A recent shopping snafu has got Iona wondering how much money we’re unwittingly losing to self-service machines and contactless spending. It’s time to start checking receipts again, not least because some supermarkets might give you free cash if they overcharge you. Read on to find out more…
The future is here! The robots have already gone rogue, I tell you! The reason I can say this with the utmost confidence is not because I am a professor in AI or a visionary science fiction writer. Although I have already spoken about AI in financial services on the blog recently. I am clearly a woman obsessed.
No. I know we’re doomed because a self-service machine in Waitrose overcharged me for my shopping last week.
Let me explain. Because there is so much to explain – most of all, the fact that I was shopping in Waitrose. Hear me out! I do my shopping in a variety of places depending on where I am and what my needs are, from Iceland right up to Fortnum & Mason (I am joking about that one).
But yes, my local little Waitrose does occasionally get my custom from time to time because I live in West London – go ahead and let out all your hatred for me right now, that’s it – and while my little corner of Hammersmith and Fulham could be easily classified as “up-and-coming” (ahem) the nearest shop to us happens to be a little Waitrose, sandwiched between a MOT garage and a greasy spoon. That’s London for you!
So there are some weeks where I’m exceptionally time-poor but newly paid. I can be a bit more philosophical about the slightly higher prices if I don’t have a free window to get out and do a big shop. Being good with money isn’t just about obsessive cost-cutting but figuring out when spending a bit more is worth it.
Anyway, I did the quick store sweep that many time-pressed millennials know well. Grab some basics, hope they last you for the next couple of days, scurry to the self-service checkout, whip out your Apple wallet or contactless card, tap it on the card reader and get the hell out. Although TBF, I do always scan the yellow-sticker shelves to make sure I’m not missing out on some absolute bargains and I always use my loyalty cards.
But on this occasion, I also had the foresight to pause when the checkout screen (and beautifully-spoken recorded voice) asked: “would you like a receipt?” I thought: “Oh okay, why not.” After all, it was a few more items than I would normally get. So I thought I would keep a physical record of my obscenely luxurious spend on milk and eggs and bash myself for it later on when doing my weekly budget. (“GET DOWN TO ALDI AND REPENT YOUR SINS!”)
Overcharged – and not just because it’s Waitrose
It’s a good job I took that receipt. Because when I got back to my flat, I realised the self-service machine had charged me multiple times for several items. Instead of costing me £9 or so, it cost me £14. I went back to the store and got the difference refunded. But what if I hadn’t taken the receipt? What if I didn’t check it when I got home? I would have lost FIVE POUNDS. Okay, I probably could have saved that by trekking out of my postcode with all my bags “for life” in tow and shopping at a discount retailer several miles away. But I’m already paying a slight premium for the convenience, so it’s a bit much to pay twice or even three times for the same item, surely? I know this is the John Lewis Partnership but still.
The serious point is this: I wonder how many shoppers are routinely overcharged by rogue self-service machines? There hasn’t been much research to to find out. Indeed, most shoppers might not even be aware when they’ve been overcharged. And that is one of the biggest problems with the rise of contactless spending in the UK today.
Research from card payments firm PaymentSense shows that we’re more likely to be overcharged when we pay using contactless technology than any other way. More than half – 53% – of shoppers were overcharged when using contactless payments compared to 41% when using cash. And with 15% of us also routinely neglecting to ask for a receipt, our chances of being wrongly charged go up even further.
PaymentSense even set up an experiment to check whether consumers would spot if they’ve been charged the correct amount. They set up a pop-up coffee stall that accept contactless payments but deliberately entered higher prices into the card machine. In some cases, the stall charged £28 for a £2.80 coffee. On a busy day with a constant stream of paying customers, only two people instantly noticed that they had been overcharged.
So when you’re doing your Christmas shopping over the next few weeks, make sure that you ask for AND check your receipts before you leave the shop. It’s much harder to prove you’ve been overcharged when you get home than if you’re in the store, shopping bags in hand, with a shocked expression on your face. It’s particularly important if you’re using contactless payments and when buying yellow sticker items, like I do, to check if a self-service checkout or cashier has processed the discount properly.
All retailers will refund the difference but you can even get compensation as an apology from some stores. Tesco will give you “double the difference” between what you’ve paid and the true cost of the item, so long as you use that little-known magic phrase when you go to the help desk. Asda will give you a £2 gift card as well as refunding the difference (don’t spend it all at once!)
This policy applies to in-store shopping only, as retailers tend to automatically refund overcharging for online shopping.
Cut your Christmas shopping costs
- Make a core list of versatile food you need and stick to it. Forget recipes that require you to track down some obscure expensive ingredient, use a tiny amount of it in one recipe before the rest is left to rot in your fridge because you’re too terrified to tackle the rest of it. I got a free Simply Cook box and it asked me to go and find paneer. I’m sure it is very nice. It’s rarer than a self-deprecating candidate on The Apprentice. Stick to food you can mix and match in different meals to prevent waste – in all senses of the word.
- Go to food markets. Food markets are dotted all over cities and towns in the UK and represent tremendous value for money when it comes to fruit and veg. They are almost too cheap: the amount you can get for £1 is ridiculous compared to the measly portions in supermarkets (replete with unnecessary plastic packaging too).
- TRY to do a weekly or at least bi-weekly shop. At this point you’re screaming “POT! KETTLE! BLACK!” at your computer/phone but I do try when I can to plan my meals and not buy ingredients on the hoof too much. Life sometimes get in the way so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it every week. But try to schedule a window in your diary. Stable food-shops at discount supermarkets do tend to be more cost-effective than impulsive dashes to your local express store.
- FREEZE, FREEZE, FREEZE, FREEZE! Most people tend to have a bulging fridge and a half-empty freezer. Try to reverse that. When buying fresh fish, meat, fruit and veg, prioritise eating it as soon as possible. But if you know you can’t, put it in a tupperware box or sealable plastic bag in the freezer to keep the nutrients locked in and your options open.
- Try not to buy “kiddie” fruit and veg that’s already chopped up. I know these can be a godsend but you are paying through the nose for the extra convenience. If you’re planning meals, try to set aside chopping time at the weekend, then freeze or put your chopped veggies in the fridge. Or better still, get a food chopper that will do most of the hard work for you (ask Santa/your partner/mum and dad for one).
- Take the Ready Steady Cook challenge! Fill up your cupboard with non-perishable essentials like (healthy) sauces, stock cubes, nuts, seeds, beans, tinned fish, olives, pasta, noodles, rice, herbs and spices at the absolute lowest prices you can find. Then challenge yourself to rustle up a meal using the ingredients you already have. Most of the time, it’s possible to create a pasta or curry sauce, a stir-fry, stew, soup or even a bake using what you have. Get creative!
- Reduce your contactless dependency. Here’s a novel idea: take some cash with you when you go shopping! And actually speak to a cashier! Not only will you spend less than you intend, you’ll probably reduce the number of times you are overcharged as well.
Finally, if you’re looking for more inspiration on how to cook healthy and delicious meals on a budget, check out this video I did with the health coach Suzy Glaskie for Health Shield Friendly Society – it’s incredibly helpful!