Consider the risk of gift cards for your next birthday or Christmas present

Australia Post Load and Go Prepaid Visa CardAfter the unfortunate demises of retailers including Dick Smith Electronics, Masters, and Pumpkin Patch in Australia (to name a few), and my own shopping for Christmas gifts not a month ago, I began pondering an issue with the humble gift card. While this has been written with an Australian context in mind, the principles apply worldwide (and with a little local sleuthing, you should find local details appropriate for you).

For those of you not keeping up, when a retailer enters administration, a seemingly regular side effect is that already purchased gift cards go into limbo, held at the mercy of the administrators. As the administrator will receive no additional funds for the exchange of goods, they may choose not to honour the gift cards, or place additional terms on their use. Countless examples from the demise of Dick Smith Electronics occurred where people lost entire balances and large sums, as well as customers of Pumpkin Patch being told that gift cards would only be honoured if an equivalent amount of cash was spent in store at the same time.

With there being no legal requirement in Australia for gift card balances to be ‘treated like cash’ (despite most gift cards saying they should be treated as such), a gift card purchaser is at the absolute mercy of the continued solvency of the retailer. You know the old saying cash is king, this certainly holds true and gift cards it would seem, are definitely not king!

However, there is an alternative which, in my opinion, carries a significantly lower level of risk. Many people are unaware, but Visa offers both prepaid and reloadable cards that can be purchased from Australia Post stores (for Aussies) or from other retailers worldwide. Essentially, for a couple of dollars more than your ‘gift card balance’ you would like to buy, you can transfer your risk from the solvency of an individual retailer, to one of the major credit card providers of the world. Sure, Visa themselves could go under one day, but that is infinitely less likely than a single trading retailer going bust, in a single country.

Australia Post Load and Go Reloadable Prepaid Visa CardThe prepaid cards carry the benefit of being usable where any Visa card is purchased, so they are not locked to any one retailer, can be used physically in person, or online also. The reloadable card (available for around $7AUD more) can be used repeatedly and reloaded as many times as desired until the expiration date, which can also be beneficial in itself.

So, before you next purchase a gift card for a loved one, consider the risk you are willing to accept for you investment, and perhaps consider the Visa prepaid card as a preferable alternative. Call me risk averse, but I will put my bets on Visa being around for many many more years, major Australian retailers however, seem to be going bust like it is going out of fashion.

Final thoughts – My sympathies go out to all those affected from retailer demises, in my early years I too worked at Dick Smith, and have a lot of memories from there, in it’s day it was the best store, with the best customer service!

A review of ShopMate – Australia Post’s US shipping service

https://shopmate.auspost.com.au/
We Aussies live on an island in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes that makes getting things from other countries a little tough. Just before Christmas, I wanted to buy myself a Kindle Oasis from Amazon! Normally this wouldn’t be too much of an issue, however Amazon suffered a bug where the site refused to ship Kindles to AU addresses temporarily.

Having recently heard of AusPost’s ShopMate service, which is largely similar to MyUS, Stackry and Reship, I thought I would give them a go, as obviously AusPost is an Australian company.

I placed my order, got the item shipped to the ‘Virtual’ US address provided by ShopMate, and thought I was on the way. After the item had been marked as delivered by Amazon, I went 24 hours, then 48 hours and heading on 72 hours when I started to worry. The item had been signed for, however I couldn’t see any details on my ShopMate account. I started hunting around on the internet and found a large number of scathing reviews about issues people have had with the service already, and began to get worried.

Before I go on, let me say that in the end, I got my package and I got it on the time that was promised, however, I was largely exposed to some of the rather fatal flaws in the system. I was one of the lucky ones, and there are some things that I learned which I will certainly be keeping in mind in my ‘risk assessment’ of whether I choose to use ShopMate again. I thought it would be good to do this review of ShopMate to ensure others could keep this in mind should they wish to use the service themselves.

Some of the issues I encountered include:

  • There are no direct contact details for ShopMate in the US, all you get is an email address.
  • The email address creates an enquiry with Australia Post here in AU, they have to manually intervene and liaise as a go-between for the customer to ShopMate US.
  • My enquiry was escalated to ShopMate US and I got a phone call from them, alas I just missed the phone call, they said they would email me, to which the email never arrived. It appears that the email was definitely sent and never arrived. (For those wondering, I run my own webservers and checked all the logs, no connection attempt was ever received from an Australia Post server at or around the time and date which matched the parameters of the email they sent… hence, it definitely didn’t end up in my Spam folder. I provided this detail and offered my expertise to troubleshoot, the offer I extended was never followed up).
  • This whole process resulted in me having to call back, wait on hold, and have the email then read out to me. I was informed I could not have a direct line of contact with ShopMate in the US, the information I received really gave me no new information other than ‘we have to wait, it should be here, but we have a backlog’.
  • The Australia Post team skirted around the question repeatedly as to whether the person that signed for my package actually worked for ShopMate in the US. It was a simple question requesting validation of the name of the person that signed for the package, to this date they never answered in the positive or negative and seemingly avoided the question which I asked numerous times.
  • During the time waiting, I found some rather unusual statements on the ShopMate website FAQ page including: ‘Delivery issues have been identified across the US delivery providers with parcels being delivered to incorrect addresses (not the ShopMate USA warehouse).’ which was rather concerning. Also the page states that goods that can’t be delivered include ‘dangerous or prohibited items as determined by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. These commonly include perfume, items containing lithium-ion batteries, ink cartridges and aerosols.’ Generally I would say that is fair, however, from what I could find, this list does not completely match the official details as described on the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service site. This seems like a dangerous catch-all that could be used as a fallback when in fact, it is not true in all cases. It may simply be inaccurate if instead it should refer to any limitations imposed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (which doesn’t appear to restrict Australia Post directly) or Australia Post’s own, seemingly self-imposed restrictions.
  • Finally the tracking (or lack thereof), when my parcel was finally found, and forwarded on by ShopMate, it spent a week in limbo with no other scans or tracking available. Australia Post were unable to tell me anything about the package because ‘the package is sent via another carrier and we have no visibility of that until it reaches Australia Post here in Australia’. Hold the phone… ShopMate is an AusPost service, and they consider it to essentially be ‘external’ to them for which they have no visibility. This really summed up how the whole experience had been and does not leave me feeling that my package was in good hands.

I give kudos to the team here in Australia, they did everything that they could with very little (read as no) information available. To be honest, given the distinct externalisation of the service from Australia Post, I feel this carries a higher level of risk than using one of the other dedicated international carriers that would use something like UPS or FedEx to get the package to you.

Would I use the service again? In it’s current state I would say no, the website, the service, the support are all far too segmented to provide any real benefit (if you are reading this Australia Post, how about bringing up my Parcel Collect addresses as addresses in the ShopMate site). While my package arrived on-time, it was a snafu of it being missing with no information and waiting in the hope that it would appear. I can certainly see how many people have been stung with things being lost, unable to get support and being sent round and round in circles with ‘Please contact the merchant you purchased it from to make sure it was delivered correctly’.

Perhaps given time, Australia Post will work out some of these teething issues, improve the integration and improve access to customer service so that you can get rapid access to the US team that actually know what is happening with your package. Until then, buyer beware, have a read of some of the reviews, there are a couple of happy campers but many many unhappy people. You must always remember that people will complain when things go wrong and rarely praise, however there are already a LOT of unhappy customers.

Just my 2C, hope these things can be fixed up with time!

Speedify can help you with slow or flaky internet

As mobile data plans become more and more generous, wouldn’t it be great if you could actually use your quota in truly beneficial way towards the end of the month? I came across Speedify a few months ago, and in short… it permits you to ‘bond’ multiple internet connections together for either a speed boost, or added redundancy.

Some use cases where Speedify may be useful that I have can think of include:

  • If you have flaky internet; your ADSL drops out, your provider over-sells and you get slow speeds during peak, and so on!
  • If you have multiple internet connections available (such as mobile, WiFi hotspots, wired, ADSL, NBN and so on) and you want to blend them together to maximise your speed.
  • If you want to make the most of your mobile internet data plan.

Speedify allows you to selectively use additional internet connections to supplement your main connection in any of the above scenarios. Speedify also includes plenty of customisation, for example you can set priority of connections, only use a connection (such as your mobile) as a backup connection for redundancy, and set a monthly or daily limit to the data usage.

View of Speedify Options GUI for a Network LinkSpeedify Overall Options GUI
 

For the geeks in you some extra tech details:

  • Bonding is true bonding not a simple round robin, that means packets can be sent out independently on different connections and will be put back together once they reach Speedify before they hit the greater interwebs.
  • You can opt to have redundancy in two forms on Speedify, either fallback connection (passive) or true redundancy (active) where packets are sent out in duplicate and parallel across two separate connections, so if one drops out, you should not suffer packet loss (great for low latency applications such as gaming but will use up to double the data).
  • Speedify has a range of exit points around the world you can check out on their site, and yes, they have an Australian presence as well which is GREAT for reducing latency.

Pros:

  • Ultra-reliable
  • True speed increase, with only minimal overheads so I have managed to see a total of about 90% combined usage across two or more connections on average (your mileage may vary, so good to test).
  • The new version of the app can be tested without having to sign up, this is FANTASTIC to let you test it out, something I pointed out to Speedify early on as necessary.
  • Being that Speedify acts as a VPN, hiding all your traffic from your ISP, you may have benefits in getting around any ISP traffic shaping as everything you do is tunneled from your comptuer, to the Speedify servers over an encrypted connection.

Cons

  • Only usable on a single device at one time (such as one laptop).
  • No router or network sharing unit available (yet), so only one device on your home network will be lucky enough to get the speed boost.

I would highly recommend you give it a try if you have one of the above scenarios, all the links here to Speedify use my personal affiliate link (it helps me keep my blog and server running) but in no way have I been paid to write this article. I only write about things that I truly find useful in my day to day life (or when I have something I would advise you steer clear of). However, long story short, if you would like a direct link, that is cool as well you can visit http://www.speedify.com.