This is another instalment in our Spending Ninjas series in which we feature leading Australian experts that will use their expertise to help you save money on everyday products and services.

In this post, we are absolutely delighted to feature one of the most recognised faces in the Australian consumer advocacy scene!

For some of you, his name might not immediately ring a bell but we assure you that pretty much all of you know his face and have seen him many times on TV.

His name is Christopher Zinn.

For over 5 years, Christopher Zinn was the public face of Choice, Australia’s leading consumer watchdog.

After that, he was the Campaign Director for One Big Switch for almost 2 years. One Big Switch is a unique & innovative consumer network which aims to use the power of large groups of consumers in order to unlock savings for them on everyday products and services.

We covered their work in one of our previous posts.

Christopher has often appeared on TV and became known to viewers Australia-wide for his authoritative yet easy to understand consumer advice and tips which are also full of common sense and are completely jargon-free.

Christopher gained himself a reputation of someone who is not just trustworthy but also very relaxed and down to earth in front of the camera and a large audience. Given his extensive media career (both as a reporter and producer) which spans almost a quarter of a century and in both print and TV, this should come as no surprise to anyone.

Here is a short example of one of his many TV appearances to refresh your memory:

Christopher Zinn is our kind of consumer advocate and we are not ashamed to admit that we also see him as a bit of a personal role model for us. Therefore, we take great pride in him agreeing to be interviewed by us and be featured as one of our Spending Ninjas. 🙂

And now for our interview with Christopher Zinn, Consumer advocate and campaigner extraordinaire

 

 1.   Hi Chris and welcome to Spending Ninjas. You’ve been following and commenting on the Australian consumer scene for quite awhile now and therefore have a unique perspective on it. Do you think that in general, Aussie consumers are being ripped off compared to their overseas counterparts?

No, I don’t think so and I reserve the word ‘rip off’ for something illegal, exploitative, not transparent and largely unavoidable. Not just when something is costing more than somewhere else.

Most Australian consumers are better off than their counterparts in comparable nations provided you use measures around median income, quality of life, reliable measures of price parity etc.

If you take a very narrow view of price only than yes we do pay more for some goods (e.g. digital entertainment, software etc.) but most of these items are not monopolies and there are lower cost options available to consumers to choose from.

People might argue about the cost of seeing Game of Thrones here as opposed to the US.

One, I do not regard a TV show as a necessity of life and don’t lose much sleep about these issues.

Two, stuff in Australia will never be as cheap, nor should we realistically expect it to be, as the US and this is for the following reasons:

  • They have massive economies of scale;
  • They enjoy far more competitive markets; and
  • We are able and willing to pay more than they can ( see income measures above)

2. What are the top 3 mistakes you see consumers make in Australia that result in them paying too much and not getting the best value?

  1. Not investing even a small amount of time to see what else is available in the market. The internet and mobile devices makes this much easier and quicker. It’s worth the time. I try to never be too busy to save a buck as otherwise, I’ll have to work more to pay the bill! We overvalue our time and undervalue our ability to spend less/save more.
  2. Trusting too much in brands with premium prices. Be they the big two supermarkets versus Aldi and the goods they sell, major electricity and insurance companies versus cheaper challenger brands and lazily going to the heavily marketed businesses instead of looking out for (and looking after) the better value independents (for example: major cinema chains versus the owner-operated independent cinemas which often have not just more interesting films but cheaper choctops too 😉 ).
  3. Not haggling enough. Yes it doesn’t work in big fixed price stores but people need to understand that they can negotiate for more than just homes, cars and at garage sales. Try haggling with your bank, power company and telco in order to get a better price but also in order to secure  more favourable terms or some extras they don’t usually offer. Be prepared to move and see what they are willing to give you in order to keep your business. Smaller shop keepers can be very good at haggling and be prepared to be out haggled. Haggling has been around for a very long time and if the outcome was always in the customer’s benefit, that practice would not have survived for that long.

3. Some commentators say that it is impossible for Australians to get the same pricing people in other countries get on their everyday products and services due to Australia’s small population and the very uneven way it is spread across our island continent. Do you agree? What can government do to address that? What can the consumers themselves do?

I agree. It’s unrealistic to expect Alice Springs to have the same prices as LA.

Saying that however, the prices of many consumer good have been falling significantly in the past few years, thanks to China mainly.

I disagree with the price differential of common goods and services between Australia and overseas being described as an ‘Australia Tax’ for, as explained above, in most cases you can get other items cheaper or buy online, and even use third party providers to get items at a better price. A real tax is not as easy nor as largely legal to evade.

The government can huff and puff about reducing the cost of living but short of introducing discredited ideas of price controls there is not much they can do. When was the last time you’ve seen the government being successful in reducing market prices directly and in an efficient manner?

However they can increase transparency and encourage consumer empowerment and education so we have more competitive and active markets.  I believe that this can make the fastest changes and it will be the type of changes that the most amount of consumers can clearly see with their own eyes (and in their own bank accounts).

You can wait for the government to fix markets (think of financial advice for example) or you can begin to take action yourself and with other consumers, if possible.

 4. Do you think Australian consumers have a higher level of brand loyalty than their overseas counterparts? If so, do you think this is hurting us?

Brand loyalty does help you to simplify your life and save time in decision-making even if it does mean you may pay more over time.

I’m not sure whether or not Australians have a higher level of brand loyalty than other nations.

Again it depends how you value your time and money and we all have a different equation.

(Editor note: We completely agree with Christopher that finding an alternative product or service provider takes time, especially if you are not very experienced with this kind of research. That’s why we started Spending Hacker: to help you save not only money but also time. If you’re not yet a subscriber to our saving alerts, reports and other content, you can fix that here and it’s totally FREE).

5. What type of everyday product or service you think is the easiest to generate significant savings in?

Electricity and gas are very easy to switch, if not so easy to compare.

There is a federal government site called Energy made easy which helps with that.

(Editor note: we cover two more easy steps you should take in the hunt for the BEST electricity plan for you in our comprehensive and FREE report ).

Another good example is  private health insurance where switching is regulated and can be made more simple by using the federal government site.

(Editor note: you can also check this option which we have used personally ourselves several times in order to find a better deal on private health insurance and are therefore happy to recommend).

Banking services are much harder to switch yet putting the effort to switch some banking services, such as home loans, could save you significant amounts.

We need portable account numbers for banking to make switching as easy as it is currently to port our mobile number between different providers.

(Editor note: the federal government has introduced measures to make switching transaction accounts much easier. This is a move in the right direction but as Christopher pointed out, you still can’t take your account number with you to the other financial institution so switching your everyday banking is still not as easy as it should be).

6. We find that there is quite a fair bit of bias in the reporting on the Australian consumer scene. How do you think consumers can easily determine whose advice they can trust and whose they can’t?

Not quite sure I agree, but some of the reporting in the Australian consumer scene can be biased against business.

Not all of the businesses are bastards and we need to support those businesses and people who try to do the right thing and be more consumer friendly.

Look at who says what. Everyone has some elements of self interest, ratings, readership, subscriptions, relevance etc.

The key is how transparent they are around their business and what sustains it. My advice is always to listen, read and get your information from a variety of sources — no one knows it all!

7. What made you take the decision to switch from being a journalist and TV producer to a consumer affairs advocate? Have you always been passionate about consumer affairs?

I switched because the kind of programs and shows I worked on were facing uncertain future and the prospect of learning something new emerged at Choice which combined my love of journalism (i.e. story telling) and campaigning (i.e. getting people to hopefully have fun and do something different).

My love of the area (I reserve the word passion for more personal endeavours such as eclipse chasing) comes from shopping as a boy with my father. He was very aware of value as opposed to price and shared much of his world view with me. Some of it stuck 🙂

8.Please tell us about your current projects and how they can help Aussie consumers.

Determined Consumer

This has been a bit on the back burner lately but this is a service which aims to help consumers who are prepared to do a bit of work to get better offers and better value. It has been a true labour of love for me.

Here is a short video which shows the kind of consumers we work with.

 

Adviser Ratings

A Trip Advisor style site for consumers to help find more competent and trustworthy financial advisers.

Regulation is fine (see FoFA etc), but consumers want better ways to find the service they need and want.

This service is completely free to use for both consumers and financial advisers. We don’t charge any referral fees.

The business model is to provide data and technology for planners and dealer groups.

Here is a short video which explains how this all works

Get credit score

A project which, for the first time, allows consumers to directly get their credit score at no cost or requirement to buy/check out a product.

We had more than 200,000 visitors in the first 3 days since we launched it.

I am retained and paid by Society One , the leading peer-to-peer lender in Australia. Here is a short video which explains how they operate.

 

Society One have started this free credit score service because they are interested in promoting financial literacy amongst Australian consumers.

Editor note: if you don’t quite know what Peer-to-peer lending is, this short segment from the ABC’s Checkout program explain it well, and with their signature quirky sense of humour.

 

I am also the consumer representative on the independent board of NSW Cemeteries and Crematoria. This is a new body, dare I call it, to help reform burial rights and price transparency and also ensure there is enough space in the state’s cemeteries  to cater for those who need it.

Thank you for your time and valuable insights Christopher.

 

This concludes our interview with Christopher Zinn, Consumer advocate and campaigner extraordinaire. If you use social media, you can connect with Christopher on TwitterLinkedIn and Google+.

We hope you found the insights from this Spending Ninja useful and please be on the lookout for our next featured Spending Ninja coming to our website (and your inbox if you’re a subscriber) very soon.

Thanks for reading and feel free to leave your questions, as well as general comments, in the comment box below.

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