MCM Strategic Communications

MCM Strategic Communications
Leading Canberra-based government relations and media relations consultancy firm.

20 March 2017

Transparency for Australian consumers

Australia’s consumer law framework and its watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), rarely draw praise.

As is the case with many other areas of regulation, if the laws and the regulator are meeting their objectives, then there is little or no public commentary. However, if there are challenges, the public outcry can, at times, be loud.

On a recent trip to the US, it became apparent that a part of Australia’s consumer laws and the work the ACCC has carried out in this space has many benefits – and it’s important these benefits are highlighted.

Specifically, there is no standard obligation in place across the entirety of the US which makes it compulsory for businesses to display the final price that a consumer will actually pay out of their pocket for a product or service. Therefore, if you are to walk into a café in Washington and ask for a flat white coffee, the cost displayed on price boards inside the café might be, for example, $3.79, however, the amount you actually pay might turn out to be $4.05, once taxes are included.

A couple of other examples stood out on this recent trip. One retail outlet in New York charged tax on a cap, yet a similar cap at a similar shop in a similar area did not. It was an almost identical situation for a six-pack of the same type of beer in Los Angeles – at one liquor store, the beer attracted an additional $1 in tax, while at another liquor store less than 200m away, there was no tax on top of the amount paid for exactly the same product.

One of the central themes of the regulatory framework in Australia is transparency. When a consumer drives past a petrol station and sees price boards next to the road, sees a price displayed above (or below) an item at their local supermarket or when they visit an aggregator of travel products online, it should be very clear to the consumer the final price that they will be paying.

The ACCC over-reached a few years ago when it issued a ruling that restaurants would have to introduce different menus on Sundays and public holidays to reflect any different prices they might offer on those days of the week (due to higher staffing costs), but, sensibly, this changed such that as long as restaurants made it very clear to consumers there was a percentage surcharge on top of standard pricing on days when this applies, then this would be acceptable.

Yes, on the whole, when it comes to clarity of pricing for consumers, Australia is doing extremely well.

- By Hamish Arthur