Damien Grant: Law plays spoilsport to two consenting adults

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Consumers know that "free" is not really interest free. Photo / Thinkstock
Consumers know that "free" is not really interest free. Photo / Thinkstock

Last week, Mrs Grant and I went shopping for a new sofa. I'd bought the old one without her guidance and have been paying for that mistake for 18 months. It was time to move on.

Buying a sofa should have been straightforward. It wasn't. There were too many choices so my inner Goldilocks came to the surface. Too soft. Too hard. Back not high enough. Does not recline. Does not come in the right shade of black.

Finally, we settled on an attractive option displayed by Messrs Harvey and Norman. It had a list price of almost $10,000 but before I could even begin to haggle, the nice salesman dropped the price by a third.

It seemed churlish to push him lower but I did. I was sure there was a further discount; I could see it in his eyes. But he was not playing. He was as firm as a ballet dancer's tights. The price was the price. Then I realised why. They were touting 60 months' interest free.

Because our Government thinks we are stupid, it is illegal to offer "interest free" to the general public then offer a cash discount. The relevant law is the Fair Trading Act enforced by the Commerce Commission.

Prosecutions are rare. The last one appears to have been in 2010 when a car yard, Tristram European, was fined $18,000 for offering zero per cent finance. On closer inspection the zero per cent interest rate was only on the sticker price. The car could be bought cheaper if the buyer was willing to pay cash. This made sense for Tristram. They, like Harvey Norman, would have on-sold the debt at a discount. A thousand dollars on 12 months' "interest free" would net the retailer about $930.

Consumers know that "free" is not really interest free. We know that using Lynx will not cause models to fawn, using Pantene will not make hair glisten like silk and we are aware sleeping with the air stewardesses on Singapore Airlines is not allowed. In economy, anyway.

Yet the law is the law, even if it is stupid, and the nice man at Harvey Norman would not budge. There was no discount for cash. The 60 months' interest free sale ended tomorrow, he hinted, meaning it would be business as usual. But I was here now. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

Fine, I protested! I took the 60 months' interest free: the money is better in my pocket than someone else's. I did not want it. Harvey Norman would have preferred to settle for a discount and cut GE out of the loop. But here we were. Two commercially intelligent consenting adults unable to conduct a simple transaction.

The Fair Trading Act did not protect me. It cost me money and wasted my time. Time for a review.

- Herald on Sunday

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