Blog

Below are instalments regarding my dealings with Travelodge Cancellation Insurance, the current Boots Meal Deal, an eBay experience relating to DinghyBits's feedback, the impending car parking charges at the National Archive in Kew, and a query regarding National Savings and Investments. None of these is really related to anything to do with sailing and dinghies but read them if you wish - you clicked on the Blog link after all!

eBay - RTBM - Read The Bloody Memo

Last year I renovated a couple of cast iron garden benches. I went to my usual supplier for suitable fixings for the seat slats and back, all in stainless steel. Result looked really impressive. Seeing that so many people out there seemed to be renovating benches like I'd done, I decided to offer on eBay packs of fixings to do the job. They've been selling like hot cakes all Spring and Summer!

OK, so I had some feedback from a customer who had bought a single pack of bolts. He'd not messaged me with a query, just left the feedback (at least it was Good feedback!). It's not unusual to find buyers purchase a single pack first-off, just to have a look-see and try them out, then subsequently buy what they need to complete the job for real. In this particular case I don't know what to think but he certainly hadn't read the listing...

Feedback Received: "Good seller, but no info on number of bolts to be sent . Not enough for a seat"

Eh? Well I checked my listing – you can see it for yourself if you look – and it's pretty comprehensive...err...that's if you choose to read it. I replied in my usual (dry) fashion:

Good evening Anthony,

Thanks for leaving feedback but your comment confuses me somewhat. re: the number of bolts a buyer should expect to receive. In the listing I think I have been quite explicit - on four occasions - namely:

Heading: Coach Bolts for the slats (Sold in packs of six - 6 bolts, 6 domed nuts, 12 washers in two widths - 6 of each)

Text: These coach bolts are sold in separate packs of half a dozen bolts.

Text: Select from the drop-down either the coach bolts at 30mm or 35mm length (both sold in sets of six) comprising bolt, nut and two diameters of washer.

Heading: Specification for Coach Bolts (sold in packs of six)

If you require some more fixings to finish your seat project I can send you as many, or as few, as you need, in either length. Just get in touch in the usual way. Regards,Ian

 

18th August 2017

eBay - DinghyBits in the Naughty Corner

Between 2nd and 9th August 2017 DinghyBits felt the wrath of eBay and had restrictions applied to the account. I had transgressed their selling practices by messaging a customer my phone number and was placed on the naughty step for a week. Yes, guilty I suppose on a technical point, but unwarranted I feel. You decide.

I had a query regarding whether a customer could collect a couple of large Harken cleats from me, they could pay cash or PayPal. They were obviously in a hurry; I assumed this because the cleats were listed as buy-it-now and offered free Guaranteed Next Day delivery. The enquiry came through about 14:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. They'd have received them Thursday morning, therefore wishing to collect means they must be in a rush. I had to go out that afternoon (to the Post Office) in any case and had to be out of the house by 5pm to give some sail coaching at the club. If they needed the cleats in such a hurry there was little time to go into a lengthy eBay messaging saga. So I sent the buyer my phone number, though they were not paying customers at this point. eBay got upset and gave me a stern warning about transgressing their rules and attempting to make transactions outwith eBay. That was not the case at all. It was simply me offering the best customer service I could. I respect the eBay principle; they supply a marketplace and get a cut for it, fine with me. The upshot was that my potential customer became an actual customer within a few minutes, paid through eBay with PayPal as normal, eBay got their 10% commission, my customer collected within the hour and when I went back online AFTER all this, eBay had restricted the DinghyBits account. I couldn't list anything, couldn't communicate with anyone and folks could not message me, for a week. I don't know how automated this is at the eBay end but there was a £100 PayPal payment associated with the listing/message that would have shown that the transaction was all above board – if they'd bothered to look – it was staring them in the face. Still, I was technically out of order, eBay had their pound of flesh, so be it. Just doesn't enamour me to that principle I have so far upheld. Hence if you become a customer of mine via eBay, I'll happily share eBay's 10% with you in any subsequent sales. It's their loss, our gain, in the long term.

 

9th August 2017

Seller Cancels Order after Auction Ends - greenblumarine

Detailed below is the background and correspondence/messaging that I had with an eBay seller, user greenblumarine, a guy called Frank Trotman who hails from East Cowes and is, it seems, a player on the local Isle of Wight sailing scene. He cancelled a transaction after I won one of his auctions, claiming the item was 'unavailable' and then when challenged it became 'damaged', along with a number of other items of his, so he said. He then referred to me as a blackmailer in his feedback, something I find libelous. Challenged again, he refused to prove the 'damaged' excuse, and frankly I disbelieve him, as does at least one fellow eBayer who also left him negative feedback after he'd cancelled three transactions on them as well. You, dear reader, make up your own mind as to whether I am a blackmailer and deserve the abuse, or whether the integrity of the seller is in question.

Ok, here goes. I spotted some Harken blocks being sold in auction format by greenblumarine, auctions starting at 99p. I was particularly interested in a Mid-Range Classic double block, brand new, on its card. The mid-range blocks are beautifully made, heavy, durable and robust, and I have had a number of examples through my hands over the years, particularly the single swivel version H1542. This was the double, H1544, and has a current RRP of £176.09. I expected it to go for a good sum and was very pleasantly surprised when I won the auction (item number 321927009312 bidding as boating_ian) at just £24. A bargain. So much so that I stuck a bid on at 99p for an eyestrap and a couple of stand-up springs from the same seller a few minutes later. I sent a request for the seller to combine the postage (£7.30 and £2.80) and it all went downhill from there. My request for invoice total included the message...

Good afternoon, I know it's cheeky to ask after the event but I am sure you can combine the postage on these two items, it could lead to some glowing feedback anyway. Cheers, Ian

greenblumarine's reply:

'The item is unavailable sorry for the inconvenience please don't pay thanks for your cooperation'

I was a little concerned that if I did not pay up, at least for the second item, I would miss out on the opportunity of placing any feedback at a later date. I was uncertain at the time whether feedback can be left after a transaction has been cancelled. It can it seems, now I know. Hence I disobeyed the seller's instruction and made payment, expecting to only pay for the eyestrap and springs. Here's my message to greenblumarine soon after:

Oh that's a pity. I have been looking for one of these for a while and expected it to go for around half the retail price, as I suspect you did. I have paid for the full order because I cannot split the invoice since they are automatically combined by eBay subsequent to my request for an invoice total. I felt obliged to pay for the springs because in so doing I now have a guaranteed opportunity to leave 80 characters of feedback, most probably negative. That really depends on you. It would really be good of you to somehow make the block 'available' again since you managed to photograph it only a few days ago, It has not vanished into thin air I am sure. Have a think about it overnight. Regards, Ian

And I got this in return

'Some item s have been damaged this is the reason but seeing as you made your own mind up on the problem I suggest you re think your feedback and try to be more understanding rather then make threats etc.I will have more item coming up and if the feed is not removed I will block you and further deals won't be had.thanks'

I was a little confused by this because on the one hand I am accused of making threats, and on the other, if I don't behave, I am being threatened with disbarment from access to his future listings. I fully agree that I was applying a little pressure, and who wouldn't when such a good bargain looks like slipping out of their hands? And then I noticed the feedback he had already left for me...

'If I could write your comments I think the police may be keen to talk to u' followed by:

'Trying to blackmail someone is illegal be very careful what you say refund u now'

I bet Frank was most disgruntled that a seller can leave nothing but 'good' feedback for a buyer, no neutrals, no negatives. Looks like I had definitely pushed his buttons. At this stage I realised you might be getting a new DinghyBits Blog entry but we'll give our seller another chance before that were to happen. I sent the following message that evening:

Good evening Frank, Thank you for your reply. I shall worry about you preventing me from bidding on your future auctions - and possibly missing out on incredible savings - until after we have dealt with this current bargain that I have purchased from you. You and I have a contract that you have reneged on. I contend that you cancelled the transaction because you deemed the final price was not high enough. You ask for my understanding and I shall afford you due sympathies should you prove to me that these items have in fact been damaged. You can do this in one of three ways: namely 1. You send me the item and I will consider whether it be damaged or not: 2. You photograph it with such clarity that I can determine it is broken, or 3. Arrange a suitable time such that my brother can see the damaged block. Call my bluff if you like but he also resides in East Cowes and in fact lives just around the corner from you. Our correspondence has been made privately up to now to settle this dispute via eBay messaging. I proffered you the advice to consider the resolution of this dispute overnight, not to act in haste, but notwithstanding I see that you have left me feedback which I find disturbing, nay threatening, and amounts to libel since it is in the public domain. This is now altogether more serious than a private dispute. Feedback cannot be withdrawn or altered except with the intervention of eBay. Hence I shall be reporting you via the Resolution Centre to have this removed. I see that I am not alone in having issues with your recent auctions. A fellow buyer has declared his personal opinion in his negative feedback for you. You are bound by the rules of eBay to fulfill the contracts that you make with your sellers. Depending upon the whether our current dispute is resolved to my satisfaction will determine whether I also publish my fully considered opinion of your honesty and integrity to a wider audience. Regards, Ian

And in return I swiftly receive:

'you have had a refund for the item'

That was brief wasn't it? Oh, and if you are wondering about my brother, it really is a very small world, he lives about 200 yards away from the seller, considerably less as the crow flies. I slept on it and sent this in return on the afternoon of 30th November.

I find that a wholly dissatisfactory reply. You have had every opportunity to prove your claim of multiple damaged items but declined. You reneged on your contract as a seller and you have libeled me in your feedback. When I give the public at large the opportunity to review your conduct in this matter I will let them draw their own conclusion as to your integrity as a seller. If you wish to guarantee a minimum final price for an item, eBay offer you the tools to do so. You can start an auction at a suitable price, or put on a reserve, or list it as a Buy-It-Now. You chose to start these auctions at 99p and the final selling price was their market value on the day. That is the risk you take and you have brought the consequences on yourself. I note that you have declared on eBay that you have posted the eyestrap and springs to me. I trust that you have retained proof of postage because I am very likely to disbelieve you if they were to go missing. I shall await their arrival and then go live. In the meantime I give you further opportunity to prove to me the block was damaged. Regards,Ian

The eyestrap arrived, a genuine Harken one in fact, with two lightweight springs. He sent them 2nd class recorded (at £1.84 cost) so made some on the postage as well (£2.80 paid) but we'll forgive that, at least they arrived in one piece, we really didn't want any more grief.

I sent this last message on Thursday at 17:08 to give one last chance before the DinghyBits Blog was published and my feedback submitted.

Good evening Frank, The eyestrap and springs arrived this afternoon, thank you. And a genuine Harken eyestrap at that; excellent. Have you had any thoughts on our other matter? All it takes is for you to invite my brother round to take a pristine new block off your hands in exchange for £24, or to show him the broken blocks with an explanation as to how their damage occurred. Simple as that. I then arrange for your feedback to be removed and on my part, I temper my feelings by submitting even-handed feedback in return. Deadline Friday 4th Dec. Regards, Ian

Now, the reason for the Friday deadline is that my brother is due to catch the 6pm Red Funnel ferry from East Cowes on the 4th Dec because he's coming up to see me and the rest of the family for the weekend. It would be great if he brought a nice shiny Harken block with him, and would save me £7.30 in postage too, but I doubt it somehow. All's been a little quiet from on the greenblumarine front. We'll see...

No reply. Deadline expired. Blog published. greenblumarine's feedback replied to and negative feedback submitted. I do feel a little guilty giving negative feedback for both items when one of them was perfect, but that's what Frank did to me; he used both his available opportunities to libel me, so it's only fair really.

So, let this be a warning. He's shafted me, it seems he's cancelled at least three other transactions after the event, you could easily be next. Caveat emptor, as they say...

05/12/2015

Leopards and their spots...eyacht-shop

Stop. Yes, you! Have you read the post above, about greenblumarine? If so, carry on, otherwise go read it, then come back to this entry.

OK, what are the chances of this happening? I keep a look out on eBay for items to purchase for the website, especially Harken blocks. I found four auction listings and bid on all of them, winning two. The major success was a particularly fine Midrange Harken double block, new on its card that I got for a song! It had been incredibly poorly described, no sheave size, no product number, just a couple of pictures, you had to put in some real effort as a potential bidder to find out exactly what it was. I seemed to be the only one who'd taken the trouble because I got it for its opening bid price. No-one more surprised than I was, well, apart from the seller that is. I had emailed this chap earlier in the week asking about combined postage, in my usual fashion:

'I am interested in another of your auctions. If I were to bid and win more than one item would you consider combining the postage? It would make a difference as to the level I would bid up to and might lead to some glowing feedback.'

I got the reply: ' Hi Ian thanks for your message I'm happy to negotiate the Combined post, as I will not charge full cost, cost for packaging and delivery to post office is understandable less and I will be fair and I actually like your comment thanks'. Ok, I think I understand. I had a funny feeling about this block, something in the back of my mind. The eBay seller is called eyacht-shop, from East Cowes. No. No, it couldn't be. He had a few other listings visible and two of them were for yachts. Yes, big floaty things that sail at a funny angle; expensive too. Within those listings, long descriptive listings that had no punctuation by the way - stringing words together with any clarity is not a strong point obviously – was a phone number. Well, isn't the power of Google astonishing. Yes, you are ahead of me here, it was our Frank Trotman again, previously known as greenblumarine. In fact that's not true, he still lists odd things on eBay as greenblumarine but his feedback is a little, umm, 'patchy', you might say, so he's now trading under another username, eyacht-shop, a handle he set up a while back that currently has just a handful of feedback entries, all of them good. Fair enough, I wouldn't want to offer five-figure yachts for sale with a dodgy record that everyone can see, hence the changed identity. But it's our Frank, all the same.

Now, as an aside, when the topic of religion is discussed – does one believe or not - I sit hovering on the fence. If pressed I tend towards the disbelievers and will likely fall off on the atheists' side of the fence but I might have to change my mind after this. These blocks, eighteen months ago, they were 'damaged', Frank told me so. Must be a miracle, they seem now to be in perfect condition. Well, bless me. I only won two of his auctions of course, but in fact all four original blocks listed by greenblumarine have come back to life, a multiple re-incarnation no less! Or maybe it's better just to gloss over the fact that, they being damaged, was a blatant lie all along.

This had every potential to be another disaster. Ha, bring it on. Frank must be properly narked because not only has he had to sit on those blocks for a good length of time not being able to sell them, but when he does list them again they are won by the same bloke; me. What are the chances of that, eh? And you know what's worse and causes me a really rye smile? It's this: I paid £24 for the big block last time but just £15 on this occasion! Because of the exchange rate the RRP on it is now over £200. The other block I won was a touch over a tenner; under 20% of its retail worth and also brand new. I bet he's properly hacked off – and deserves to be, I say.

So I requested a combined invoice but Frank's settings for the new user eyacht-shop were such that he didn't offer combined postage. I then messaged him: Good evening, I was in touch earlier in the week and we were going to negotiate a postage price. Could you send these out to me at least recorded delivery please? I wouldn't want them to go astray. If you could send me an invoice I'd pay up ASAP. Many thanks, Ian P.S. I note that you have selling setting preferences set such that you don't offer a combined postage discount. Maybe you might like to change that setting, it's up to you, but our discussion earlier suggests you do! Ian

No reply and no invoice. OK, we'll try again. Good morning, I have had a thought. My brother lives up the road from you in East Cowes and would be happy to collect. Hand you cash, and it would save you packaging these blocks up and working out the postage. No doubt catch you later, I am off sailing for the day. Cheers, Ian

No reply. I called my brother to tell him the score and there was an audible sigh down the phone, it seems he'd seen Frank's wife only the previous day! How embarrassing this could be...again. But hold on, later that evening I did in fact receive the invoice discounted by £3, postage now down to £10.30 for the two blocks. Well we are doing better than last time, at least he's not cancelled the transactions; there is hope yet, we'll persevere. I paid up tout-de-suite. I did pen a message with the payment:

'Frank, Thank you for the discount, it's appreciated. I ask that you send these recorded delivery and pass me the tracking number, better still there's enough postage to send Guaranteed Next Day, that would fully insure us for the value. We wouldn't want these to go astray, would we? Many thanks, Ian'

Late the next night I get the following:

'sorry for the delay in posting they were already wrapped i will post tomorrow appreciate your patients' (sic)

And I send:

'That's no problem, I am in no hurry after all. Thanks for letting me know. Cheers, Ian'

Couldn't resist the little dig, I have waited since Christmas 2015 for these blocks to arrive – we'll see if they finally do. Frank sends me the tracking number so it must be for real! And indeed they do arrive, next day. Promptly messaged Frank with:

'Good afternoon Frank, These arrived just now in a timely fashion. Overnight from the island is most impressive, and in perfect condition as well. [Another little dig, you note!] Thanks again,Ian'

And in reply moments later: 'Spiffing thanks'

Spiffing? Spiffing? What sort of a bloke uses the word 'spiffing' these days? I know what I think – four letters begins with 'T' and rhymes with 'that'. Oh well, it's kept me entertained anyway. Off to photograph these blocks for the website now...

From this we have learned four things:

1) Leopards can change their spots, partially at least. I am sure Frank had to dig pretty deeply not to cancel these transactions and let these blocks go at a ridiculously cheap price – though they were the market price on the day in an open auction - it could have been of course that he didn't want to jeopardize his new user's feedback when one of his many businesses is to sell yachts and another is to be trusted to skipper and safely deliver other people's boats round the globe. Even so, good man.

2) I am going to have to get off the hot grass on the atheists' side and struggle up onto that fence again. Coincidences, miracles, and forgiveness from me – but no, actually I don't forgive Frank, it was a business decision on his part, that's all. I am not getting off the grass, not just yet at least.

3) The eBayer eyacht-shop is greenblumarine and he may have other seller nommes de plume as well but they all hark back to Frank Trotman of East Cowes, a player on the local sailing scene.

4) Frank did have the final word though. Sent them 1st Class Recorded at £4.40 rather than Guaranteed Next Day as suggested. He took the risk but made six quid by doing so. His really big risk was what would have happened if they hadn't arrived...

Maybe it's not the final word after all; I must decide what feedback to leave him. I have put it off but he's now messaged me and says 'Ian any feedback ?? Seeing as you got s cracking deal'

What a dilemma. I'll sleep on it for a while...

10th August 2017

eBay feedback, 100% no longer...Part 1

This is the section where I take the opportunity to fully reply to a recent buyer on eBay. This is sassysam_19 and is far from sassy in my opinion, more like ill-informed, trigger-happy and simply a menace to eBay sellers in general. You, dear reader, can decide for yourself. By the way, the moniker is sassysam_19 but they were posted to a guy called Tom. I know not who was responsible for running the account but we'll refer to the buyer as Tom from here on in.

This buyer won an auction of mine for some standard pop-rivets recently; 100 rivets in five sizes. Some, or maybe all of them are now holding together his boy-racer Subaru - he seems to buy a lot of bits for it. So, soon after he'd paid one afternoon, I e-mailed him to say they'd just been sent out from our local Post Office, which they had. He messaged me to apologise for the late payment - it was only a couple of days - no problem at all, and good of him to apologise. At least we started off on the right footing. A few days later I get a message from him saying, 'hi can u leave your feedback please?item has come very happy thanks again'. Oops. I haven't left him feedback, sort that out right away. Now the normal, well-established and accepted routine is that a seller lists, a buyer buys, and pays, the seller despatches, the buyer receives the goods then leaves feedback. The seller responds/replies with their feedback in turn and the transaction is all over and put to bed. I checked and expected to see something like 'Excellent items, safely packaged and swiftly despatched' or such like (because they were). But he'd not left any feedback yet. So, was he expecting me to leave feedback first? Well, that's novel. I ignored the messaged request for that evening and soon received another, saying the same as before. I replied 'Certainly, after you Sir...'. Our Tom came back with 'my feedback is set to auto'. Huh? Some big companies automate their feedback on PAYMENT by a buyer, but doing it on receipt of a seller's FEEDBACK is totally arse about face.

At this point I should have researched the feedback that so called sassysam_19 has left for others, but I didn't. I replied 'Well, isn't that clever. Though on consideration that nullifies the whole concept of feedback altogether, don't you think?'. A while later I did get his feedback. Negative feedback, no less. He said 'wont leave feedback,not very nice wen seller emailed me,wont b usin this 1 again'. At this point I investigated the feedback he's left for other sellers. Of the last 600 entries in the list, amid the 'good ebayer no problems' - his automated reply - there are a few neutrals scattered about but a total of 42 (yes, forty-two) instances of negative feeback. That's 7% of all feedback he leaves. Tom does not have a problem with me in particular, he evidently has an issue with society in general. I reported him immediately to eBay, and you're offered, when you do this, up to 2000 characters of comment, which was fortunate. There is procedure in place through eBay for a seller to ask a buyer to retract their feedback, for example switch a negative to a neutral or even upgrade to a positive, and change or edit their typed comment. I decided not to do this for two reasons. sassysam_19 obviously doesn't care and it will get me nowhere, so is simple a waste of effort and b) by reporting this in my blog in a totally public forum allows others - customers of mine and any inquisitive soul - to be warned that this buyer is simply a menace.

Referring to the contents of the feedback he's left me; I will be leaving him feedback - 80 characters of carefully drafted feedback, soon after this blog is uploaded to the website. Also I shall use my right of reply (which is probably why you're reading this now). As for being not very nice, I'm sure reading this blog won't change his opinion, but I am really not in the mood to care. He says he wont(sic) be buying from me again; too true, he won't. Tom is on my blocked bidders list and I recommend to anyone reading this that they add sassysam_19 to theirs too. Unless you want to lay yourself open to having your perfect feedback record spoiled by this numpty. If you don't exclude him from bidding on your auctions the statistics show that every fifteenth seller will get a negative. One in fifteen!

Now to wait and see whether eBay make any sanctions against sassysam_19 themselves. If they do, you'll read them here. If they don't you'll also read it here, along with any other incidents that transpire.

P.S. I relented; I messaged them. 'If I were to ask really nicely, would you retract the recent feedback you left me?' I'm a nice guy, one last chance. Well, it's not really fair is it? But yes it is, because I was ignored. Since I have to suffer looking at that red negative for the next year, I reckon this blog is a perfectly fair and fitting response.

 

30/10/12

NSI – National Savings and Investments Application

In the last few days I have applied to invest in the government’s 48th edition of national savings. I did this on-line, since that’s the way things are done these days. All pretty straightforward, the site leads you neatly through the process and on page six you hit the ‘Submit’ button. Only at this stage I’m told ‘We are unable to process your application at this time. Please try again later’. And just why didn’t they tell me they couldn’t take my money on page one? If it were a problem with the actual acceptance of debiting my card at the final stage, why don’t they have a retry process? Something like "We will attempt to re-process your application in 30 seconds, please be patient." But no, it just dumps you out with nothing so courteous as an explanation.

I tried again the following day expecting similar results; but no, it was OK. Processed; acceptance confirmation e-mail; all good, excellent. Hmmm, or so I thought. Two days later a second e-mail arrives saying that "the Holder’s Number I had provided ‘does not match with our records’, hence my application could not be processed. No monies had been debited from my card." Er, and? Well, that was it, no extra information. Nothing to say that a form will be sent to me so that I can make a ‘manual’ application through the post. Nothing. Now, on-line, you are invited to enter a Holder’s Number to be used, presumably as a double check against their records to verify you are who you say you are and reside at the given address; seems sensible enough. I have a few Premium Bonds and entered the Holder’s Number on that certificate, in the correct field, when prompted. And yes, I am sure I didn’t make a mistake when entering the numbers (and single letter check-digit character).

So I got on the phone. Free at least, and a good job, it was about twenty minutes to speak to someone and all that while being repeatedly advised to try the web-site. I explained my problem and Jason (thank you) processed my application manually. He said NS&I Internet would have rejected the Holder’s Number because it related to a different product. So why invite me to enter something not relevant or useful then? Jason very efficiently took fewer details from me over the phone than requested by the web-site, and is sending me a form to complete, that details the cooling off period etc.

Why couldn’t that be done from the information I’d entered on-line? It was the same details, sufficient to post me the paperwork. Just a bit baffled; really not very logical if you ask me. It makes me wonder whether it is in fact possible for anyone to successfully complete an on-line application. If I were cynical - as if - I’d say it was a sneaky way of gleaning a current e-mail address for me. Jason didn’t seek an e-mail contact so we’ll see if my rejected Internet application has at least some data retained for future marketing purposes. No doubt I’ll find out in the current months…

4 th June 2011

 

National Archives Visitors’ Car Park

I spend a little time, on and off, in the National Archives in Kew in London. They have set themselves the target of saving some £10m over the next three years. The two classic ways to achieve this is a) decrease expenses, and b) increase revenue. Opening for five days per week, rather than six as before will certainly help reduce the wage bill, and charging for the 120 space car park will increase income. Of course these are just two of the measures; the Monday closing began in the New Year and the car park charging comes into play from 27th April 2010.

I’ve attended a few of the meetings in advance of this restructuring, which has been enlightening, and at times entertaining. Both the reduced opening times and the car park charging have been somewhat contentious issues, to say the least.

Below is a potted history of the parking arrangements:

A year or more ago, electronically controlled barriers were installed at the entrance and exit of the car park. You took a ticket from the machine then the barrier opened to let you enter. Park your car in any available space and commence your research for the day. In the main building, you ‘swiped’ your ticket, returned to the car and on reaching the exit, slotted the ticket into the machine, which verified you’d ‘checked out’ and opened the barrier. Simple.

The reason given for the barriers in the first place was that the Kew Retail Park is adjacent, though not visible, to the NA car park. Shopping customers were parking all day for free in the NA car park, hence reducing the spaces available to genuine researchers. I can’t quantify the prevalence of the abuse of this facility but I’m sure it went on to some extent.

To most Archive visitors we realised that charging was imminent and so be it, it’s well overdue. In these green times one can’t expect to drive into London and park all day for free. There is a public transport system, that mostly works, and we really ought to use it. It’s just convenient, certainly for me, to drive; but I’m grown up enough to realise I’ll have to pay for the privilege.

Just a quick mental calculation, based on the car park charge, a figure that no doubt you’ve just arrived at also – say £5 per day – is a lot of income. The car park is full most days, and even if a space is only used once each day, it comes to roughly £150,000. If I were on the panel, my vote would be in favour, and to do it now. In fact do it yesterday, this is income just leaking away, money for old rope as my father would say.

Well, it had to go to consultation, and this was last year. Should they charge at all? And if so, how much? And what about regular visitors? They couldn’t be expected to pay up every single day? So offer a season ticket; great idea. All this went to a discussion forum, and consultation, and advisors and all the directors sitting round a table considering, proposing, procrastinating (at about £40 per hour each by the way – and there were six of them). Well, now they’ve decided what they’ll do.

They’ll charge £5 per day (gosh – wonder how long that took?) There’ll be a season ticket available, the cost being based on the VED of the car in question, so between £75 for a green hybrid, to £200 for average cars, to £350 for a high emission vehicle – that’s equivalent to fourteen full weeks worth of day tickets – doubt they’ll be the hot-seller. This all seems a trifle complicated, and a bit ambiguous. Are the Archives playing the green card and being PC, or wanting to make money? Well, they are trying do both. If they were really that concerned about the planet they’d remove the car park entirely, bar a few disabled spaces.

It surprised me, at one of the meetings I attended, how vociferous some of the users were against any charging at all - and at that time the price had not been considered or at least confirmed. In fact it was most amusing. Complainants were explaining they’d have to take two buses, a train, and a tube each way, or walk for some distance to the bus stop, and tube station, etc, if they didn’t use their car. And why should they pay, because the Archives are free for one and all. It was like a Monty Python sketch, you recall the one, the Secret Policeman’s Ball - ‘we used to get up in t’middle o’t’night, half an hour before we went to be bed, and lick the road clean’ – yes, you remember. Great stuff. Well, this was similar. But what it meant was that during that meeting we never had time to discuss the serious issues like conserving unique documents, correcting existing errors in the catalogue, partnerships with third party companies and associations, for digitising records, for example. No, it was all about the flaming car park.

Recently the Archives have released information on how the car parking will work in practice. And this is good stuff, really good! If you’ve read this far don’t leave me now!

Here goes: You book a space in advance, online or via a dedicated telephone booking system (automated no doubt; I can’t confirm this, but we’ll see) You state your car’s registration number and pay in advance on the web-site, receiving e-mail confirmation for your receipt etc. This guarantees you a random space in the car park for the day in question. You can now arrive at any time because a bay will definitely be available for you. One of the other declared reasons for the non-optional pre-booking facility is that you won’t have the disappointment and hassle of driving to the Archives and not being able to park. Ah, bless. Isn’t that thoughtful. This also means of course you can’t drop in for a few hours on the spur of the moment. Due to the pre-booking arrangement, you won’t be allowed in. The converse of this of course is that if you have pre-booked, arrived, and left at lunchtime, your parking bay has been allocated to you for the full day, so a person who might have been able to turn up on spec and do five or six hours research until 7pm on a Tuesday or Thursday still won’t be able to gain entry, even though the car park might be half empty. And don’t forget, the NA loses their extra £5 also.

How’s this all to be controlled? Well it’s by an ANPR system; Automatic Number Plate Recognition. Yes, this is the Archives marching headlong into the 21st century. I just have an inkling that this might be a step too far. Let me explain: These existing electronic barriers have not been the most reliable devices in the world over the last year. We regulars know the maintenance engineers by first name - most of them are Irish, by the way, don’t know why. If it’s not the barriers themselves that fail, it’s the verification devices inside the main building that are out of order. This is the electronic number punch machine that stamps the ticket and allows the barrier to rise on exit. These are regularly out of order, or at least one of the pair is. Between the barrier failing and the electronics falling over, it’s probably three days per week when the system works as it ought to. Though on the last occasion recently, when I was in Kew, they didn’t function at all – the barriers were raised all week, no cards, no fuss, perfect. How they expect to link all this up to an ANPR, with camera and software, and links, and database lookup, and new hardware and software and secure payments on the web-site, checking on the abuse of the system by season ticket holders who pre-book a space for every day and don’t turn up, that, and all the extra responsibility of staying within the bounds of the Data Protection Act etc. Well, you can imagine the score…not a hope….

Here’s my suggestion:

Half a dozen road cones, a man, a shed, a desk, a chair, a cashbox, and a radio; one, digital, for the use of.

At £5 a shot, in any one week you’ll have paid for the attendant’s weekly wages, say £400, by about half past nine on Monday morning - sorry Tuesday morning, my mistake - I forget the Archives has foregone the revenue opportunity of each Monday because it’s now closed on Mondays. By Wednesday lunchtime of the first week you’ll have covered the capital costs: the shed, the desk, the year’s subscription to The Sun. All the rest is profit. Well, not quite, but you’ll have saved on the hardware, and the software, and the barriers and the electronics, and the risk of it all going wrong. No; the certainty of it all collapsing around your ears...

OK, there’s the cost and risk of dealing with the cash, and a lot of it. So include a labrador under the desk, to ward off thieves, why not? There are already regular Securicor collections of bucket loads of cash from the restaurant and shop, so although there’s a percentage you pay for the extra six-figure turnover annually, it’s not excessive and certainly simpler than electronic payment and interweb hoo-ha. You also get a cut from the ATM in the foyer, which will no doubt get extra use. It’s not all gloom, you know.

Scrap the season ticket idea. If you want to drive, you have to pay. And the Archives can sell a parking bay more than once, so on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the long days, think of all the extra fivers to put towards conservation or directors’ remuneration, or whatever.

The new regime with number plate recognition and online payment, and booking up to a month in advance is widely advertised to commence on 27th April; refer to the National Archives web-site for details. I’ll be attempting to use the system only a couple of weeks after its inception, so watch this space…of course it may all work perfectly and if it does, this no doubt satisfied, relieved, and repentant user will report it here…

11th April 2010

Update: 17th April 2010

Latest information released on the National Archives web-site dated 16th April informs us that "The National Archives' car park pre-pay and booking system, originally planned for 27 April, will be delayed by a short period of time. We hope to announce the revised launch date shortly...we will give at least four weeks' notice before the new car parking system is introduced."

Just on this one occasion only, I couldn't possibly comment :-)

Update: 19th May 2010

At the Archives last week I noticed that some new hardware has been installed. ANPR cameras, a pair of them mounted above each other, now cover the entrance of the car park. So, it’s for real then!

Another, second set of cameras of the same format, track vehicles approaching the Exit barrier. This didn’t really register for a while; but, what’s the point in having the second pair? Surely there’s no need to recognise a specific vehicle leaving the car park? A vehicle must be legitimate because it can’t get on in the first place, without having been verified as ‘legal’ at the entrance. On the advertised premise that once you’ve purchased a space you have access to a bay all day, and are free to come and go throughout the period as you please - off to lunch, meet friends from the station etc - why do you need to be tracked off the premises? If the cameras on the exit have to verify against the database the fact that you’ve entered (once) before it raises the barrier to let you out, isn’t this just another potential point of failure of the system? If the PC controlling all this were to fail and require the database file to be restored, I have an image of a hundred cars unable to leave at closing time. No, silly, sorry ignore me.

So, it must be for statistical analysis of how long users leave their cars in the car park, and might confirm that it’s half empty by mid-afternoon, not that you couldn’t see this for yourself if you took a stroll round the grounds. Of course, they could use this principle, of counting them In and counting the Out, to send a text message or e-mail to the registered owner that says ‘Psst. You’ve left your car on our car park. Would you like it cleaned? Press 1. Or clamped? Press 2: followed by the hash key!

No, there’s likely an obvious simple reason for the second set of cameras, but I’ve just not fathomed it yet. No doubt it will all become clear given time.

Update: 5th July 2010

Latest from The National Archives web-site dated 28th June informs us that "We hope to announce the launch date shortly, so please bookmark this page and check back before your next visit. We will give at least four weeks' notice before the new car parking system is introduced." I shall make some further enquiries when I visit shortly and report my findings...

Update: 23rd July 2010

I attended this month’s User Group meeting at Kew and item 5 on the agenda was regarding an announcement re: Car Parking. Now advertised on their web-site, the booking system is going live on 17th August for the booking of parking spaces from Tuesday 31st August. Interesting meeting…users are still baulking at the charges of £5 per day, that’s all that seems to concern them, though a user did say that if it didn’t work would it be shelved? Answer from the chairman was that it is going ahead, all issues and concerns have been previously heard at prior meetings and there is no more to discuss. It goes live on 17th August; period. I was really really tempted to ask a series of pertinent questions such as ‘This third party contractor putting in the system on the Archives’ behalf are experts in this field, so you say, so why is it four months late? Doesn’t sound like an off-the-shelf package; is it their first foray into on-line booking? Or another…’Is there a plan B for when the ANPR cameras don’t work on the morning of Tuesday 31st August and there’s a queue of 100 cars, their drivers waving their payment receipts and the barriers remaining resolutely down? It may not get to that stage of course, the booking system may have failed long before then. Or, ‘How can having a season ticket available deter visitors driving to the Archives? Surely there are many who can use either the train or their car, depending on the weather say, but if they’ve paid for a season ticket, well they’ll use the car of course. They’ve paid up-front already for the privilege so they’ll drive. Well, I would, it’s only natural to do so.’ The chairman and likely the whole body of responsible directors are no doubt heartily sick of the subject of car parking and the whinging masses, so it was with some brevity that this item was brought to a close and we moved on to more erudite matters. With that tone of finality I chose to remain silent, so let’s just see what happens. Though I do wonder about the duration of the contract awarded to the current car park operators and whether next year a man and a shed might be considered…okay, THIS man and his shed?

Update 29th July 2010

Not to do with parking but linked nevertheless. I have it on good authority from a Doctor of History no less that the Archives was ‘absolutely rammed’ on Tuesday this week. By that I take it to mean that there were a lot of visitors and it was extremely busy. An announcement over the tannoy stated that ‘There were no more seats available in the reading rooms and if you vacate your seat would you please inform a member of staff at the enquiries desk that your position is now available for another’s use’ .

So we have the potential scenario that you pre-book your space on the car-park, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to do any of your research due to no capacity within the building. Well there’s an obvious solution. Let’s have another on-line system to book a seat in advance. You could have a virtual tour of the reading rooms and select your desired location at will. If you were required to upload a description or photo you could choose to sit next to, or opposite, the erudite tweedy professor or the elegant blonde. There could be optical identification, with iris recognition devices on the desks, just in case you’d dyed your hair in the last month, or were trying to beat the system and choosing to sit on your own at the last moment, being an erudite elegant tweedy blonde professor yourself who wished to dissociate themselves from hoi polloi, why not? Me, I’d chose a desk where the chair didn’t squeak and the angle-poise lamp was actually working, but you get my drift.

No, stop now, enough, they’d only run with it…kicking and screaming into the 20th century (old joke, 10 years old at least).

Update 14th Aug 2010

Just three days to go. It’s getting exciting now. Of course it will all work fine, well it has to really. Best case scenario is it works perfectly: the booking system, the camera system, all of it functions as intended. Second best is that the booking software fails from the outset, such that nobody can get embroiled in it all from the start. If that happens there’s the opportunity for a delay/postponement…again. What you really really don’t want anything in the middle ground…

…Let’s just envisage for a moment that the booking system works as designed. Over the space of the next fortnight we have visitors buying season tickets and booking spaces for up to two months ahead. Day-payers can be booking spaces from 31st August and throughout September. But then on opening day, the ANPR cameras don’t work or can’t interact with, or interrogate, the database effectively and there are queues and faults and irate customers. Archives’ staff might need to be on duty in the car park to deal with queries and problems, since the barriers might not rise when required.

A couple of days of mayhem ensue, such that the powers that be need to take some decisions. If the on-line booking is to remain, the checking of the correct vehicle entering the car park needs to be done manually until things are rectified, or you could just postpone the whole idea and ‘park’ the on-line booking system for the foreseeable future. If you do that and not still charge for the parking there may be a little bit of anarchy over the next month because some will have paid, and some get in for free.

Because you wouldn’t have the facility now to book in advance, the parking must become a free-for-all again, on a first-come first-served basis as before. The whole remit was not to make a profit, just to cover costs and the main selling point was that people should be able to drive to the Archives and know they’ll be able to park when they arrive. Well, you’ll need to maintain a presence on the car park for at least a month, if not two months if you postpone the system. If you still want to charge the fiver, you’ll need someone to take the money (but just from those that haven’t paid up-front of course). This all seems a bit like the man and the shed routine, remember?

If the decision is not to charge for the time being, you can reimburse the season ticket holders – or if you’re that confident just delay the commencement of their year’s subscription – but you’ll need to return the payment to the daily visitors who’ve already paid in advance. Though of course you could choose not to, and simply pocket the funds! But just think of the very worst case; where you don’t charge anymore, you’ve chosen not to reimburse an advance daily payer, nor inform them individually of the most recent changes to the procedures. They turn up on a Tuesday in the middle of September, finding they can’t park because it’s full! Now, if that’s me, having chosen not to get up at 4:30am to drive to the Archives for opening time, but set off at a sensible hour, knowing I’ve got a reserved parking slot, having booked and paid in advance, only to find there’s no space, and what’s more the visitor occupying ‘my’ space has not paid, when I have gone to all the trouble to submit my details and registration number and spent all that time and effort jumping through what I feel are unnecessary hoops, well, all I can say is that I hope Jeff James, the director overseeing all this, well I hope he employs protection. I wish to spend ten hours in the Archives doing research, not dealing with a problem that was not of my making and as trivial as where and how I park my car.

So, let it work perfectly or not all, because the middle ground is just a nightmare. And there’s just three days to go…

Update 17th Aug 2010

Oh, the disappointment. I was all ready with my credit card in front of me this morning. But no news, no telephone hotline, no new booking software. They are teasing us surely? But this afternoon there is the following announcement, a fortnight’s grace is being given for the supplier to iron out the teething problems, they being experts in this field.

Latest from TNA web-site: "From Tuesday 14 September, we are introducing the new car parking system which will require visitors who would like to park in the car park to book and pre-pay for a parking space, via a dedicated telephone line or website, originally announced in March…The booking website and phone number will be available from 31 August. The introduction of the booking system has been delayed from 17 August due to technical difficulties with our supplier."

Interestingly the link to the ‘Car-Parking-Frequently-Asked-Questions’ PDF file has been omitted from this ‘Latest News’ page. Probably an oversight…

Fifty grand’s worth of revenue lost so far, and all for the want of a shed and a few books of cloakroom tickets. Be sure to watch this space (no pun intended) for the next instalment.

Update 18th Aug 2010

The missing link to the ‘Car-Parking-Frequently-Asked-Questions’ PDF may cause potential visitors a problem. The most recent version contained the following information regarding not being aware of the registration number of the car you intend to use to get to the Archives.

Q. What if I do not know the registration number of the vehicle I will bring as it is a hire car?

A: You should still book as normal, but instead of the registration number, use the first 7 letters of your surname. Then, once you have collected your hire car, contact the helpdesk on 020 8392 5362, and give them the name you booked under, and the actual vehicle registration. The helpdesk will update the system so your vehicle will be recognised when you arrive

Now, if you’ve accompanied me on this journey so far, you’ll know how my brain is wired. So we can infer from the above statement that the field in the database allows for a maximum of seven letters/figures for a registration plate. OK. Well, that’s all fine since your usual number plate is AB12 ABC or ABC 123D, or even ABC 1 but pity the poor French student in their own pre-2009 vehicle which may well have the signifier 1234 AB 56, i.e. eight letters/figures. Will the database accept it? Will the camera read it? Will the barrier open? Well, you may think it’s a silly scenario but I’ve seen a good number of foreign automobiles on that car park, especially during the summer when visiting academics combine research and take a British holiday with their families. Just be in the queue in front of them; that’s what I advise, else ‘merde’ may ensue. But fortunately this is another example that can be presented to the hardware/software and fully tested before the system goes live on 31st Aug/ 14th Sept.

Update 31st August 2010

This is the latest information on the NA web-site that was updated a few minutes ago.

"Due to technical difficulties, we are postponing the launch of the visitors' car park booking system until Tuesday 14 September. We hope to launch both the booking website and telephone booking line on this date. Visitors can continue to park for free in the car park until Tuesday 28 September, after when they should book and pay in advance for a space"

I think this means that on and after 29th September you’ll have needed to have booked a space, which you can do from 14th Sept onwards, and that from 29th there will be a charge. Up until that time it is still first-come first-served and free. It could be a little less ambiguous, but then using the verb ‘hope’ does imply a less than certain outcome!

Update 12th September 2010

This is the most recent information posted on the NA web-site from 10th September.

"The introduction of the visitors' car park booking system has been delayed as we are not yet satisfied that the technical solution offered meets our rigorous standards of customer service.

We are re-examining this booking system and it will not be introduced until we are satisfied that it can meet our high standards.

The car park is currently free for visitors. However, we decided to introduce charges because we need to recover the maintenance and operational costs of providing a car park. We will communicate the introduction of car parking charges at least one month in advance to ensure that visitors are given plenty of notice. "

So they’ve pulled it. For the time being at least. We’ll see what’s said at the User Group meeting this Thursday, could be interesting, watch this space!

 

eBay feedback, 100% no longer...Part 2

This is the section where I take the opportunity to fully reply to the buyer on eBay who decided to leave negative feedback before taking the precautionary route of a) reading the listing and b) bothering to ask the seller a question until after they’d left said, unjustified feedback. The listing was completely accurate and fully descriptive of the item for sale, and in this particular case the buyer was hasty and frankly, just plain wrong.

This blog will be completed when I have calmed down, since I am, at this point, really quite annoyed…

To be continued…

 

Travelodge Cancellation Insurance

I recently attempted to claim on the Travelodge Cancellation Insurance. It was doomed to fail from the outset – I fell at the first hurdle as I knew I would, but I had to give it a go didn’t I? I put my case together for the ‘once in a generation’ exceptional circumstances I experienced and appealed to the benevolent nature of the good denizens of Heath Lambert Insurance…and fail I did. I should have saved my £1 premium.

It was the time of the ‘real’ snow that fell in London and the South East on the morning of Monday 2nd Feb 2009 when the country came to an abrupt, though slippery, halt. I was already staying at a Travelodge in Littlehampton and was booked in to their Kew hotel in London that Monday night. I had a saver room which I knew was, as they rightfully describe, ‘cancellable but not refundable’ – hmmm, what’s the point you ask?

All the government agencies and the BBC and road organisations proclaimed that people should not travel unless absolutely necessary. That morning the Underground was cancelled, the rail network was unreliable and Boris Johnson was defending the buses not running. There was a foot of snow on the North Downs and more forecast for that afternoon. The likelihood of getting to London by car was pretty negligible, the M3 was shut, similarly the M25 that was a bigger, more efficient car park than normal…and the snow in Littlehampton was still falling.

I had a few options: stay put, abort the London trip or head home to the Midlands, though friends in the Cotswolds were snowed in and their local main roads were blocked.

I enquired of Natalie Wells, the manager of the Littlehampton Travelodge – and I must say, the staff have always been as helpful as possible in all circumstances and that’s one of the reasons why I’m a regular user of this hotel chain – I enquired of Natalie whether I could swap my night at Kew for staying that Monday evening at Littlehampton and postponing any decision to travel. Yes, I could stay, but the saver room at Kew was not transferrable so the standard room charge would apply – there was nothing she could do. Rules were rules. While she confirmed my options with her supervisors I spoke to another of Natalie’s colleagues who happened to be in the hotel that morning, and he advised attempting to claim on the insurance regardless. He thought I had a pretty good case. I was only wanting to pursue a claim for the £32 room fee, it wasn’t as if I was petitioning for the few hundred pounds loss of earnings or expenses that I was forfeiting.

To further my chances I asked Natalie to cancel my room at Kew. There was little point in being obstructive and retaining a room that I knew I could not use. A few miles down the road from Kew, Heathrow Airport had 12000 passengers delayed for an unknown period of time because the airport was shut and their flights had been cancelled. Rooms in the capital were going to be at a premium, so it would be churlish to hold a room vacant – which of course Travelodge could offer at the full rate no doubt – they’d only had £32 off me, here was an opportunity to make an extra £80 or £90 on top. Still, all this would further my case, or so I thought.

I managed that day to drive back home; it took a good while and was an ‘interesting’ journey, but I got back in one piece. And so I put in my claim…

Heath Lambert, to their credit, replied very quickly. They correctly assumed that I was travelling by car and hence was not covered by their policy. They directed me to the web-site so that I could study for myself the terms and conditions in detail. Interestingly they didn’t point out that my Saver Rate booking itself excluded me from their cover.

I’d gone this far so decided to press my case. In a rather tongue-in-cheek letter I replied to ‘Dear Claims Department’ since their original author didn’t possess a name, and offered ‘Atlas Insurance PCC Limited in respect of its Travelodge Cell, a protected cell of Atlas Insurance PCC Limited’ – because that’s who they are, it’s on their letterhead and curiously they are based in Malta for some reason – I offered them some free advertising on this website or at least a link to their terms and conditions page of their insurance so that potential customers need not miss out on the myriad of benefits therein. I tentatively suggested an opt-out clause on their behalf, such as a cheque for the sum of £32 would probably suffice! To no avail.

A reply from a named person was delivered extremely quickly. It consisted four pages of terms and conditions, reiterated that they assume I’m travelling by car and hence am excluded in any case because my delay was not unavoidable due to cancellation of departure by aircraft, sea vessel, coach or train. Oh, and the rest of the letter detailed to whom I could complain should I still be unsatisfied.

If you’ve read this far, I’ll summarise for you the terms and conditions of their insurance if like me, you are travelling by private car to a Travelodge Hotel. Well, the summary may not be strictly precise but you’ll get my drift. You need to fulfill the following criteria, in the stipulated order:

  1. Have died
  2. Make your claim in person

And it seems the above may not apply to saver rates; rooms booked are required to be of the ‘Flexible’ variety. Book your Travelodge rooms by all means - I’ve only got praise for the company and their staff - but my advice is to save the £1, or better still give it to charity. Insurance companies do not have a better nature, so don’t bother appealing to it; it doesn’t exist.

Now, I’d promised Heath Lambert a Google top-three page ranking in a matter of weeks, for the key-words ‘Travelodge Cancellation Insurance’ and that may prove to be a little ambitious, but we’ll see…

Travelodge Room Cancellation Insurance Terms and Conditions can be found at http://www.travelodge.co.uk/refund_cover/wording.php

 

17/02/09

Update: Front page ranking achieved within the intended time-scale. Result!

I informed Heath Lambert of this on 4th March but my letter must have gone astray. Though what about the power of Google? It's impressed me at any rate...

 

 

Travelodge versus Premier Inn 28/11/2009

I received an e-mail this morning from Travelodge referring to a complaint they’d lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority regarding their rival competitor Premier Inn. All very interesting.

It seems achieving Premier Inn’s offer of £29 rooms is a bit of a lottery, dependent on what method you use on Premier Inn’s web-site to seek out these offers. Now, informing me of this fact is of course all very altruistic of Travelodge but in my experience attaining their discounted room rates via their own web-site is a little hit and miss.

When you go for the Travelodge saver rate, and get the matrix of prices per night across your desired and local hotels, don’t attempt to stay for successive nights at the same location because you are very unlikely to get the best, or advertised rate. For example if Monday is £19, Tuesday £29, and Wednesday £35, and you go to book a two night stay across Monday and Tuesday nights, the rate returned is £29 for each of the nights regardless of the fact that the first night is advertised at £19. To get the declared discounted rate you must book separately, one night at a time. This is all a bit of a time-consuming, frustrating and one might think unnecessary pain, especially for a lengthy stay, but this is the route you have to take to get the best deal. You might be excused for assuming that the special rate for the Monday is no longer available, due to demand, since the matrix was last updated at 6am that morning. But this has occurred on every occasion I’ve placed or gone to make a booking - and I use them frequently – the £19 is in fact current but only for a single night’s stay. Just try it for yourself if you suspect my motives, you can always abandon the booking before you get to the ‘make payment’ section.

This bug or ‘feature’, that must gain a fair amount of extra revenue, has been evident on the Travelodge site for the last eighteen months at least. So before Travelodge get all high and mighty about the motives and advertising claims of their main competitor, personally, I feel they ought to get their own house in order, as in my experience they are not so lily-white themselves.

Update 03/12/2009 Checking on their web-site I see that Travelodge has become more open and expansive regarding their saver rates and single night stays. The very model of transparency and fair play; excellent stuff.

 

Boots Meal Deal

Excellent savings, great value and very simple. You all know the principle: Buy a sandwich, include a drink and a snack, all for a fixed price. The price can fluctuate between stores and locations but normally ranges from £2.99 to £3.49. Even better recently because there’s been an additional offer where if you buy five meals in any one month you get a sixth free.

There is an anomaly though. They’ve introduced 2 for 1 offers on some drinks, or buy two of a drink for a fixed lower price, eg: two cokes for £1.50, or buy one get one free on Oasis (known as a BOGOF). These can confuse the EPoS software resulting in you, the customer, being charged a different price from what you might expect. Stay with me here, and concentrate!

These drinks are itemised on the shelf as being included in the meal deal. On the first occasion when I noticed these offers I selected just one drink and went to the till. The staff member serving me pointed out that I could have a second drink at no extra charge because both drinks fell within the meal deal. Great, I got a second drink free.

In the same store this week, there were several buy two drinks for a fixed price, and these were on the "I’m in the Meal Deal" shelves. But at the till the charge came to 69p more than I expected, so I queried it. This particular transaction was further confused because I’d just bought my fourth, fifth and sixth sets of sandwiches this month so got one of them free – I wasn’t being greedy, I wasn’t eating alone!. It was just 69p but even so I felt a little cheated, so asked it to be checked. Another colleague of the lady serving me said that ‘The till does this sometimes – it depends on the order you scan the items’. What! You’re joking?

I pointed out that, at the shelf, to the customer it was ambiguous as to whether the ‘two for a fixed price’ drinks included both drinks within the meal deal offer, and that if this wasn’t the case it should be clearly stated as such, which it isn’t. I also said that I found it incredulous that since Boots turned over some £5 billion each year, most of it through their tills, that the EPoS system wasn’t man enough to cope with promotions, long-standing ones at that. Worse than just not working or recognising a promotion, I couldn’t believe that the order in which you scanned items in a basket made a difference to what the till charged the customer. My 69p was refunded.

Looking at the original receipt carefully, it is difficult to decipher how the system reached the figure it did. The sandwich and the confectionery of the free sixth meal were not charged but all the (four) drinks were. Then the two for £1.50 offer kicked in saving me 60p on the full price of £1.05 each. How this all translates into a Total to Pay figure of £6.67 I can’t explain – by my reckoning it should have been £5.98.

At this point I really need to ‘come clean’. In a previous life I was a project manager, responsible for a real-time EPoS system on behalf of a chain of convenience stores. I have twenty-five years experience in programming, systems analysis, and design. I also have, as others have attested, a phenomenal strike rate at breaking EPoS systems, especially in the area of promotions and the like. I also know my rights as regards Trading Standards, and especially if I’m wearing a suit can come across as being ‘pretty scary’, or so I’m told. (I just can’t see this myself, because I’m a really good bloke and scrupulously fair)

So, Boots turn over a huge amount of money and their EPoS system is unable to consistently cope with the challenges that their Marketing and Promotion guys throw at it. Yes? Well, sort of. I can sympathise, though. The marketing department has their job to do; their remit is to make us, the general public, buy more Boots sandwiches rather than go next door to M & S where a similar offer is just £2! I have direct experience of the logic and programming requirement that lies behind these compounded promotions and I assure you, it is far from simple. There are so many permutations in how to calculate the best offer for the customer - if that’s indeed what you want to do. There’ll always be a conflict of interest between the Marketing Department and the IT side; Marketing are forever coming up with bright ideas for promotions and offers, then go off to the software guys and say ‘It can’t be that difficult’. Well it is. Trust me. If it were easy and quick to program, there’d be no mistakes and we, as customers looking for the best deal, well we wouldn’t have to check our till receipts so carefully.

26/02/09

 

 

P.S. If you really want to put the cat amongst the pigeons, request an itemised VAT receipt. You won’t get a full breakdown because this is really, really complicated! These meal deals include VATable and non VATable items (cold, prepared sandwiches are zero-rated; confectionery and carbonated products attract VAT at the standard rate) These would be fine if purchased separately but when bundled in a meal deal, their unit retail value is altered dependent on the mix of the other items in the basket. Hence the VAT output tax alters. I know one solution that was accepted by the VAT man and it really wasn’t simple; in fact, deals were done with the Revenue over the longer term. But then Boots only sell a few sandwiches each year, the VAT can’t amount to much - well only a few million anyway!

 

Update: 2nd April 2009. The store in question has made a number of procedural changes. There are no longer two-for-one offers, nor two-at-a-discount offers on drinks, advertised on the meal deal shelves. This doesn't remove the multi-buy meal deal problem but reduces the frequency of it occuring. What's more, the staff in this store have been retrained to scan items in baskets that include sandwiches, in a particular order, and admitted to this when queried recently. With some of the staff, you can't have a conversation or pass the time of day any more; they are too busy concentrating to remember the checklist of product scanning priority, you can see the cogs whirring! I wonder if this remedy has been rolled out across all stores nationwide? If so, this implies the software bug is too complicated, or too costly, to fix, or will take a protracted period of time to rectify, if indeed it's possible to do so. Trading Standards must have been on the case...