Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Business

Some links on paper vs. plastic bags, and similar

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Looking at some old open browser tabs, I found a few interesting reads on topics like paper vs. plastic for bags, the effects of charging for bags, and related topics: [1], [2], [3], [4].

While I do not vouch for the correctness of the claims made, which might e.g. be partisan or outdated, they broadly support my skeptic stance towards “for the sake of the environment—honestly!” changes in German stores. (Cf. [5], [6], and possibly minor mentions elsewhere.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

May 29, 2019 at 10:18 am

Concluding observations around eCommerce

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Preamble: The below, minus an excursion, was written some days after [1], and was intended to round out the discussions in that series of texts. Unfortunately, various delivery issues ensued, resulting in another text series. A considerable delay in finishing and publishing resulted from related and unforeseen “real world” efforts and the time for these additional texts. The below is a polishing of the state at the time of the interruption, possibly without some sub-topics that I had not yet included (I do not remember my intentions), and with the section on advertising et al. well short of the intended scope. Relative time references are still based on the original time of writing—not the time of polishing and publishing.

There is an enormous amount to write around the topic of eCommerce—most of it negative, including poor web-design, a customer despising attitude, and absolute amateurity. While I will try not to do this writing, I have a few observations to conclude my recent discussions:

  1. These issues do not just cause problems for the customers. On the contrary, there is a significant loss of business involved for those who have too slow or buggy websites, do not provide reasonable payment methods, try to dictate too one-sided terms, …* This in form both of customers who interrupt their (own) attempted purchases or product searches and of negative “word of mouth”.

    *I am tempted to explicitly mention deliveries here, especially in light of my experiences between draft and polish. See an excursion below, however.

    Note that this applies not just to problems with no upside, e.g. a slow website; it equally includes those with a purpose, e.g. attempts to reduce non-payment for delivered goods. Whether the latter, as a specific example, outweighs the lost custom will depend on the individual circumstances; however, I do have a strong impression* that the aspect of loss and the opportunity cost of these attempts are not considered sufficiently. Moreover, when the attempts are too poorly implemented, the loss will very often be greater than the gain. (For instance, to let a customer find his products, put them in his shopping cart, add an account, enter all address-and-whatnot information, and only then to tell him “no, you look like a risky customer—advance payment only” or even “[…]—take a hike”, will risk considerable ill will.)

    *Based not only on my own experiences as a customer and what I have read, but also from inside knowledge from working at e.g. an online auction-house and an “ePayment” service.

    As usual, those not in the naive mainstream are hit worse than others, e.g. in that many websites offer PayPal and see their job as done at that point—but, considering PayPal’s track-record and reputation, many informed users will deliberately not have a PayPal account.

  2. Buying online is often more effort* than buying in stores—and much more likely to fail**. This is quite contrary to the original claims around eCommerce as a great time saver and convenience. Factor in the offline advantages of being able to investigate an item in person*** and having immediate possession after the purchase,**** and offline is often the better bet. Online can still score through a larger selection or better prices, but this is rarely enough.

    *Including e.g. the need to enter considerable amounts of information or create accounts even for a one-time purchase. Queuing and travel can still result in even larger time waste; however, these can be avoided by at least city people by going to the store when in the area for other reasons and choosing the appropriate time of day,

    **E.g. through errors around payment methods.

    ***Most notably with clothes and similar, but the range of products where this is an advantage is enormous. Consider e.g. test-typing on a keyboard before buying it, reading a chapter from a book, checking how something fits in the hand, looking at a decoration in real life (not just a photo of it), etc.

    ****Note that this is not just a matter of a delivery delay through an online order. Other factors include the risks of non-delivery, of delivery of faulty items, and of not having the items delivered to one’s home—just to the local post office, DHL subsidiary, or whatnot. (An exception to this disadvantage is, obviously, when the goods would be delivered even when bought in a store, which might be the case for e.g. furniture.)

    In the past, eCommerce might have had the considerable advantage of easier price comparisons (with the competition); today, most people have smart-phones and can compare prices even when in a physical store.

    Paradoxically, eCommerce was better in the past—through better websites, a less degenerated attitude towards the customers, and greater ease of payment. I note e.g. that twenty years ago I could easily* pay with a credit card online—today, it is a fifty–fifty proposition. Indeed, back then, eCommerce was the sole reason that I even had a credit card… (Note that credit-card acceptance was very rare in physical German stores back then, and is still unimpressive by e.g. U.S. standards.)

    *To the point that it was too easy. I can recall my first few credit card payments, where I entered my credit-card number and a faulty “valid to”—and still saw my order processed correctly. (I had no idea what “valid to” was, guessed incorrectly that it was a some upper limit on the individual payment set by the customer, and entered a value of the current or following month—and because no-one complained, I did not research the topic further.) The institution of 3D-secure, however, is too much—the immense increase in effort needed and the many technical failures are not in proportion to the gains.

  3. The commercialization of the Internet has made it much harder to get information on certain topics, because search listings that once were dominated by pages intending to inform are now dominated by pages intending to sell. With a bit of luck, one of the first links will be to the corresponding Wikipedia entry, but Wikipedia will not include e.g. forum discussions, will not always cover a topic with enough depth, and will rarely have information on individual products.

    For instance, I just made a “startpage” search for “coffee maker”.* The first link is to Target, the second to Amazon, and the third to a review** site. The rest have a similar proportion of sellers and reviewers. Wikipedia is not present and neither is, for instance, the highly informative home page of a private coffee enthusiast***.

    *For purposes of demonstration. In a real search, I would almost certainly, depending on my intentions, have gone directly to Wikipedia or added some further search terms (e.g. “principle of function” or “forum discussion”).

    **See below for more on review sites.

    ***I cannot guarantee that such a page exist, but it does seem highly likely. There have definitely been other searches where I have found corresponding pages in the past.

  4. Another manifestation of the commercialization is how the web is drowning in comparison sites. In theory, these might be a good thing; however, in reality, most are near useless and the sheer number takes space away from more valuable sites—do we really need 1001 different sites to tell us what coffee maker to buy?

    Common problems include rankings that are bought; a too large focus on the best-selling brands/models/whatnot;* descriptions that read like advertising material (and might sometimes be provided by the manufacturer…); too little information and too much focus on making it easy for the visitor to buy the product;** and product details that are only available through a link to another website (e.g. the manufacturer’s or Amazon’s). In a twist, other comparison sites appear to want to prevent the reader from reaching the manufacturer’s site,*** by not linking there at all (or only in well-hidden places) and by providing lower-value own information (e.g. in that a link on “Braun” does not lead to Braun’s homepage, only to a local page with a profile of Braun).

    *With the side-effects that smaller brands see their chances diminished and that customers miss the opportunity to find superior products out of the mainstream.

    **There is nothing wrong with earning provisions, but the blatant manner some sites go about it is inexcusable. To boot, this gives incentives both to not write negative things even about poor products and to focus on more expensive products. More generally, the wish for provisions leads to a large number of suboptimal links from the visitors point of view, e.g. in that many blogs that mention a book do not link to a Wikipedia entry on the book, the author’s homepage, or similar—instead they link to Amazon…

    ***If the user leaves to the “wrong” website, he might end up buying somewhere where the comparison site does not receive a provision…

    This entirely apart from “natural” problems with comparisons (e.g. different tastes), more general Web problems (e.g. poor web design), truly general problems (e.g. low competence), etc.

  5. A third the excessive amounts of advertising of various kinds, including so intrusive adverts that surfers install ad blockers, search and review results that are bought, and, of course, spam.

Excursion on merchants and poor deliveries:
While poor deliveries hurt the customers the most, the merchants are not impervious to negative effects, e.g. through canceled orders and negative word-of-mouth. The major hitch on their end is that there is little that they can do in most cases, because the delivery service is to blame. If the delivery service screws up, what can the merchant do? In the end, the sole realistic recourse might be to switch delivery service—which will often amount to replacing the one cheating/negligent/incompetent/whatnot partner with another… To boot, while research can help with ruling out the worst-of-the-worst (notably, DHL), it will not necessarily give helpful information, because the problems often vary from area to area and time to time, often down to the level of the individual employee or sub-contractor, and does so both on the sender’s and the recipient’s end. The merchant can now see scenarios where deliveries to Cologne work well and those to Düsseldorf do not, or where deliveries to Cologne worked well last year and are a horror show this year.

That said, the merchant should try to minimize the risks and complications as far as possible, even if it makes deliveries a bit more expensive. This most notably through not splitting a single order into multiple deliveries “for logistic reasons”, unless the customer has explicitly* allowed it.

*As in e.g. “please do split the deliveries so that the projected delay of two weeks for item A does not delay item B, too”—but not as in e.g. implicit-consent-through-fine-print.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 1, 2019 at 9:08 pm

The plights of printing / Canon MG5650

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My printer for the last three (?) years, a Canon MG5650, has been a great source of problems.

Today, this included the idiocy that the color-cartridges are allegedly empty and that it tried to refuse me the right to print in black-and-white until I had them exchanged! Indeed, the printer locked up to the degree that it was not even possible to e.g. access the main menu of the printer… (Fortunately, there is a work-around that allows this check to be disabled on a per-cartridge basis—a prolonged simultaneous press of the “down-arrow” and “encircled triangle” buttons. On the down-side, this could endanger the printer, should I ever do try to print in color, because apparently printing with low ink can damage it—specifically, IIRC, the print-heads.)

This is extremely annoying on two counts: Firstly, the contents of the color-cartridges have no bearing whatsoever on a black-and-white print. Still, people are put in a situation where they might have to forego an urgent print and/or incur unnecessary extra costs.* Secondly, the only use of the color-cartridges that I have ever made is printing a few test pages, including for alignment of the print-heads, and a single call of the routine to clean the print-heads—they simply should not be empty at this juncture. (Unless, cf. a below footnote, Canon wastes my ink.)

*I note that the above-mentioned work-around is not suggested by the printer and that most users will likely not even know that a work-around exists. I found it on the Internet.

Of course, Canon has a corresponding opportunity of an unethical gain, well in line with common tricks of the industry, including attempts to prevent re-filling of cartridges or purchases of cartridges from independent suppliers at a considerably lower cost. (This through means like patents, design changes, and, perfidiously, chips that try keep track of previous printing, rather than the actual ink level. The latter might be the explanation for the allegedly empty cartridges in my case.)

A few weeks ago, while the printer was already complaining about the color-cartridges being almost empty, I found myself unable to print for another reason—the black* cartridge suddenly was empty. This with not one word of preceding warning, while the printer had kept harping about the color-cartridges for weeks. This forced me to forego a few printouts that I needed for a meeting, because I did not have anywhere near the time to buy a new cartridge. Had I had an advance warning, I could have bought one in time and been up-and-running in the thirty seconds it takes to change a cartridge…

*The main black one—not the little black one intended for photos or whatnots.

Ever since my move to Wuppertal, the printer had ever-and-ever-again complained that it was out of paper—while the tray was full. Indeed, often a mere press of “OK”,* without even touching the paper tray, was enough to cause printing, proving how flawed the complaint was. Worse, this complaint comes at the end of an endless-feeling period where the printer just makes noises (presumably, trying to load or detect paper), which causes the overall printing time to explode. About a month ago, I took a screw-driver, removed** and re-attached the tray, having made good experiences with the disassemble–reassemble approach on other items. Since then, the number of complaints have dropped from an average of one or two per printed page to a single complaint for a-dozen-or-so*** pages.

*The request by the printer is to fill the (allegedly empty) paper tray and then to press “OK”.

**There are a few screws and plastic attachments on the bottom of the printer.

***Which by my standards is a print-heavy month. (Otherwise, I would have attempted a correction a lot earlier.)

A great idiocy is a recommendation that the user print at least several pages in both color and black-and-white every week to avoid that the print-heads clog (or whatnot).* If I were to do that, almost all my color-printing (and a sizable portion of my black-and-white printing) would amount to printing-for-the-sake-of-preserving-the-print-heads. This would run up unnecessary costs and, obviously, lead me to the point where empty color-cartridges prevent black-and-white printing that much sooner (cf. above; note that the color-cartridges are a lot smaller than the black cartridge). Of course, Canon has little incentive to make the printer less sensitive, because the sooner new cartridges are sold, the more money it makes.

*I apologize for being vague on the details. I read this somewhere in official recommendations when the first warnings concerning the color-cartridges appeared, many weeks ago; and do not have the motivation to go back to look for details.

Then we have issues like long start-up and shut-down times,* a surprising amount of noise,* keys that carry obscure icons instead of text, an on-display navigation that ignores the left and right arrows,** …

*Both might be connected to internal maintenance programs or similar that might be a cause of wasted ink, which might explain my color-cartridges. Possibly, this can be avoided by not turning the printer on-and-off, but I use mine less than once a week on average, making this wasteful in other regards. To boot, fire-safety advice is typically to not leave electronic devices in the stand-by mode but to turn them of entirely. Of course, again, Canon has little incentive to be more economical with the ink…

**In favor of three keys below the display, which makes the navigation highly counter-intuitive. By all means, keep the extra keys—but also make the arrows work as expected. There is no need for an either–or.

However, my poor experiences have not been limited to this printer. (And not because I use Linux: CUPS et co. have done a very good job so far.) I note e.g. how:

  1. I helped my mother buy a printer (brand forgotten), did a test print of a black text, and was puzzled by the slightly brownish result. It turns out that the printer had chosen to print the black text using the color-cartridges, increasing cost and losing print quality (achieving a true black print through mixing colors is very hard). I went into the printer settings, disabled color-printing entirely, and now the same text came out black. (Note that I have made very certain to take corresponding steps with any printer that I have bought myself since then. A similar issue is not the explanation for the allegedly empty cartridges of my MG5650, unless it does some weird trickery on the hardware side.)
  2. At the beginning of the Windows Vista era, I bought a notebook with Vista pre-installed. At roughly the same time, I bought a new printer (brand forgotten), which was explicitly declared as Vista compatible. It turned out not to be… Moreover, my Internet searches back then indicated that such mislabeling was comparatively common.

    (While I was already a dedicated Linux user, I had no experience with Linux on notebooks or of (non-laser) printing under Linux, and I had heard again and again that both were complicated, did not work as intended, whatnot. For this reason, I originally stayed with Vista. Seeing that Vista was an absolute usability disaster, I eventually did try to install Linux—and it worked like a charm (as it has with any later notebook of mine). This particular printer, I had already returned, so I do not know whether it would have worked under Linux, but I do know that my MG5650 was easy to install. If I had but trusted in Linux to begin with… In all fairness, however, these might have been much more problematic areas in even earlier times.)

  3. Further back (possibly, 1998 resp. 2002), I had two Lexmarks (models forgotten, but different) under Windows. The first had, in terms of user-friendliness, one of the most awful print-apps, printer drivers, or whatnots that I have ever encountered. As I bought the second a few years later, I reasoned that with the years in between, Lexmark was bound to have improved. No: The second had virtually the same hopelessly idiotic interface.

    (Generally, I have found the manufacturer-provided interfaces somewhat to very poor. Under Linux, in contrast, CUPS, lpr, lpq, etc. provide a much more user-friendly and almost device independent interface. I might or might not miss out on some special settings, but this has not hurt me to date. Indeed, with printers or with other gadgets, I would prefer it, if more time was spent on developing standardized interfaces/APIs/whatnot for standard functionality and less on providing nice-to-have functionality over non-standard interfaces.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 23, 2019 at 1:51 am

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Follow-up II: Deliveries

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As a probably final follow-up on Hornbach ([1], [2]), I have just canceled the remainder of my order. Even now, and even after contacting Hornbach directly, my shelves have not been delivered and no guaranteed date for delivery has been set.

This is the more annoying as the one part that has been delivered is something that I only ordered on the assumption that there would be one single, joint delivery of all items in one go. With a separate delivery, the order of this item (a smaller shelf) borders on being pointless, and I would probably not have ordered it all. (And, cf. [2], this item turned out to be damaged…) What I actually had my eyes on, the actual purpose of the order, has not been delivered.

As a general observation, there is a strong tendency for German companies to not in any way, shape, or form try to reduce the customers’ problems or to compensate him for them. On the contrary, the general attitude towards contracts seems to be that they are an obligation for the customer to pay—while the product or service that is to be provided is left to good fortune. In particular, it is considered acceptable by businesses that a customer spends more time on trying to resolve something directly or indirectly caused by the business than the product, the fixing of the issue, or the intended recompense is worth.* In as far as a recompense takes place, the business presumes to unilaterally decide what it is to be, the sum is usually an absolute trifling, and the form is almost invariably some type of coupon “to use with your next purchase” (yeah, right). This is demonstrated e.g. by IDS’ refusal to deliver on a Saturday, despite having had the audacity to dictate a date and time for delivery and then not show up… To me, it would have been a given that if I screw something up for a customer, then I go the extra mile for the customer to get things corrected, including that I work on an unusual day or at an unusual time. Similarly, in a last effort, I gave Hornbach a final opportunity to deliver with the if-all-else-fails suggestion to just have one of the regular employees of the local physical store drive-out the same product to me—something entirely reasonable (unless out-of-stock), seeing that it were poor choices by Hornbach that led to the situation, including a spurious split of the delivery and the hiring of severely incompetent or negligent service providers.***

*As a specific example, this shelf cost 69 (?) Euro. Assuming that the damage lowers the value by 20 %, we have 13.80 Euro. Now, consider the effort and delay (especially in light of recent events) of arranging to send the shelf back and getting a new one in return. Unless I am compensated for my actual efforts, it makes more sense to live with the damage. Similarly, I did demand a refund of 20 %, which Hornbach refuses to honor without photographic proof—but photographic proof implies that I have to search for my (not used since I moved) camera, hope that I have compatible batteries (or new ones must be bought), take photographs, transfer them to my computer, and then email them. Again, hardly worth the trouble. (But, in all fairness, the photographic evidence is one case where I do not consider the requirement undue in principle, seeing that someone could claim a damage for an undamaged product. Indeed, I demanded the refund more in the hope of getting a message across than of getting money back.)

**Note that this is not a hypothetical: I have run a small business for several years, and that I e.g. have spent a few hours extra to clean up something has happened. Indeed, I have stayed late, come early, or similar to help with situations not caused by me…

***But I was not the least surprised that this did not happen. Again, this was more of an attempt to get the message across than something I actually expected to happen.

I note that it would be highly beneficial if businesses did take or were forced to take such responsibility: Things will only change for the better if the costs of errors land with the actual source of the errors. This applies in particular to deliveries, where the sender sees its job as done when a package is given to the delivery service, after which it is the problem of the recipient to arrange for actually getting the package—but where the recipient is more-or-less powerless against the delivery service, because there is no contract between them. The delivery service, in turn, does what saves costs, even if it falls well short of a reasonable expectation of performance—-the sender will not complain and the recipient is powerless. Also see a text on force majeure for a more general discussion of this principle.

Another interesting thing is the refusal to deliver on Saturdays*, per se: A delivery service worth its salt should deliver when it can expect to find someone at home. Refusing to deliver on Saturdays is absurd—just like the stubborn insistence on trying to deliver at times of day when most people are at work. The result is, again, that the effort lands with the recipient, who has to make arrangements, go out of his way, take a day off from work, go in person to the post-office, whatnot.

*Note that a Sunday delivery is probably ruled out by antiquated German legislation—just like supermarkets are still, in the year 2019, forced to be closed on Sundays.

As a personal conclusion, I will probably forego eCommerce entirely in the foreseeable future—there is simply too much that goes wrong. If I deviate, I will do my darnedest to keep to my own advice and never pay per “Vorauskasse”—as long as the seller already has the money, I have no bargaining chips. Cf. the problems around deliveries already discussed in [1] and [2]; around payment methods, web-design, etc. in e.g. [3] and [4]; and some other aspects in an up-coming text.

As a correction to my previous texts: It appears that the package that I did receive was the IDS package, which shifts the blame (cf. [2]) from DPD to IDS. On the other hand, DPD is guilty of causing a complete non-delivery of the other package. To boot, it is odd that the larger package was sent by DPD (in my understanding, a “postal package” delivery company), while the smaller was sent by IDS (in my understanding, a “bulky goods” delivery company).*

*A possible explanation could relate to weight: I believe that I at some point saw a weight of 26 kg for DPD, vs. the 31 kg from IDS. If so, it could be that some cut-off was used in the decision. However, the difference is fairly small, the volume difference remains, and the fact that IDS was used anyway would have made it reasonable to just deliver both packages at once by IDS. To boot, I am not certain that 26 is a reasonable number, as this would imply less than 13 kg per shelf (subtract weight of packaging, divide by two), while a similar-but-considerably-smaller shelf purchased earlier (in person) weighed 16 kg.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 18, 2019 at 12:13 am

Follow-up: Deliveries

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My DPD-package (cf. [1]) has unexpectedly arrived: I had explicitly, per web-interface, chosen Saturday as the date for the next delivery attempt. Today, Friday, I came home to find the package standing between the house-door and the stairs, where any of the neighbors could have walked off with it.* Apart from the risk of theft, this approach denies the recipient the right to turn away a delivery for reasons like a damaged package** or a cancellation of an order—and it removes any proof of delivery, to the disadvantage of the sender***.

*Not that I consider it likely that they would; however, if we look at the overall number of daily deliveries, it is a virtual given that a considerable loss of property will ensue, even should the likelihood be small in any given case. Correspondingly, such careless treatment of deliveries is inexcusable, unless the recipient has explicitly consented to it (I had not).

**Note that a blanket rejection of anything with non-trivial damage to even the outside of the package is a common recommendation,

***For instance, here I could have just claimed never to have received the package, demanded my money back or a replacement delivery, and no-one could have proved that I was lying. At best it would be word-against-word vs. the deliverer, and due to risks like a mistake in house or a later theft, even a good-faith claim by the deliverer would not be sufficient evidence of delivery.

Worse: The product turned out to be damaged. One of the sides of this shelve has a crack and a bit of a curve in the area surrounding the crack. Unless the product was faulty leaving Hornbach’s care, the delivery service has obviously been so careless that the package has been bent and the product damaged. (A similar bent is present on the other side and the back, but to a far lesser degree and without cracks, likely because the cracked side was on top during the bending.) Fortunately, the shelve could still be put together and looks to be functional enough, so I have decided to live with the beauty error rather than taking on the hassle of trying to return the defect product and starting over with a new wait for a re-delivery. Of course, this is a manner in which the sender can actually profit from poor deliveries: if it is too much of a hassle to receive corrections, then fewer people will ask for corrections. (However, once the rest of the delivery, expected for Monday, has played out successfully or unsuccessfully, I will communicate the repeated problems to Hornbach and demand a partial refund—not because it is a worth-while use of my time, but because it is important to signal that events like these are not acceptable.)

As an aside, the package weight was as much as 31 kg (not the 26 mentioned in [1]), which is considerably more than I had anticipated for the smaller shelve. The larger shelves, if and when they do arrive, I will almost certainly have to carry up in pieces. (But I stand by my claim that any of the neighbors could have taken it, even if some, like the old lady on the first floor, might have needed a collaborator—I hand no problems with getting it up to the third floor single-handedly.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 12, 2019 at 7:26 pm

Deliveries

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The never-ending story of eCommerce continues. I had moved my shelve order to Hornbach, and the ordering was surprisingly free of problems. The delivery? That is a different story…

  1. The delivery has been divided into two parts in a customer hostile manner. This forces me to be present on two different days over long stretches of the respective day. In my* case, this is a limit on what I can do when; for many others, it could imply having to take two days of from work, instead of one. Generally, web stores (and post-order companies, etc.) seem to be completely oblivious to the problems caused by having to take a delivery.

    *I am still on a sabbatical, and have, besides, decided to give professional writing an attempt at its end. Correspondingly, I have no office hours, no colleagues that need me, no supervisors who might dislike my absence, …

    It is possible that this division makes sense for Hornbach, e.g. because different products might have been stored at different locations, but the coordinating effort cannot have been that large and costly. Moreover, looking at past experiences, I would not rule out that they unreflectingly send certain* products with one type of delivery and others with another—even when part of the same order. For instance, in December 2016, I tried to address the furniture issue the first time around. Placing a large order with IKEA, I decided to throw in a bath-room mirror—taking for granted that it would be delivered in one go with all the larger items, saving me a trip to a store to pick one up. No: The mirror was sent separately by DHL, incurring an additional cash-on-delivery fee, and causing me more** effort than if I had picked it up in a store… (At that point, I canceled the entirety of my order, this being the last straw after a series of problems.)

    *Here e.g. by the criterion that this-smaller-shelve-is-small-enough-to-be-accepted-by-DPD vs. those-two-big-ones-are-too-large-for-DPD (cf. below).

    **DHL implies that I have to go a DHL shop several hundred meters away and up a steep hill. There are stores with mirrors that are closer to my apartment. There is far less hill to cross, and I would not have the additional volume of the packaging materials to cope with. Obviously, the stores have no cash-on-delivery fees either… (And delivery to a neighbor, which I loathe to begin with, was practically ruled out by the cash-on-delivery.)

  2. One part appears to have been sent by DPD*. My first sign of any activity from DPD was a notification that I found in my (snail) mail today: allegedly, two calls had already taken place and been unsuccessful. This might or might not be true (I do not spend the entire day in my apartment), but why no notification after the first attempt? Besides, who tries to deliver a 26 (?) kg package of some bulk without prior notification?!?

    *A DHL-style delivery service.

    I have now requested delivery for Saturday. I was given no indication as to when on Saturday this delivery might take place. By all means, I understand that times can be quite hard to predict for this type of delivery (e.g. due to variations in what other deliveries take place on the same day). However, by not even mentioning e.g. “morning”* vs. “afternoon”, after or before a certain time, or similar, DPD effectively locks me in the entire day until delivery takes place. Similarly, I have no idea whether I can sleep long or must be awake by a certain time. Etc.

    *Of course, such statements are only sensible if being used correctly. One deliverer, many years ago, gave the choice between “morning” and “afternoon” delivery. The morning ended at 2 PM and the afternoon began at 10 AM…

  3. The other was sent by truck, specifically through the transport company IDS Logistik. It should have arrived today. At around 12:30, I heard my door-bell ring. I immediately went to my apartment-door, pressed the button to unlock the house-door,* put on my shoes, and went down the two stocks to the house-door**. Once there, possibly thirty or forty seconds after the ring, I saw no sign of anyone in the vicinity of my door, not even around the corner. I went back up again, thinking that it might have been pranking kids or something of the sort. Some time later, the stated delivery (10–14) interval started to grow short, and I visited IDS’ website to look at its delivery tracking—only to be met by the claim “04/10/2019 12:27 pm Hilden Your consignment could not be delivered because no recipient was on the location or the receiving department was closed (delivery before 16 clock).”***

    *There is no intercom, otherwise I would obviously have started there.

    **Delivery conditions were curb (“Bordsteinkante”), not apartment-door.

    ***Original text. Why in English rather than German is unclear, but I note that many a German would have problems with understanding this text. (“consignment”, “recipient”, “receiving department”, …) To boot, the reference to “Hilden” (a German town) is confusing, seeing that IDS appears to be situated in Hilden, but that the event took place in Wuppertal.

    Here, I can only assume that the deliverer pushed the bell, (metaphorically or literally) counted to ten, noted a delivery attempt, and then took off, without giving me a reasonable chance to react and without even leaving a notification*. And, yes, I do have the impression that individual delivery-staff members are often looking for excuses not to deliver.* For instance, I have repeatedly received DHL notifications of you-were-not-at-home-please-come-pick-up-your-parcel when I most definitely was at home, I have heard several colleagues relate the same experience, and the German sit-com “Pastewka” has used this scenario for material**. On one occasion, the deliverer from a post-order company claimed that he could not reach my then apartment due to a market in front of the house—there had been no such market.***

    *Something which is made plausible by rumors of undue time constraints and similar. However, pushing the efforts and costs onto the recipient is inexcusable—and has the side-effect that conditions for the staff will not improve.

    **To my vague recollection, the eponymous Pastewka is actually shouting at the delivery man that he is at home—only to be ignored.

    ***This was roughly twenty years ago, so the problems are not limited to recent years.

    I note that if so short reaction times actually were an acceptable requirement, then the recipients would land in an unconscionable situation, e.g. in that going to the toilet or answering the phone at any time in the four-hour interval would involve risking missing the delivery: Even when terminating such activities fairly abruptly, these very short times could still be used up by the time the recipient was at the door (let alone at the ground floor).

    To boot, Hornbach had stated that the delivery would be preceded by a phone call to coordinate date and time—it was not. Instead, I received an email on Monday evening, less than two days in advance, where a four hour interval in the middle of the day was unilaterally dictated by IDS. I can imagine how such delivery terms will end for many employees: “Hey, boss! Can I take all of tomorrow off to take a private delivery?”—“Are you crazy?!? We have work to do. The next time around, ask a week in advance!”

The whole mess is in need of radical changes, including that delivery services start with evening deliveries, that the recipient is given legal/contractual/whatnot rights* towards the delivery service, that payment to the sender is either always after delivery or through some form of escrow mechanism,** that customers are given the say on when*** and how an order may be split into separate deliveries, and that delivery services be prevented from the large scale cheating that goes on (e.g. with blanket you-were-out notifications, cf. above). Should this lead to higher nominal costs, this is acceptable—these costs will be transparent, much unlike the current hidden costs, and likely smaller to considerably smaller on average.****

*Today, the sender is the contract partner of the delivery service, and the recipient can do nothing but complain to the sender—who usually does not give a fuck. (Cf. e.g. my experiences with Beyerdynamic. I note that this text contains the advice “Never, ever pay before delivery—not even when you have reason to believe that the business is not one of the many outright fraudulent web shops.”—advice that I did not heed with Hornbach…)

**With the seller carrying any extra costs than might be involved over payment-on-invoice, because these costs serve to protect him—not the buyer. This notably for cash-on-delivery fees.

***There are cases when this can be a valid option, e.g. when waiting on one part would delay the entire order by several weeks. Even then, however, this must be the customer’s choice, because he might still prefer the one delivery.

****For instance, an optimistic estimate of the time needed to go by the post-office to collect a parcel that was not delivered (even on a pretext) is twenty minutes. Assume an hourly net-payment of (a highly unimpressive) 21 Euro when working, and the hidden cost is 7 Euro, not counting other costs that might apply (e.g. gas for a car). This is more than the nominal price for most package deliveries. Now: How much is the nominal price likely to rise if DHL et co. actually do what they are paid to do? (The hidden cost is actually likely to be even higher, even with these cautious assumptions, because the hourly rate is an average over regular working hours, while here a marginal rate for additional time should apply, e.g. through the over-time rate at work.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 10, 2019 at 7:49 pm

Some problems with the German pension, health-insurance, etc. systems

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In Germany, a few leading politicians are currently (and again) suggesting that the self-employed* be forced to pay into regulated pension schemes, even when they feel that they are better off with other solutions—after already having been forced into extensive** health-insurance, some years back. Moreover, suggestions that private alternatives for various insurances be scrapped and everyone forced to participate in the public*** schemes are often recurring.

*“Selbständige”. Note that there might be differences in exact definition and treatment compared to e.g. the U.S. situation.

**The current German regulations require a, in my eyes, too extensive health-insurance. Cf. excursion.

***The “gesetzlich” (“legal”) this-and-that; as opposed to the “privat” (“private”) this-and-that. For instance, health-insurance is divided into two branches, where one is “gesetzlich” and everyone pays a fix proportion of income for a fix coverage, and the other “privat” with an income-independent fee and a more negotiable coverage.

This is highly misguided on at least two counts (some of which apply to other groups too):

  1. There are other means to provide than these official schemes. For instance, someone rich enough will not need a pension; for instance, someone who invests his money wisely might have a better return on investment than through a pension scheme;* for instance, a home-owner with modest requirements, a reasonable bank account, and the willingness to moon-light past retirement, might get by without a pension.

    *This especially in a system like the German, where money is not necessarily paid for one’s own pension, instead paying for the pensions of older generations; and where one’s own received pension will later depend on what future generations are paying at the time. Moreover, for those who have debts to pay, e.g. a mortgage, it is quite likely that paying off the debt would be a better use of the money than building a pension fund, seeing that the interest (or its rough equivalent) on assets is usually lower than on debt—often considerably so.

  2. For many, the money taken for these schemes is one of largest reasons why the schemes are needed… For instance, a typical reasoning around health-insurance is that it allows those hit by medical costs to pay those costs, because the insurance company (or the government) is there to cover the brunt. But: If someone had saved all the money paid in insurance fees (or extra taxes), chances are that additional money would not have been needed in the first place. In Germany, health-insurance for a “gesetzlich” insured mid-* to high-earner might be around 10,000* Euro a year—and with most years seeing less or significantly less actual health-insurance claims, there would have been plenty of time to build a buffer for the odd years when costs explode. A healthy ten years leaves a cool hundred grand for that major surgery and there is plenty of time to build reserves for less healthy “golden years”. I would go as far as to say that the German system misses the point of insurance, which is to replace the risk of a large damage (e.g. through robbery) with the certainty of a small damage (e.g. a monthly or yearly fee)—instead, all damages, large and small, are paid by the insurance, which implies unreasonably large fees, additional waste, and (on average) a pointless and wasteful transfer of money from the patient to the insurer to the patient to the hospital (or whatnot), where it would be much more sensible to just move money from the patient to the hospital…

    *There is a cap on the applicability of the (high) percentage fee at earnings of possibly 60,000 Euro/year (which is a good income, but not extraordinarily so, in today’s Germany). In a rough estimate, 18 % might be a typical percentage (including “Pflegeversicherung”), with 0.18 * 60,000 = 10,800. Beware that I have not researched the exact current numbers (and that the percentage will vary depending on circumstances). As a note to naive German readers: No, your employer only pays half of this on paper—in real life, you pay the employer half too, mostly through a lower salary, but also through e.g. higher prices.

    Similar issues are fairly common, e.g. in that the “Riesterrente”* has to be financed somehow. This financing amounts to taking money from everyone through taxes and giving said money to those who invest their money according to certain rules. It would be better and fairer to lower (or not raise, depending on the situation) taxes to begin with, and to let people handle their money as they see fit—including to make sure that they have prepared well enough that they do not need the additional Riesterrente. This especially since the biggest gainers through the Riesterrente are likely the providers of pension schemes, who see a massive artificial in-flow of customers. And, oh, what was the original motivation behind the Riesterrente? To cover the deficits of the regular pension system—implying that, had the politicians not already dropped the ball there, the Riesterrente would have been unnecessary…

    *A program by which certain voluntary pension-schemes payments are subsidized by the government, in order to make people spend their money like the government wants it to.

A potential third count would be the way this forced prioritization and/or time-wise redistribution of money can provide obstacles to small businesses that might have earned well in the long run—but are prevented from reaching this long run due to a short-term lack of money partially caused by these schemes. This either in that the owner is forced to give up the business prematurely after a temporary setback or in that an expansion of the business has to be foregone (also see excursion). Similar arguments can apply more generally, e.g. in that a regular employee is forced to take on debt due to unforeseen circumstances, and that this debt would have been unnecessary without pension fees (and where, as above, the pension funds bring less returns than not having debt).

An advantage of e.g. a mandatory pension scheme is that everyone would be guaranteed a certain minimum pension, and thereby be less likely to require other social aid later in life. For instance, a successful entrepreneur might assume that he has no need for a pension scheme, see his business go broke in his sixties, and not have sufficient late-life income to cover his own needs—he would now turn to the government for “ALG II”* (or some other type of governmental) support. However, (a) chances are that he will not have this problem; (b) the actual pension payments for the current generations appear to be fairly bleak, making a bet on a pension potentially riskier;** (c) considering that he will likely have contributed well-above average to government income through taxes (and possibly the well-being of others through providing employment), I would not see it as unfair if he did receive e.g. ALG II. (Note that this line of reasoning need not hold when we look at long-term low earners. I do not, at this time, rule out that a mandatory system might make sense for them.)

*Literally, roughly, “unemployment benefits II”. In practice, this is a means for those with too little income (and who do not receive “regular” unemployment payments) to cover the difference between actual income and a government-stipulated tolerable minimum income. It is not restricted to those actually unemployed (but I do not rule out that some other scheme might apply).

**Note that this holds even for private pension-schemes: What if the scheme goes bankrupt or does not earn sufficient returns? (A governmental guarantee, similar to bank guarantees, might help, but would put the governments money at a larger risk than with the above entrepreneur.)

In reality, the true reason for the demands for making these schemes mandatory is likely (a)* giving lesser earners a leg up resp. giving the official schemes money that they do not deserve in order to allow them to give lesser earners said leg up, (b) preventing the “social injustice” of some people being better off than others. The same applies to health-insurance, where even now the “privat” insured have a portion of their payments diverted to the “gesetzlich” insured—with no recompense of any kind.

*Over a fairly large portion of the German political spectrum.

**Significant portions of the Left, which truly is (old) Left in Germany. (The Social-Democrats are the second largest party; a Communist or formerly Communist party is represented in parliament.)

Excursion on the scope of health-insurance:
In Germany, the scope of health-insurance is quite large, covering most of the medical bills and (physician ordered) medicines that apply, with usually only small deductibles. The result is astronomical fees, incentives for patients to “see the doctor” too often, and a medical industry that charges overly high prices and often recommends pointless procedures. A much better system would insure the big things*, of which most people will have none in their life-times, and only very few more than one or two. The rest would be up to the individual to cover (such cover could, obviously, be partially through a voluntary additional insurance). In return, he would see a considerably lower monthly fee, in part because he would have a lower coverage, in part because the overall costs in the system would drop.

*Exactly where to draw the line is a question that I leave open for now. I originally gave a few examples, including “major surgery”, but chances are that even a major surgery would be within what most people could pay with money to spare, if they had their insurance fees back (and did not waste them in advance), and that they might then be better off not having a single instance of major surgery covered. One possibility would be to simply have a very high deductible that applies either to the individual year or the individual problem (which can stretch over more than one year)—everything above covered; everything below not covered. The deductible would likely be dependent on personal choice, but might have a typical range from a few thousand to a few tens of thousand. A variable deductible would have the advantage of covering cases like a young family with marginal buffers—the family can reduce the risk of a debilitating blow by paying more per month, for a lower deductible, and continually go for a lower payment/higher deductible as the buffers grow. Alternatively, a fix deductible could be set by a public and mandatory scheme, while additional coverage could be purchased from private sources for a similar effect.

As an aside, this is where ObamaCare clearly went wrong, even objections concerning ethics and implementation aside: It did nothing to solve the true problem of U.S. health care, namely absurdly high prices. Worse, by putting more people into insurance schemes, the problem of high prices is worsened…

Excursion on financing:
Many seem to miss the simple truth that money is not an infinite resource—and that any additional benefits has to be paid for somehow. For instance, a “free” health-care system is not truly free. On the contrary, behavioral changes are likely to make it more expensive than a non-“free” one. The money has to come from somewhere, e.g. taxes, implying that the citizens still bear the full costs. On the outside, there is some redistribution of cost (e.g. from the unhealthy to healthy), but the costs do not disappear.

Excursion on business expansion:
Expanding a small business beyond the one-man stage is unduly hard in many countries, including Germany. Above, I mentioned the need to pay e.g. health-insurance for one-self as a component—but that is just a small part of it. The major problem is the disproportionate cost and risk involved with getting employees—even a single one. For instance, take a one-man business with a revenue of a 10,000 Euro/month. Hire someone for a nominal salary of 5,000 Euro/month, and what is left of the old net is not another 5,000 (to cover other costs and the employer’s own living expenses): As a German rule of thumb, various additional fees increase the price-tag by thirty percent, leaving roughly 3.5 thousand. This without counting existing costs and additional costs not related to the government, e.g. additional office space, training, legal advice in preparation, the potential need to create a GmbH*, and what else might apply. And: This before various taxes, insurance fees, and whatnots that might apply for the business and/or the owner.** In other words, the owner will earn next to nothing (instead of the presumable 5,000 – expenses) until the new employee is up-and-running—in a low-margin business, he might even take a loss.

*A type of limited-liability corporation suitable for small businesses, which might be a good idea with the additional risk that the new employee brings. Of course, then stricter regulations on e.g. accounting apply, the taxation rules change even further to the disadvantage of the business owner, etc.

**In all fairness, taxes might initially be lower than before due to the extra cost, but, obviously, nowhere near enough to offset said cost.

But: Getting a new employee to the point of adding serious revenue can take several months (depending on competence, type of business, businesses climate, …)—and doing so might cut into the employer’s own revenue generation (or force him to work additional hours).* Worse: It might turn out that the employee is not up to the job and needs to be replaced. Then is the question: How soon can he be removed? The legal minimum might be four (?) weeks**, which then amounts to another month down the drain—and chances are that he will not earn anything significant for the company during that month anyway.*** If he is fired, he might choose to go to court, which brings additional risks, costs, and personal effort to the employer.**** Or, possibly, he chooses to leave, leaving the employer with a few wasted months and the need to start over…

*For instance, in my line of business (IT consulting and on-site software development for customers), I would need to convince one customer or other that this particular employee is worthy of being hired-out to them—a process that involves searches and application processes quite similar to a regular job search. This would not only bring me unbillable work for myself, but could leave the employee with nothing billable to do for weeks on end. The last few years, demand has exceeded supply, but customers often have specific requirements, and will strongly prefer e.g. someone with ten years of relevant experience over the newly graduated who has still to complete his first project. (And just to hire someone both highly competent and more experienced is easier said than done, because these tend to want more money, already be in employment, or run their own businesses.)

**IIRC, for a small business and a newish employee. For larger businesses or longer periods of employment, the delay might be considerably larger.

***For instance, in my case, putting him in a customer project for that month would be next to impossible (and arguably negligent towards the customer). Of course, he might already be in a project, but then the proof of his unsuitability is likely to coincide with a rejection from the customer, which would terminate that project…

****In all fairness, the strong German restrictions on termination of employment are largely suspended for such small businesses. However, this can be a real concern when additional growth has taken place, together with many other regulatory obstacles.

Now, consider a world with everything else as it was—just with considerably less taxation, health-insurance fees, unemployment fees, … Run through the same scenario with a monthly own income of even just 3,000, instead of the “next to nothing”. Now our entrepreneur can lead a good life, possibly even increase his personal buffers, and if the employment attempt flops, he is back where he started. If things with the first employee seem to turn out well, he can add a second that much faster. Etc. In today’s Germany or, worse, if even stricter rules for e.g. pensions are instituted? Well, then it is the question of how large buffers are present and how much risk the wannabe employer is willing to take.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 6, 2019 at 7:05 pm