05 September, 2008

It's enough to give you gas...

This is less about health and more about general consumer action. Whether it's worthwhile action remains to be seen... I'll set the scene. I'm living in my motorhome almost exclusively now, and cooking takes a fair precedence for me. The bus has a nice 4 burner stove/oven/grill combo, which I use a few times a day, to boil the kettle for tea, produce meals, etc. What I'm even more in love with is the fact that it uses a 4Kg gas bottle, and has so far kept on cooking for me for over eight weeks... This is low-impact living for sure. But - today I wrestled the bottle out of its impossibly small cubby and shook it - maybe 2" of gas left inside, maybe less.

So I figured I'd get a second bottle, and then switch them when this one is totally empty. Can't be that hard to get 4Kg bottles - right? Boy, are you mistaken if, like me, you said "Yeah! Easy-peasy!"

First stop, white pages. Found two companies that have mini-outlets at major petrol stations and stores, I picked the one that looked most popular and populous. Phoned them to enquire about prices, was told that a refill would cost me $22 and a "new" bottle, $67. That was fine, I thought, I know this size is a bit harder to get hold of than the others. I asked where my closest outlet was and the person was stumped. Luckily I was a bit faster on the mouse and opened the website which had a well marked store locator. That turned up two outlets about 4 - 5 km away.

I set off for the farthest one first, nope they do not stock that size bottle, sorry Sir. Second outlet I got wise and inspected the gas bottle cage outside, didn't bother to go in when I saw that all they had was the 9Kg size. As I was driving home I had an idea - the local BP (which is only 800m from my home) has a gas bottle cage. Silly me! I drove to the BP and saw that they had the 4Kg bottle. Asking about the price though, produced a bit of a shock reaction: "Umm Seventy-six dollars for a new one sir." I explained that Swap'n'Go had told me that the price for a 4Kg bottle was $67, had he read his screen right? And then it hit me - this was actually also a Swap'n'Go outlet! I asked the attendant why they were charging almost ten dollars more than the recommended price, and was told that it was a price set by head office.

I did ask for the numbers for head office and also for Swap'n'Go, then sat outside and dialled. First Swap'n'Go - the official line suddenly changed to "prices are set by individual resellers" and that it was up to them. I explained the situation quickly, and said I would not use Swap'n'Go if they gave one price over the phone and then allowed resellers to extort almost 15% more out of me. The woman (I'm sure the same one I'd rung a day earlier and who had given me a fixed price, as though that was a set item,) kindly gave me addresses of two more outlets, unfortunately these were about 12km from my home. But by now I was so determined to figure this out, that I went. I had some shopping to do in Vic Park so I just did it at the same time.

I also phoned the BP customer support line, who said that each individual service station set their own prices for things like gas. I asked that my complaint be brought to the attention of the area manager, that the staff here didn't know their products and overpriced them, and hung up.

First off - found two other gas resellers within 3km of home, none of which had come up on Swap'n'Go's store locator. Boo hiss! They sent me 5km for a service I could have had within 800m of home, didn't mention a whole slew of places that were all closer than the 5km mark, and the human couldn't figure out anyplace closer for me either. Talk about not knowing shit about your business. (Because I suspect that far from being an employee, this may have been one of the business owners. Makes it all the more incomprehensible that they didn't know the first thing about the only product they sell...)

Drew blanks at both these resellers, (oh and both had the "Swap'n'Go" logo on their cages, yes.) so I continued to the Vic Park places. I decided to go a slight detour, to catch the BP it Cannington. And to no great surprise, their prices for bottled gas were exactly the same as my local BP... So who really does set the prices? I'll phone a few more BP's and get to the bottom of this I think. Suffice to say that when an employee of BP tells me one thing, and then a customer service agent tells me the opposite, one of them has to be lying.

I found the Shell at Bentley to be a Swap'n'Go agent too - yet their price for that 4Kg bottle was $69, much closer to the recommended price. Unfortunately, they didn't have any in their cage. More unfortunately, they didn't know that until I'd paid for the bottle, so we had to reverse the transaction to my card.

I didn't find the other service station I'd been told about because I went to the Independent servo in Vic Park along the highway there in the shopping district, and they both had a 4Kg bottle, and had it at $69.

Now we get to the Twilight Zone bits. The service station the S'n'G rep had told me about was the Gull. I'm pretty sure the Gull changed to become that Independent, a few years ago. S'n'G had their facts out by quite a few years. Secondly, the Indie servo didn't have S'n'G gas, they had some other supplier. Thirdly, both 4Kg and 3.8Kg bottles are apparently only filled to 3.7Kg. Yet the S'n'G rep on my first call had told me that a 4Kg bottle was filled to 3.9Kg.

There are a couple more things. I emailed S'n'G with the full story and suggested they police their dealers a bit more closely, because they've just lost my business (and hopefully any of you who read this will go to alternate dealer outlets too) and then wanted to email a cc: to BP. But BP only allow you a web based form for feedback and I didn't want to submit it because - final demonstration of cluelessness - BP require you to agree to their "Privacy Statement" before you can submit the form - yet nowehere on the page is there any reference or link to that privacy statement.

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