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Super-complaints: Can Canada can get serious about consumer complaints?

By : Julie Barlow
Photo credit : Mikael Kristenson (Unsplash)

It’s getting harder and harder for Canadian consumers to submit complaints. The government would do well to see what other countries are doing about this.

Many shoppers have been perplexed by confusing – even contradictory – “specials” at their local grocery store. Perhaps you’ve wondered, “Am I saving more by buying bulk than I would by taking advantage of other promotions?” If an item suddenly comes in a smaller package, does that mean the price has dropped, too? Is a “buy-one-get-one-free” offer really a deal? And how can you compare the prices of different brands when the unit price per 100 g is not displayed?

Consumers might even wonder whether overall, the multiple offers aren’t just a gigantic scheme to fool them into thinking they’re getting a deal.

Those questions motivated the consumer-rights organization Which? to investigate the UK grocery store sector in 2015. The group didn’t focus on a single store or chain; instead, it examined “specials” at grocery retailers across the country to see if they were, in fact, legitimate discounts. The group set out to determine whether the grocery market as a whole was operating in a way that was fair to consumers.

Which? was able to undertake this ambitious project because it had a powerful tool at its disposal, one that’s only available in the UK at the moment: the “super-complaint” process.


What is a super-complaint?

Enshrined in UK law since 2002, super-complaints are filed not by consumers but by designated consumer groups to the British government’s Competition and Market Authority. In each case, the group lodging the super-complaint must provide convincing evidence that a “feature, or a combination of features” of a market “appears to be significantly harming the interests of consumers.”

The complaint can be about the structure of the market or about problems with suppliers of goods or services. The complaint process is public. If the complaint is successful, regulators in the sector are required to provide a response, in the form of recommendations or sanctions, within a reasonable time period. To date, super-complaints have been filed in the UK over grocery advertisements, insurance rates, data theft by police forces, unfair debit and credit card payment surcharges, dentistry practices, credit card interest calculation methods and more.

Three months after Which? submitted its super-complaint about the UK grocery sector, the Competition and Markets Authority responded, identifying specific examples of confusing or misleading promotions and making recommendations to help the groceries avoid promotional practices that it deemed to be confusing for consumers. Within a year of the submission of the super-complaint, Asda (the UK version of Walmart) committed to making its different offers “genuine,” so shoppers could see when they’re getting a real discount and make informed shopping decisions.


Could we have super-complaints in Canada?

At the moment, Australia is the only other country working to introduce this process.

In their recent report, “Super Complainers: Great Public Inclusiveness in Government Consumer Complaint Handling,” co-authors Ken Whitehurst and Jay Jackson studied whether Canadian consumers felt the need for a more comprehensive complaints handling tool and looked at what Canada would need to do to make it possible to introduce the process.

Canadian consumers need more clout and a more direct way to get protection. We thought it worthwhile to compare with other jurisdictions that appear to be doing a better job.”

Jay Jackson, who co-authored the Consumers Council of Canada study

In their report, Whitehurst and Jackson conclude that the super-complaints process has great potential to help Canadian consumers. At the very least, super-complaints have proven to be effective in making the media aware of unfair practices that hurt consumers. “Whether or not the regulatory authorities agree to proceed with follow-up investigations, the public filing of super-complaints can cause significant media attention and stir regulatory authorities to make recommendations to protect consumer interests,” the authors write.

The report also looked at a super-complaint filed by the consumer rights group Citizens Advice about the rising costs of long-term service contracts, a phenomenon it calls the “loyalty penalty.” The complaint was motivated by evidence that the price of insurance for long-term customers rose systematically over the years despite new customers being offered better rates. The group cited the case of Nick Munday, who was paying some 2,000 pounds per year for house insurance even though newer customers were paying only 750 pounds for the same policy. It argued that loyal customers were being “ripped off” this way on everything from mobile phone plans to savings accounts and mortgages. The complaint is currently before the UK Competition and Markets Authority.

The other advantage of super-complaints, the authors note, is that they remove the onus from individual consumers, who may not have the time or resources to pursue a complaint and may fear repercussions from a business or industry if they file a complaint.


Is Canada ready for super-complaints ?

According to the findings of the national web-panel survey of 2,000 Canadian adults published in the report, Canadian consumers would likely welcome the process. A total of 91% of respondents felt strongly or somewhat strongly that “various levels of government in Canada and non-profit consumer agencies should collaborate on experimenting with more inclusive and interactive consumer complaint handling systems.”

Canada certainly needs a better consumer complaints system, Whitehurst and Jackson conclude. This country already has several bodies whose mandate is to help consumers file complaints about individual cases, including Ad Standards – Canada (ASC), the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services (CCTS) and the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC). Yet the report found that consumers have little faith that their complaints are being heard by these bodies or, for that matter, by businesses or government agencies responsible for complaint handling. Jackson and Whitehurst conclude: “Consumers judge government complaint handlers to be only marginally effective.”

According to the report, another worrisome trend unfolding in Canada makes the need for a better consumer complaints mechanism even more urgent: for several years now, government agencies have been enforcing their own regulations less and less. As the authors note, “Government inspections and inspection staff are being reduced in sectors where consumers cannot be reasonably expected to detect themselves, such as food safety, commercial vehicle safety, and aircraft safety.”  One expert cited in the report calls this “regulation without enforcement.”

Some Canadian agencies, such as the Competition Bureau, have almost completely abandoned proactive compliance and inspection activity in areas where consumers cannot reasonably be expected to protect themselves.”

Jay Jackson

Obstacles to overcome

While a super-complaints system could be the right avenue for Canadians, the authors did pinpoint a number of obstacles that would have to be overcome before it could be put in place. First, consumers’ groups need more resources. Super-complaints are “resource-intensive,” notes one expert consulted, particularly for “designated consumer groups which must do months of evidence gathering before submitting a credible super-complaint that cannot be easily dismissed.” However, resources devoted to consumer protection groups are severely constrained at the moment.

Canada is not like the U.K., where consumer groups receive substantial government financial support to help consumers with their problems and provide education”

Jay Jackson

Next, the authors say, governments would have to improve their consumer protection capacity by joining forces and collaborating more effectively with consumer organizations. “Consumers have a high level of trust in the ability of consumer organizations to help resolve complaints,” says Jackson, adding that consumer groups often have a better perspective on marketplace issues that are detrimental to consumers than do governments or regulators.

The authors are convinced that consumers would benefit from such efforts. “Consumers are better served when governments and objective, non-profit consumer organizations work together,” says Jackson. “By developing the Super-complaints system and its supporting legislation, governments are signalling to designated consumer groups that they are important, legitimate partners in ensuring a fair marketplace for consumers.”

So while super-complaints may not offer Canadian consumers a quick-fix solution, they certainly hold the promise of a fairer future.

Report Summary

“Super Complainers: Great Public Inclusiveness in Government Consumer Complaint Handling” was co-authored by consumer policy analyst Jay Jackson and Ken Whitehurst, Executive Director of the Consumers’ Council of Canada. The study included a national web-panel survey of 2,000 Canadian adults by Environics Research Group on attitudes to complaint handling, a literature review of existing practices concerning complaint handling, and interviews with key informants about the challenges and opportunities of introducing alternative systems of third-party consumer complaint handling. The authors provide an overview of complaints handling systems being used, notably the Super-complaints system in the UK. They explore consumer views on the effectiveness of Canada’s current government and self-regulatory complaint handling systems.

The report concludes that while putting a super-complaints program in place in Canada would require effort, it holds great potential for increasing consumer protection.  The authors recommend that Canada work to make the marketplace fair and competitive by introducing “inclusive and interactive consumer complaint handling systems.” The authors also recommend that governments and regulatory agencies “seek more meaningful relationships with consumer organizations (…) in their consumer complaint management processes.”