Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The power of the consumer

Over the last few weeks, banks have slowly backed off their plans to charge fees for debit cards (I expected this. See here for my prediction) The consumer has the power to effect change.

The first time I saw a change like this was back in the mid 1980's. At that time, the country of South Africa was under increased scrutiny due to Apartheid (see details here). It was discovered that many business interacted with South Africa and a large movement was made to force these businesses to stop. One bank, which has since been merged into other banks, was heavily involved and did not change their policies.

After several months of trying to get the bank to change, a group emerged that petitioned the bank for policy changes. The group said that if the bank did not change, the signees of the petition would open an account at the bank and then close it the next day. And there were a lot of signees.

The day after this information came out, the bank "clarified" their position on Apartheid. They explained that they made loans to businesses in South Africa and not to the government. Their loans were actually helping the people of that country and would give them a chance to change the government.

The petitioners were unimpressed. Even with the "clarified" position, they vowed to go on with their opening and closing of accounts. They responded publicly to the bank and planned to start the following week. Before they started, the bank announced a change in policy and stopped making loans to businesses in South Africa. The consumer had voted and US businesses (largely) stopped supporting Apartheid.

By 1994, South Africa had elected it's first non-white president. There are a lot of side-stories that come out of this incident, but the story relevant here is that consumers have the power to change a nation. Without violence, threats or even name calling, consumers can vote with their wallets. Individuals can change too. You have the right to decide what services you want from a bank (or any company) and evaluate the cost. If it's too much, you have the right to change providers.

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