You can tell a lot about billionaires by what they choose to do with their money.

So when three of the richest men on earth spend vast sums on their attempts to conquer space, as opposed to, say, making life a bit better back on earth, do you ever stop to think: why am I giving them my money?

Despite the fact that we’ve never had so much choice when it comes to where we spend our cash, most of us have fallen in to the pattern of opting for convenience when we shop. When I speak to readers about breaking their shopping habits, they tell me they think that purchasing goods from different businesses or service providers will be much more time consuming, or complicated.

Yet the reality is it’s much easier than you might think to shift your allegiances and shop with firms that care more about your custom. Best of all, if enough of us do it, we can send a very pointed message to mega-businesses that their behaviour and practices have displeased us. Here’s my guide on how to get started.

Amazon and disruptor companies

From clamping down on unions to dystopian surveillance of employees, there’s been a considerable amount of negative publicity in the news recently about Amazon and the other world-straddling ‘disruptor’ companies.

One of Amazon’s dark strokes of shopping genius is the ‘one click checkout’. This is where all of your details are ready and waiting for you as soon as you click on your online shopping basket, so you complete a purchase in a matter of seconds. As a consequence, we tend to put less thought in to what we are buying, leading inevitably to overspending and shopping remorse.

Recognising that these techniques are designed to ensure we sleepwalk in to spending more is the first step towards avoiding them. I’m not convinced that goods on Amazon and other major online retailers are priced lower than smaller businesses either. The price comparison websites I’ve checked show considerable variance among the big retailers across a wide range of products. That leaves only postage costs as the main blocker to shopping around. I’d argue that paying an extra pound or two is worth it to support a smaller retailer.

Lots of things we buy from online marketplaces like Amazon are available on your local high street. So there’s really no need to buy toiletries, DIY tools, clothes and other items from these sites. Other items, like books, can be bought from great independent shops that offer other incentives to purchase from them. Some go all out on the packaging for gifts, or have fantastic and original deals like signed copies too. [I use Coles Books, but there are loads of great shops out there]

So how do we break the stranglehold of the online behemoths? Use them like comparison sites. You can add things to your basket so you don’t forget them: just don’t buy them.  Take a look at your browsing list and divide it up in to two categories. Things you can buy from the local shops and things you can purchase online from an independent business. Voila! Instant good karma!

Sadly, there’s very little in the way of alternatives when it comes to some of the other main disruptor companies that have terrible customer service reputations. Some dominate their individual markets, like Google or Facebook. What we can do is use them less – and avoid their commercial services. So don’t click through to paid advertisements, ignore the marketplaces and use other platforms to sell your goods and services.

Breaking the supermarket stranglehold

The problem

Supermarkets are the masters of convenience and it’s hard to overstate our reliance on them.

In 2021, we spent £91 billion at the main supermarkets – and almost 9 in 10 of us admit to regularly spending our cash with them. [source]  A fair chunk of those profits gets ploughed back in to research and techniques to keep us spending more money, more often. Yet many of the people I speak to tell me they want to wean themselves off their reliance on the big stores.

There are lots of reasons for this, including:

  • Concerns about the ultra-processing of food.
  • Environmental factors, from food airmiles to non-recyclable packaging.
  • Confusing labelling and misleading claims about health benefits.
  • Difficulties comparing products across svast and incompatible system of labelling.
  • BOGOF deals and ‘sale’ items that turn out to be more expensive or not actually discounted.

Yet to counter this, all we need to do is change our shopping behaviour. In recent years, we’ve fallen in to the pattern of the ‘weekly shop’ – loading up the car and spending £100+ in one go. Yet this habit is expensive and wasteful. For a start, the more you buy up front, the more likely you are to throw things away as they go off. The bigger your shop, the harder it is to keep on top of prices, absorb label information and assess whether a deal is good or not.

The solutions

It might not be possible to completely abandon the supermarket. After all, there are bargains to be had, plus things that you can’t get anywhere else. But there are ways you can cut back on your reliance on them.

Firstly, shop lean by buying as you go. Keep your cupboards full of the essentials that won’t go off, but buy fresh foods in smaller quantities more often, either locally or near where you work.

Make a weekly shopping list. Then divide what you need to buy in to broad categories, like; fruit and veg, meat and other perishables, pre-packaged goods, beverages, cleaning and bathroom products. Then use supermarket websites to price up the items on your list. This might be a little time consuming at first, but when you know the ‘standard’ supermarket price for something, you can shop around locally for better deals.

There’s a considerable range of websites and apps that specialise is fruit and veg boxes if you can’t make it to your local shops or market during the week. Make sure you pick one that allows you to pause and restart deliveries and doesn’t lock you in to a contract. I’m a big fan of Odd Box if you don’t mind your veg wonky.

Speaking of deliveries, you can also get meat boxes delivered from farms and butchers too. There are loads of apps that offer these services. Check out some of them on the Sustainable Food Trust website here. There’s a glut of other ‘box’ services that provide all the ingredients you need to make meals. The jury is out on whether they are worthwhile or not. But why not be a ‘box tart’ and flit around a few of them to take advantage of discount offers for new customers?

Don’t be afraid of the lure of the pound shops either. From bleach to shower gel, you can pick up most of your kitchen and bathroom products for a fraction of the price. Of course, there are some products you just can’t discount or live without, but if you order from the retailer, you may get loyalty discounts or bonuses.

Get smart with your finances

The problem

We remain stubbornly committed to specific financial institutions, despite many of them refusing to recognise our loyalty, overcharging us or paying rubbish interest on our account balances.

The number of people switching bank accounts hit 1.28 million between July 2022 and June 2023. However, to put that in perspective, just under 50 million people in the UK have at least one account. So it’s safe to say that millions of people are letting their money stagnate in a current or savings account that isn’t working for them. Banks have been repeatedly warned about their failure to pass on the highest rates of interest in over a decade to customers, but are still being remarkably tardy – and stingy – with the rates they are giving their loyal customers.

In terms of insurance, in 2023, there were around 35 million home insurance policies in the UK and with 31 million registered cars in the UK, a similar number of motor  policies too. That’s 66 million policies in just two areas of insurance. Yet most surveys suggest that only a third of people are considering switching policies.

There’s more positive news with ‘big ticket’ investments like pensions. In the past, people tended to buy an annuity from the same business that held their pension plan. However, the latest figures from the ABI show that two-thirds of people bought annuities on the open market, potentially getting much better deals in the process. But that still leaves a stubborn third of people who don’t feel able to take a risk and stick with their existing pension plan provider.

The solutions

Big brands aren’t offering the best deals. From bank transfer introductory rates to savings accounts, the comparison tables all tell similar stories. Try something new, but make sure the company is based in the UK and regulated by the FCA, protected by the FSCS and you can go to the Financial Ombudsman if there’s a problem.

It’s surprisingly easy to switch bank accounts. The process should take just seven days and all your regular payments should be switched over too (and there are penalties if the banks mess things up). For savings, interest rates are at their highest rate in a decade. Move some cash in to a higher interest savings account and consider ‘locking in’ some of your money in to a notice account. Once the money is in these accounts you can’t take it out, but you can get much better rates of interest, from 30-day accounts to five-year lock ins.

You can ensure you don’t miss your insurance switching window by digging out your policies and adding a reminder in to your calendar one month before the date of renewal. If you renew 3-4 weeks before your renewal date, you’ll get the best discount. There are loads of ways you can reduce your insurance bill to, from fitting ‘telematics’ boxes that monitor your driving to combining insurance policies in the ‘multi-policy’ deals with one insurer.

Online retailers

They killed off some of our best loved brands on the high street, lured us online, then changed the rules.

I’m genuinely shocked that many online retailers have recently announced that they are going to start charging for returning items, despite basing their business models on encouraging you to order multiple items and return the ones you don’t need. Not only that, retailers introduced ‘buy now, pay later’ deals to get you to spend more cash than you can afford – and to ensure you’ve bought items by default if you don’t return them on time. And the quality and provenance of some items has proved to be an ongoing source of controversy in the news.

But above all else, why are we giving money to businesses that have no intention of speaking to us if something goes wrong? Astoundingly, some of the biggest online retailers in the UK have no customer phone number or email whatsoever.

So before you buy anything, spend a minute trying to find the contact details of the retailer. If there isn’t one, then ask yourself what you’d do if the goods or services are not as advertised, don’t work or aren’t any good. Give your cash to businesses that prize good customer service. Or maybe gather together a bunch of mates and hit the shops on the weekend and breathe a bit of life in to high street.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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