops and services and spend their cash.

My department, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), has joined forces with Trading Standards Institute (TSI), the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), Consumer Direct and Consumer Focus to launch the campaign, which will run until 2010. Testament to the fact that protecting consumer rights is good for business, a number of big-name retailers have already signed up as campaign partners. These include major online players Asos.com and figleaves.com and high-street giants Asda, B&Q and Wickes.

Like these retailers, I strongly believe there is a real business case for doing everything we can to equip consumers with the knowledge they need to confidently exercise their rights. Whether in-store, over the phone or via e-mail, well-informed staff are empowered to handle customer enquiries effectively, reduce conflict and manage customers’ expectations. This creates a better customer experience and keeps shoppers coming back.

Effective and efficient staff training is critical. We recognise that training can be costly to businesses and needs to be delivered in an appropriate, timely and cost-effective way. We want to help to make sure that it never needs to be the case of consumer rights at the expense of profit and growth for business. BIS, TSI and other partners have been working together to find the best and most effective ways of providing businesses with the consumer rights training they need. Following advice from businesses, all the information on consumer rights has been centralised into one place on Business Link’s website. In support of the campaign, TSI have made two modules of their Fair Trading Awards available online and free of charge. They can be accessed via Business Link or directly from the TSI website.

We have seen significant changes to the way we shop and live over the past ten years. As the consumer landscape becomes more complex, customer experience and trust is becoming even more crucial. People not only want to pay less, they want more for it. And they expect a great experience too. Consumers are looking for brands that add value and treat them in a fair and honest way. Those that do this will stand out from the crowd.

Kevin Brennan is the minister for consumer affairs in the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

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