Dr. Gunni – the Dr. J. of the consumer watchdogs.
Gunnar Hjálmarsson (AKA Dr. Gunni) is a musician, author, journalist and blogger who, until recently, was probably best known for the DIY punk (and later pop) he churned out in the eighties and nineties, and as the conductor of a TV music quiz show. After devoting a section of his blog to keeping track of stores that blatantly overcharge their customers, however, he is gaining fame as a sort of consumer watchdog. This culminated last month when Hjálmarsson received the first annual consumer award from the Ministry of Business Affairs for his work on the behalf of Icelandic consumers. He told the Grapevine about Icelandic pricing policies.
What’s the story behind your overprice-watch?
I was inspired to start it after sharing lunch with a friend at a restaurant called The Great Wall. The food was fine, but we were flabbergasted when we realised we were being charged 350 ISK for a small bottle of Coke. Instead of just mumbling complaints into my chest, which is the Icelandic reaction to being overcharged, I decided to do something about it and made a slot on my website devoted to exposing overchargers. Pretty soon people started sending in their own examples of unreasonable pricing around the country. After being on-line for seven months, the site now lists nearly a thousand examples of varyingly brutal overcharging.
Did you expect it to grow so popular as a venting place for the over-charged, underpaid Icelandic public?
Not really. But it got a lot of media attention from the outset, and then when the so-called depression hit us after Easter it really started growing. Everything went up by 30–40% in an instant; the head of the biggest grocery retail chain pretty much declared open season on the Icelandic consumer and newspaper headlines literally screamed “Awful price hikes coming!” Everybody jumped at the opportunity to raise their prices dramatically, whether it was a barbershop, grocery store or electronics outlet. They all jumped the overpricing bandwagon, citing the drop of the Icelandic króna, imminent recession, etc.
Then it got more exposure when I was awarded the newfangled “Consumer award” last month, by the Minister of Business Affairs, Björgvin G. Sigurðsson. I got sent over fifty examples in the following hours. So basically whenever the site gets a mention in the media I get a barrage of new examples to put on there.
Could you explain the concept of the site?
It’s basically just a list of examples of overpricing that I’ve encountered myself or that people have e-mailed me. It doesn’t have an elaborate layout, although several people have approached me offering to make one. Perhaps it’ll be all fancy some day, but for now I merely copy-paste whatever people send me, weeding out what’s obviously misleading or false.
The Icelandic form of competition allows for a lot of overpricing, so I get a lot of examples. The same supplier will ship detergent to three different stores – all owned by the same corporation – where it’ll be sold for 2.000 ISK at the first store, 1.100 at the second and 700 at the last one. 10-11, Hagkaup and Bónus, for example. Of course you’ll shop at Bónus, that’s simple economics. Take 10-11, their prices are so steep that you should only really shop there in an emergency. If you need milk at seven AM on a Saturday morning, when everything else is closed. I guess in those cases it’s OK to pay 20% more.
So your site is an example of what happens when DIY punks start running families? They become self-empowered consumer watchdogs?
It’s pretty DIY. There are of course all sorts of agencies and institutions that are supposed to serve the average consumer and ensure they’re being treated fairly. However, people are confused as to their purpose and the services they provide. They’re also maybe too established to print allegations like the ones I have on my page. So I guess it’s a little punk, this whole thing, but it’s also pretty much in tune with the Icelandic discourse syndrome. It’s customary to write off consumer complaints as mere nagging, something that’s painfully un-cool. When being overcharged, most Icelanders would rather reach for their credit cards and look the other way before signing on to three additional months of overtime at work.
Have you seen any results since you started the page?
The best result would be that people start thinking with their wallets more, note the examples on the page and make sure to not shop at places that are guilty of blatant overcharging. I think the site can in some ways be said to have added to consumer consciousness, so maybe those are results.
It’s also necessary to call attention to what’s being done well, and this is why I also list examples of good service and ehrm… non-overpricing. If people have examples of stores or corporations acting from a community perspective instead of simply reaching for their customers’ savings every chance they get, they should definitely send them over.
In your experience, is Iceland more expensive than other countries around the world?
Yes. Many surveys have shown that everything is ridiculously expensive in Iceland. I guess lack of competition doubled with our lack of consumer consciousness goes a long way to explain it. Overpricing has been a fact in Iceland for a long time. A few years ago all the Icelandic oil companies were discovered to have illegally conspired on pricing policies; it was basically proved that they had been cheating their customers for years by deliberate overpricing. When the story broke, nobody cared. In fact the Icelandic nation celebrated by collectively going to the gas station to buy hot dogs and cokes while their cars were filled up with overpriced gas. Any country that responds in that manner is of course prime ground for overchargers.
What’s changed in Iceland since the 1980s?
What’s mainly changed is that we now have members of society that are so incredibly rich that they might as well be a different species than the rest of us. Twenty years ago we had guys that maybe earned five times what an average worker would, and you could understand why. They owned fishing factories or fancy hotels. In the last decade, however, we’ve welcomed a breed of people, guys younger than me that make 150 times the average salary each day and ride around in private jets. And nobody knows what they do, or why they deserve all that money. I’ve pretty much stopped understanding how our society works.
Are you more aware of these consumer matters since you started the site?
Of course. But you don’t really want to dwell too much on these things when summer’s here and all. It gets tiring after a while, listening to people complain, even if the complaints are warranted. You just want to get out to the sunlight and get a tan. And that’s what always happens. Summer comes and the rage passes; the fight goes out of people and while they’re looking the other way everyone raises their prices. I hope people stay alert. You can make a lot of money out of it too; salaries in this country aren’t so high that you can afford not going to the store that’s going to save you 3.000 ISK on each shopping basket. That’s two hours of overtime you don’t have to work, time you could spend with your family.
So do you have any advice for the Icelandic consumer, or visiting consumers?
Just try and shop at the nice places that don’t overcharge you, and shun the expensive stores. Of course, both stores are owned by the same guy, so it’s hard to punish him by shunning one of them… I don’t know. I put some hope into our business minister, he has shown a certain intere
st in the affairs of the working class and hopefully he’ll stay on that track.
Speaking of politics, have you thought about running for office? Being man of the people and all.
No. None of the parties are cool enough for me. They’re all trash. I don’t really see the purpose in running for any of those parties. Things are pretty shitty here… But at least we’re not going through civil war or anything, yet. And summer’s here now, so we’ll get a tan.