How the Retail Motor Industry (RMI) uses semantics to confuse and even mislead the consumer

The blog below is written by my husband.  We are a real yin and yang couple I’m the arty farty one and he’s a metallurgical engineer.  A true case of opposites attract.

In South Africa we have the Retail Motor Industry Organisation or RMI, a collective body whose goal is to “promote, protect an encourage the interests of their members”.  They also claim to serve the motoring public by “setting and maintaining proper standards of service and ethical trading conditions”, and they have a reasonably aggressive advertising campaign promoting this.  But as a “member driven” organisation, one would imagine that their interest is primarily to protect the industry rather than the consumer.  Some time back I required a timing belt replacement on my family SUV.  The vehicle was no longer in the service plan and I felt that in order to save some money I would shop around in order to obtain a better deal on the timing belt service.  I thought that by sticking to RMI members I would be assured of high standards and ethical service, but I no longer believe this to be the case.  I obtained several quotations for the service and eventually selected a company whose motto is “Affordable Auto Care”.  Their printed advert made the claim “only genuine replacement parts used”, and based on this I selected them to do the timing belt service despite the fact that they were not the cheapest option available; in fact quite the opposite.  I assumed, based on the wording of their advert that my vehicle would be fitted with original parts as supplied by the agent, which I considered to be very important for such a critical part as the timing belt and associated tensioner and idler.  I even questioned the owner of the establishment about “non-original” parts and he retorted that he would not touch these (I cannot remember the exact wording of the conversation as this happened some time back, and he may have said something along the lines of being willing to use only “genuine” parts).  Subsequently and quite by accident I discovered that the vehicle had not been fitted with original parts.  Based on the belief that original parts were going to be used, I was furious.  I felt I had been badly misled and substantially overcharged.  Not only had I selected the most expensive non-agent quotation, it was not that much cheaper than the agent would have been for the same service.  The owner of the establishment was as expected extremely arrogant and did nothing to appease me.  He refused to tell me the origin of the parts that had been installed in my vehicle and also stated that the wording in his advert was “RMI approved”.  At the time I did not believe that this could possibly be the case.

At the time I did not contact the RMI, but I spoke to the Automobile Association of South Africa who told me they could not assist me and suggested I speak to the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASASA).  I contacted both the ASASA and the National Consumer Commission (NCC) in writing about my complaint.  The ASASA responded that I could lodge a formal complaint, but as I was already trying to seek resolution through the newly established NCC, I decided not to pursue this option.  Unfortunately as most South Africans have become aware (but perhaps not so for people from outside of South Africa who might be reading this), the NCC were ill-prepared and significantly underfunded when they were launched and have only been able to address a fraction of the complaints they have received, seemingly being more interested in high-profile matters, some of which seem to have backfired on the Commission (one hopes that this situation will be quickly and properly addressed as the original aim of establishing the NCC was a good one).  More than a year has passed and my complaint has fizzled out with no satisfactory resolution for me.  My vehicle has driven in excess of 20 000 km since the “non-original” cambelt was installed and thus far the quality seems not to be an issue, however, that was and still is not the primary point of my complaint in this matter, my issue being that I feel I was misled.

As a result of the non-resolution of this matter, I eventually decided to contact the RMI, which I should perhaps have done up front.  I spoke to a Mr Paul Brits, the Director of the Motor Industry Workshop Association.  I asked him directly whether or not the wording of the advertisement “only genuine replacement parts used” was endorsed by the RMI, and he openly admitted it was.  He made comments along the lines of the public not being aware of the differences between “pirate parts”, “after-market parts” and “genuine parts”, and basically indicated that the industry uses semantics to mislead the consumer.  I indicated to him that I felt this was the case and although the discussion did not become heated, he suggested that I was wrong although I was “entitled to my (incorrect) opinion”.  I asked him what was meant by the wording “genuine replacement parts” and he went into a story about how subcontractors to the OEMs produce parts in the same production line, some of which are sold to the OEMs and some of which are packaged differently and sold to independent suppliers, but which will be of the same quality and therefore qualify as being “genuine”.  I questioned him about the case of imported motor vehicles and parts where the RMI was not in a position to vouch for the manufacturer of the part, and he said that a “genuine replacement part” would be a part of the “same or better quality” than the original.  He made no indication of how this quality was determined and who in fact would guarantee this quality.  Without a complete quantitative analysis of the chemistry and structure of components, dimensions and tolerances, measures of eccentricity, surface finishes and mechanical properties, etc. it is impossible to compare the “quality” of parts from two different production lines, so how do the RMI and their members in fact guarantee that the non-original, genuine replacement parts are in fact of “the same or better quality”?

There is no doubt that OEMs overcharge for replacement parts of vehicles, and most consumers are aware that in South Africa where there is a well-established motor manufacturing industry it possible to buy parts produced on the same production line as the original parts often at a fraction of the price.  On imported vehicles, it is presumably also possible to purchase non-original parts that are of the same or similar quality to the original parts, but the consumer must not be misled with regard to the origin of parts being used on his/her vehicle.  If non-original parts are to be used by a service centre, this must be openly stated without the use of wording that could easily be construed by the consumer to mean something else.  As a customer you have the right to know the source of parts being used in your car and you must demand this from the workshop before any service or maintenance on your vehicle is performed.  The industry is doing itself a disservice in this regard through the clever (?) use of semantics.  I am still curious as to how the ASASA views a matter such as this and may still take up the issue with them – the word “genuine” may have a different meaning from the word “original”, but in my opinion has the same implication in reference to vehicle parts.  Also be aware that although the RMI makes promises with regard to their consumer focus in terms of the “peace of mind” offered by dealing with RMI members and the fact that there is recourse available should the consumer not be satisfied, the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) provides such protection to the consumer and operates independently, whereas the RMI is a “member-driven” organisation.  Although the NCC may currently appear to be both somewhat toothless and underfunded, the Consumer Protection Act is legislated and unless dealing with a fly-by-night workshop, the CPA is designed to protect the consumer by offering “efficient and effective redress”, I am not sure that the same can be said for the RMI.

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