First of all, let me state that I think consumer champion Martin Lewis comes across as a great guy. His website MoneySavingExpert provides a great resource if you’re looking for ways to save money or need any other kind of financial advice. I’ll even happily forgive him for having a website that’s perhaps a bit too ‘1.0’ to warrant his “fighting your corner” tagline (he provides generic support and advice but doesn’t appear to specifically represent anyone individually who asks him to do so).
Today, however, he came out with a blog post and statements on national radio and in the written press that astonished me, because in my eyes they were sheerly populist/political and had little to do with providing consumers with the best possible financial advice.
Lewis takes issue with the ticketing system for the London 2012 Olympics, the first phase of which closes tonight. Fair enough, in his position as consumer champion and self-proclaimed MoneySavingExpert, I would expect him to take a very critical look at any such major ticket sale. But then, as a single-minded, critical consumer in my own right, and one with a (proverbial) big mouth and a blog of her own, I do also rather like my right of response on my own terms. 🙂 That’s nothing against Martin Lewis personally, but on this occasion very much against some of the points he made today.
For starters, why did he choose to wait until the very last day of the first ‘subscription window’ to express his concerns. Why didn’t he post his blog and talk to the press on the first day, or better still, before the window opened? If he really cares so much about consumers’ interests, why leave it so late and then blame the organisers for the pitfalls of the system, when he could have forewarned consumers in order to help them avoid those pitfalls, and perhaps even have tempted the organisers to improve their system before they launched it?
Quoting Martin Lewis
Allow me to pinpoint and respond to a few things Martin Lewis specifically said (wrote):
“Surely we could have worked out a system similar to football teams where you register your interest, then are randomly selected and given a window of opportunity to pay for them. If you don’t want them after all then they are then passed down to others.”
Perhaps so — but surely, if Lewis had been serious about this point, he would have come up with this last year when the ticketing system was announced, rather than on the last day of the first subscription phase.
“We’re expected to bid for tickets with no indication of what proportion we’ll get. This involves a financial and emotional commitment and is structured in a way that automatically penalises those with less cash.”
Though Lewis is right that there is indeed no way to figure out the odds of being allocated the tickets one signs up for, the financial and emotional commitment would still be there in the alternative system he suggests, and, arguably, any fixed-price system “penalises those with less cash”. Only a system that would base ticket prices on buyers’ disposable incomes would not disadvantage people with less cash to spend, though one might argue the ‘fairness’ of a system where different people pay different prices for exactly the same product or service.
“If it does turn out that you’ve only a one in ten chance of getting tickets, then everyone should be bidding for a wide spread of events in order to guarantee that they will get to go at all.”
“Everyone should be bidding for a wide spreak of events…” is hardly something I’d expect to come from someone claiming to have consumers’ interests at heart. It’s a ballot, there is no such thing as a guarantee, even if the odds of ‘winning’ were known in advance. Buying ten lottery tickets as opposed to just one may increase your chances of winning, it doesn’t guarantee you a win. It does mean that the people with more disposable income can afford to buy more lottery tickets, increasing their chances of winning in comparison to those with less disposable income. Life’s unfair like that. Get over it.
The difference between a lottery and this Olympics tickets ballot is that in the latter, you only end up paying for those that you win. If you’re a responsible consumer, though, you only bid for tickets accumulating to an amount that you can actually afford, however unlikely it may seem that you will in fact be allocated (and have to pay for) all those tickets you subscribed for. The Olympics ticketing site even warns you about this.
Of course, it would be naive to think that every consumer is that responsible. There will no doubt be plenty of people who will take a gamble for potentially more than they can afford, just like there are people who use their credit card or any other form of borrowed money to buy lottery tickets. In both situations, some will come away lucky, while most will end up worse off for it.
Personally I would expect MoneySavingExpert Martin Lewis to urge consumers to act responsibly, rather than blame the potential consequences for the irresponsible ones on the enterprises tempting them. Let’s not throw personal responsibility out of the window, here.
“That means the only people who can afford to take the gamble of going for a wide spread to guarantee tickets are the more affluent who can take the risk of, without exaggeration, thousands of pounds being taken from their accounts.”
True — and the problem is…? If the system had been like Lewis had suggested, more people could take a gamble as there would be no risk of having to pay for something they couldn’t afford… but eventually you’d still end up with those more affluent being able to afford more tickets than those with less money to spend… so in Lewis’s words, still “penalising those with less cash”. One could argue such a system to be unfair as people might sign up for something they couldn’t afford in the first place (yet potentially disadvantaging those who could).
Even plain, unballoted ticket sales on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis would benefit those with more cash available to them, that system, too, would be considered unfair by some. There is no system that would be fair to all.
“Many of [British sports fans] are contributing through lottery and tax funds to the games.”
Indeed, and not just British sport fans do, plenty of non-Brits living and working in Britain do too 🙂 However, none of that buys any of us any ‘entitlement’ to anything. Many taxpayers pay towards non-taxpayers’ welfare benefits. All car owners have to pay car tax, some of which goes towards public transport they may never use. I don’t drive, but some of my income and council tax will go towards fixing the potholes in the roads that I’ll never use. We all pay taxes and insurance towards police, fire, ambulance and health services that we hope we’ll never need. That’s not necessarily entirely fair, but that’s how taxes work.
Lotteries don’t constitute taxes; people voluntarily buy tickets, and usually not in support of the causes which benefit from lottery funding, but to buy themselves one or more chances of winning a potential fortune. Some local charities or other services lottery players use may benefit from lottery funding, but most lottery players will only benefit from the lottery on the rare occasion that they win a prize. You know that before you buy the ticket. Consumers need to know their rights and responsibilities; what they don’t need is a misplaced sense of entitlement suggested or confirmed by a self-appointed ‘expert’.
Lewis repeatedly refers to the ticketing system as a “psychic booking process”, because there is no way you can predict your chances of obtaining any tickets should you decide to register for them. It’s a ballot! And even if it wasn’t a ballot, but a plain first-come, first-serve ticket-sale, you still wouldn’t be able to predict your chances of obtaining the tickets that you tried for. So aren’t all ticketing systems “psychic booking processes”? Or is Lewis going a bit over the top in terms of rhetoric in his blog? (I’d say it’s the latter, but that’s just my humble opinion.)
“A catalogue of poor practice”?
Finally, under the dramatic header “A catalogue of poor practice”, Lewis names his final bugbears regarding the London 2012 Olympics ticketing system:
- The system accepts only payments by VISA credit, debit, prepaid or virtual card. I do agree with Martin Lewis that this is way too limited, but I wouldn’t go as dramatic over it as he does by asking “Is this the Olympic spirit?” — Olympic spirit doesn’t pay the bills, and VISA, as one of the Olympics’ main sponsors, does. Without that level of sponsorship, the Olympics bill to UK taxpayers would have been so much greater that most of us might have failed to feel any Olympic spirit at all. In that respect, the VISA-only rule, however inconvenient, is probably the lesser of two evils.
- Payments are taken at any time between 10 May and 10 June, meaning people need to ensure they have sufficient funds in their account during this entire period. Another major inconvenience, which should have been avoided, but again something people are clearly warned about before bidding for any tickets, so they can prepare for this (and yes, that might mean having to forego some interest, though under current rates this can’t be very much). Where I disagree with Lewis is that he states this to be “on top of making everyone gamble by overbooking”… No one is being ‘made to overbook’ and everyone is warned on the ticketing website that they need to have the maximum funds available to cover the cumulative amount for tickets they bid for. While this system may have tempted people to overbook, that is no one else’s responsibility but the people’s themselves; no one forced them to be irresponsible about it and in fact, the ticketing website even warned them against it.
- The scheme for people wanting to resell any tickets allocated to them which they no longer want does not open till 2012. This, too, is clearly indicated on the website before anyone clicks through to bid on tickets. Lewis objects to the length of time people are having to wait, again referring to “so many people are having to deliberately overbid”. Again: no one has to to overbid; if people felt tempted or even obliged to overbid, they clearly didn’t read the blatant warnings on the website. Still, Martin Lewis firmly seems to believe that the ticketing organisation is to blame for anyone overbidding their budget; that, in my opinion, is a populist if not political point, not the sound financial advice that consumers looking to him for guidance would most benefit from. (They might like his populist stance a whole lot better than mine, but I think they’d benefit more from a reality check.)
As much as Martin Lewis may wish to ‘fight people’s corners’, as his website suggests, surely a self-proclaimed MoneySavingExpert should help educate people, instil them with confidence, and teach them to handle their finances responsibly. There is only so much you can blame financial and other institutions for.
Much of the 2008 credit crunch was a result of a ‘greed beyond means’ culture among consumers as well as companies, spending money that didn’t exist in the first place and extending credit to people who would never be able to afford to repay it.
Whether consumers or lenders were to blame for that is a discussion for another day; today’s reality is that credit is no longer readily available. It forces both consumers and businesses to act more responsibly than before 2008, as suddenly we can no longer live beyond our means — without credit, when the money runs out, that’s it, it’s gone.
This may require a new mindset (or a return to an old mindset that existed pre-consumer credit), one in which we all have to take our individual responsibility, because if we don’t, we have to pick up the pieces ourselves, no matter how fiercely we try to blame others.
For some of us, responsible consumerism will mean austerity: prioritising needs and wants, making choices, sacrificing one thing to have another, or having to miss out on things we’d love to have.
Others, more affluent than us, may be able to continue to spend as they please, when they please, how they please. That’s life. Life is unfair. Get over it.
Let’s help ourselves and others do well, and not waste time bemoaning or even blaming others for what they have that we’d like to have, too.
As much as I respect Martin Lewis for all the good advice and support he’s offered over the years, reading his blog today and listening to him speak on the radio, I suddenly found myself wondering whether he was talking populism, politics or finance. Or whether he’d perhaps failed to move on with the times post-credit crunch.
Personally, I thoroughly checked the ticket website but did not apply for any tickets because I did not have the budget for that. For that same reason I haven’t been to any major football stadium for ten years. I could bemoan that, but I choose not to: as long as there are people willing to pay ever-increasing ticket prices, ticket prices will increase; organisers wouldn’t charge these vast amounts if their events didn’t sell out regardless. If, like me, you can’t or don’t wish to pay such extortionate amounts, find something else to do instead, rather than sulk. Be realistic. Life is unfair. Get over it.
Disclaimer: I have no links whatsoever to LOCOG or any of its sponsors, nor to Martin Lewis, MoneySavingExpert.com or any of its relations or competitors.