The computer business is serving consumers well but could do better when it comes to aftersales support, according to the OFT (Office of Fair Trading) which has just completed a year-long investigation into the industry.
The OFT report, Consumer IT Goods and Services, says that overall consumers are satisfied with the price and performance of PC equipment, but that the support services offered by suppliers are the greatest cause for complaint, "with telephone helplines causing the most frustration".
While the OFT did identify the worst offenders — firms who charge as much as £1.50 per minute for premium rate support lines — John Vickers, director general of fair trading, said that these companies would not be revealed to the public as the OFT "is not in the business of naming and shaming", and that such practices were "very much across the board" in any case.
But the OFT believes this problem, among others, can be addressed by providing customers with more information up front about what they are buying so they will be able to consider its overall cost and quality.
The running cost of inkjet printers – specifically the price of inkjet cartridges – was also singled out for criticism in the report. The OFT recommends that the industry comes up with a standard measure of inkjet cartridge performance in the next 12 months.
It is already offering the Which? standard on its website, as this is what it used for its own testing, however Debbie Samosa, OFT team leader of markets and policy initiatives, described this test as "adequate" — hardly high praise — and Vickers said that the OFT would welcome any third-party test the industry could provide.
The OFT has identified the problem of high prices for inkjet cartridges, and recommending that manufacturers to be more transparent in their pricing is a step in the right direction. But the report also notes that smart chip technology that will prevent customers from using anything but proprietary cartridges is already under development, and by the time this issue is revisited in a year's time we fear it may be too late to force pricing down via competition, which is the OFT's hope.
The OFT has made seven recommendations to manufacturers in all:
Better training for sales staff
Details of support service and its costs to be made clearly available at the point of purchase
Warranty terms and conditions should be clearer
Advice and guidance from Trading Standards on IT consumer protection
Standard contracts and warranty terms and conditions
Standard test for inkjet cartridge performance
End the practice of inkjet manufacturers refusing to guarantee their products if used with third-party cartridges
The OFT has also issued a leaflet — Buying a PC which we were pleased to see recommends that you look at PC magazines before you buy. Remember the next issue of PC Advisor goes on sale on 12 December, and for a copy of the OFT's leaflet call 0870 606 0321.
For a copy of the report click here.
We'd like to hear what you think about the report, so please let us have your comments on the following questions, so we can ask the OFT to respond.
1. Do you think the OFT report is fair? Have your say here.
2. How would you like to see PC support provided? Have your say here.
3. do you think that printer manufacturers should be forced to adopt a test standard so they can provide easy-to-understand information about ink costs at point of sale? Have your say here.