Vietnam threatens to penalize Facebook for breaking its draconian cybersecurity law

Well, that didn’t take long. We’re less than ten days into 2019 and already Vietnam is aiming threats at Facebook after it violating its draconian cybersecurity law which came into force on January 1.

The U.S. social network stands accused of allowing users in Vietnam to post “slanderous content, anti-government sentiment and libel and defamation of individuals, organisations and state agencies,” according to a report from state-controlled media Vietnam News.

The content is said to have been flagged to Facebook which, reports say, has “delayed removing” it.

That violates the law which — passed last June — broadly forbids internet users from organizing with, or training, others for anti-state purposes, spreading false information, and undermining the nation state’s achievements or solidarity, according to reports at the time. It also requires foreign internet companies to operate a local office and store user information on Vietnamese soil. That’s something neither Google nor Facebook has complied with, despite the Vietnamese government’s recent claim that the former is investigating a local office launch.

In addition, the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information (ABEI) claimed Facebook had violated online advertising rules by allowing accounts to promote fraudulent products and scams, while it is considering penalties for failure to pay tax. The Vietnamese report claimed some $235 million was spent on Facebook ads in 2018, with $152.1 million going to Google.

Facebook responded by clarifying its existing channels for reporting illegal content.

“We have a clear process for governments to report illegal content to us, and we review all these requests against our terms of service and local law. We are transparent about the content restrictions we make in accordance with local law in our Transparency Report,” a Facebook representative told TechCrunch in a statement.

TechCrunch understands that the company is in contact with the Vietnamese government and it intends to review content flagged as illegal before making a decision.

Vietnamese media reports claim that Facebook has already told the government that the content in question doesn’t violate its community standards.

It looks likely that the new law will see contact from Vietnamese government censors spike, but Facebook has acted on content before. The company latest transparency report covers the first half of 2018 and it shows that received 12 requests for data in Vietnam, granting just two. Facebook confirmed it has previously taken action on content that has included the alleged illegal sale of regulated products, trade of wildlife, and efforts to impersonate an individual.

Facebook did not respond to the tax liability claim.

The company previously indicated its concern at the cybersecurity law via Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — a group that represents the social media giant as well as Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others — which cautioned that the regulations would negatively impact Vietnam.

“The provisions for data localization, controls on content that affect free speech, and local office requirements will undoubtedly hinder the nation’s fourth Industrial Revolution ambitions to achieve GDP and job growth,” AIC wrote in a statement in June.

“Unfortunately, these provisions will result in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses and SMEs to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam,” it added.

Vietnam is increasingly gaining a reputation as a growing market for startups, but the cybersecurity act threatens to impact that. One key issue is that the broad terms appear to give the government signficant scope to remove content that it deems offensive.

“This decision has potentially devastating consequences for freedom of expression in Vietnam. In the country’s deeply repressive climate, the online space was a relative refuge where people could go to share ideas and opinions with less fear of censure by the authorities,” said Amnesty International.

Vietnam News reports that the authorities are continuing to collect evidence against Facebook.

“If Facebook did not take positive steps, Vietnamese regulators would apply necessary economic and technical measures to ensure a clean and healthy network environment,” the ABEI is reported to have said.

It’s the golden age of traditional retail, not its end days

A lot of people that will say that traditional retail is dying. They’ll point to the rising prominence of e-commerce, which accounts for under 10% of total retail in the U.S. and a whopping 15% or more of total retail in China, as diminishing opportunities for traditional retail. But the reality is that, thanks to technology, the future of traditional retail has never been brighter.

Today, brick-and-mortar retailers not only have unprecedented insight as to what is happening in their stores – from customer behavior, to traffic flow, and more, they also have an arsenal of new tools to keep raising the bar for the customer experience. This transformation can be looked at from three angles: Smart consumption, smart supply chain and smart logistics.

Smart consumption is blurring the boundaries of online and offline for retailers and customers alike. With AR/VR technology in offline stores, customers can walk into a store, and virtually ‘try on’ an article of clothing, for example, without ever visiting a fitting room. Similarly, while sitting at home, they can virtually place a treadmill in their living room to determine the best fit. IoT has even made it possible for customers to make purchases from the comfort of their cars. At every step of the way, the goal is to improve customer retention and loyalty.

Equally as important, smart supply chain is helping retailers improve operational efficiency by leaps and bounds. Whereas traditional retail requires a fair amount of guesswork — what will customers like, how many of each individual item will they want to buy, and over which time period — smart supply chain driven by AI and big data means that retailers have a much better sense of what customers actually want, and when they want it. With dynamic information about sales, pricing and inventory, brands can improve their time to market, inventory control and product design, and retailers can make smarter decisions about their offerings, making the most of confined physical retail spaces.

But if retailers can’t get products into customers’ hands quickly and cost effectively, then all of the efficiency of smart consumption and supply chain is of no use. It is imperative that behind all of the glitzy offline technology and supply chain algorithms, are extremely efficient logistics.

From smart warehousing, which ensures products get moved out and on their way to the customer as fast as possible, to autonomous delivery vehicles, which make urban delivery more efficient through being able to avoid traffic and follow scheduled routes, to drones, smart logistics work their magic behind the scenes to get products to customers’ doors.

Businesses that embrace innovative technology and invest in it wisely will have a better chance of being a step ahead of the competition and their likelihood of success will be magnified.

Technology is no longer just a support for retail. It is the essential tool for retailers to thrive in the market.

Facebook is the new crapware

Welcome to 2019 where we learn Facebook is the new crapware.

Sorry #DeleteFacebook, you never stood a chance.

Yesterday Bloomberg reported that the scandal-beset social media behemoth has inked an unknown number of agreements with Android smartphone makers, mobile carriers and OSes around the world to not only pre-load Facebook’s eponymous app on hardware but render the software undeleteable; a permanent feature of your device, whether you like how the company’s app can track your every move and digital action or not.

Bloomberg spoke to a U.S. owner of a Samsung Galaxy S8 who, after reading forum discussions about Samsung devices, found his own pre-loaded Facebook app could not be removed. It could only be “disabled”, with no explanation available to him as to what exactly that meant.

The Galaxy S8 retailed for $725+ when it went on sale in the U.S. two years ago.

A Facebook spokesperson told Bloomberg that a disabled permanent app doesn’t continue collecting data or sending information back to the company. But declined to specify exactly how many such pre-install deals Facebook has globally.

While Samsung told the news organization it provides a pre-installed Facebook app on “selected models” with options to disable it, adding that once disabled the app is no longer running.

After Bloomberg’s report was published, mobile research and regular Facebook technical tipster, Jane Manchun Wong, chipped in via Twitter to comment — describing the pre-loaded Facebook app on Samsung devices as “stub”.

Aka “basically a non-functional empty shell, acts as the placeholder for when the phone receives the ‘real’ Facebook app as app updates”.

Albeit many smartphone users have automatic updates enabled, and an omnipresent disabled app is always there to be re-enabled at a later date (and thus revived from a zombie state into a fully fledged Facebook app one future day).

While you can argue that having a popular app pre-installed can be helpful to consumers (though not at all helpful to Facebook competitors), a permanent pre-install is undoubtedly an anti-consumer move.

Crapware is named crapware for a reason. Having paid to own hardware, why should people be forever saddled with unwanted software, stub or otherwise?

And while Facebook is not the only such permanent app around (Apple got a lot of historical blowback for its own undeleteable apps, for instance; finally adding the ability to delete some built-in apps with iOS 12) it’s an especially egregious example given the company’s long and storied privacy hostile history.

Consumers who do not want their digital activity and location surveilled by the people-profiling giant will likely crave the peace of mind of not having any form of Facebook app, stub or otherwise, taking up space on their device.

But an unknown number of Android users are now finding out they don’t have that option.

Not cool, Facebook, not cool.

Another interesting question the matter raises is how permanent Facebook pre-installs are counted in Facebook’s user metrics, and indeed for ad targeting purposes.

In recent years the company has had to revise its ad metrics several times. So it’s valid to wonder whether a disabled Facebook app pre-install is being properly accounted for by the company (i.e. as minus one pair of eyeballs for its ad targeting empire) or not.

We asked Facebook about this point but at the time of writing it declined to comment beyond its existing statements to Bloomberg.

Boohoo warned over advertising real fur as fake

Pom pom jumper advertImage copyright ASA
Image caption Tests revealed the jumper contained real fur – likely to have come from a rabbit

Boohoo has been caught advertising a jumper that contained real animal hair as being made with “faux fur”.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld a complaint it received about a pom pom jumper being sold by the online retailer.

Tests by animal rights charity Humane Society International (HSI) found it contained real fur – likely to have come from a rabbit.

Boohoo said it had a strong commitment against the sale of real fur.

The ASA said it received a complaint from HSI, who claimed the advert was misleading.

The charity had bought the faux fur pom pom jumper and commissioned a test which revealed it contained real animal fur.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionHow to spot the difference between real and fake fur

Boohoo said it had “robust” policies and procedures in place to ensure it didn’t sell real fur products.

It said it had received the jumpers from a supplier who was “aware of Boohoo’s commitment against the sale of real fur and had signed a supplier acknowledgement form committing to not supplying products containing real fur”.

Boohoo also said it got its quality control team to inspect a proportion of its stock that contained faux fur.

A sample of the same pom pom jumper that HSI tested was tested by Boohoo and recorded as having passed the internal checks.

Boohoo removed the advert once the complaint was received and also stopped placing orders with the supplier who gave them the jumpers.

The ASA ruled that the advert was misleading and “must not appear again in the form complained about”.

It added: “We told UK Ltd not to state that products included ‘faux fur’, if that was not the case.”

Claire Bass, executive director of HSI UK, said: “It’s completely unacceptable that compassionate consumers setting out to buy fake fur are being misled into buying animal fur.

“These two examples are the latest in a long list of ‘fake faux fur’ items we’ve found for sale, so we hope that the ASA’s rulings will send a strong message to the industry and make retailers work harder to give consumers confidence in avoiding cruel animal fur.”

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LinkedIn now requires phone number verification for all users in China

LinkedIn’s China site looks and functions just like LinkedIn everywhere else, except now it asks users in the country to verify their identities through phone numbers.

The American company is requiring both new and existing users with a Chinese IP address to link mobile phone numbers to their accounts, TechCrunch noticed this week. LinkedIn had for months told its China-based users to provide mobile number details before sending them to the main page, but it had mercifully kept a little “Skip” button that let users avoid the fuss until at least last week.

“The real-name verification process for our LinkedIn China members is a legal requirement, which will also help improve the authenticity and credibility of online accounts,” a LinkedIn China spokesperson wrote back to TechCrunch in an email without addressing whether the process is new.

The spokesperson also links the policy to China’s burgeoning mobile industry: “Considering the growing popularity of mobile devices and mobile Internet, Chinese Internet users are adapted to registration with mobile phone numbers instead of email addresses. Almost all apps in the Chinese market are applying this trend to follow users’ habits.”

linkedin china

LinkedIn users with a Chinese IP address are greeted with an identity check tied to phone numbers. Screenshot: TechCrunch

In a note visible to China-based users only, LinkedIn explains that its identity check is a response to local regulations:

In some countries, local laws require that we confirm your identity before letting you engage with our Services. You must provide a mobile number and confirm receipt of our text. This phone number will be associated with your account and is accessible from your settings. If you choose to change or delete your confirmed mobile number your ability to access our Services in certain countries (e.g. China) will be blocked until you once again confirm your identity.

The California-based social network for professionals is a rare existence in China, where most mainstream global tech services like Facebook and Google have long remained blocked. Exceptions happen when foreign players bend to local rules. Microsoft’s Bing is accessible in China by censoring search results. Google also reportedly mulled a censored search service to re-enter China, an attempt that outraged its staff, politicians and speech advocates.

LinkedIn, which launched in China back in 2014, also hires so-called “information auditors” to keep close tabs on what users say and share in its China realm, according to a job post the firm listed on a local recruiting site. Like Google, LinkedIn caught flack for censoring content.

Real identity

Digital anonymity came to an end in China — at least in theory — when the sweeping Cyberspace Law took effect in 2017. The rules, which are meant to police information on the web, ordered websites to verify users’ real identities before letting them comment or use other tools, though users can still post with their screen names.

Large platforms like messenger WeChat and Twitter -like Weibo reacted swiftly by running real-name checks on users. The staple practice is to collect mobile phone numbers, which became a form of ID after China introduced a policy in 2010 requiring all buyers, foreign or Chinese, to show a piece of identification when they obtain their 11-digit identifiers. Google’s rumored search engine for China also asked for users’ phone numbers, according to The Intercept, which would make it easier for the government to monitor people’s queries.

linkedin china

LinkedIn’s China office in Beijing. Photo: LinkedIn China via Weibo

LinkedIn had been able to avoid the inevitable process for months. Perhaps the government had gone after the biggies first. After all, LinkedIn is only a fraction the size of its main rival in China. As of November, LinkedIn had 13 million monthly installs while its local peer Maimai had 95 monthly installs, data from iResearch shows. Both are dwarfed by WeChat’s more than 1 billion monthly active users.

As with other fledgling industries, laws often lag behind technological development, not to mention the enforcement thereof when the odds are against enterprises. Take ride-hailing for example. Unlicensed drivers and vehicles were still running on the roads two years after China legalized the sector. When the government steps up oversight recently, the market is hit by a shortage of drivers.

Clamping down

TechCrunch has come to understand that LinkedIn’s identity enforcement is linked to the latest wave of government crackdowns. “Slowly, the Chinese Communist Party has been pushing their collective thumbs down on, not only foreign internet companies but all internet companies. It just so happens that the recent political atmosphere is causing more scrutiny,” a source with insights into the matter told TechCrunch, asking not to be named.

Other websites are also indeed tightening controls over users. Many apps that previously allowed third-party logins from platforms like WeChat and Weibo also recently started collecting users’ phone numbers, several people who experienced the changes told TechCrunch.

Users can still get around LinkedIn’s real-name verification by switching on their virtual private network, known as VPN, that lets people surf the net from an overseas IP address and circumvent the Great Firewall, China’s internet censoring machinery. But the practice is becoming more challenging and the stakes are growing. By law, only government-approved providers can set up VPNs. In response to regulatory oversight, Apple pulled hundreds of VPN apps from its China App Store in 2017.

More recently, China’s telecoms regulator slapped a 1,000 yuan (around $146) fine on a man for accessing the “international net” through “illegal channels.” The case is one of the few known instances where individuals are punished for using VPNs, sending worrying signs to those jumping the Wall to surf the unfiltered world wide web.

US jewellery firm Stella & Dot ‘to exit European market’

Jessica HerrinImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption The firm was founded by Jessica Herrin in 2003

San Francisco-based jewellery firm Stella & Dot appears to be exiting the European market after seven years.

A number of its UK sales reps, some of whom host parties to sell jewellery, have posted messages on social media.

They say they have been messaged by the firm to say it has been hit by declines in the value of the pound and euro.

Stella & Dot, founded in 2003, targets women looking for work and says it “creates flexible entrepreneurial opportunities”.

Messages have been posted online by the sales reps from chief executive and founder Jessica Herrin, who also founded

In them, she says the once profitable European business is now operating at a loss.

“Sadly the market conditions in Europe have become very difficult. In the last few years the British pound and Euro have devalued against the US dollar by almost 20%, causing a deep decline in our margin, whilst at the same time operating costs have increased,” she writes.

It is of “utmost importance” to exit gratefully, she says, according to the messages posted by UK sales representatives. They will be able to continue to sell products and earn commissions until 7 April.

She wrote the decision to close had been taken with a “heavy heart” and after “countless deliberations”.

Its sales reps – known as stylists – hold trunk shows, similar to Tupperware parties, and also sell though websites. As well as jewellery, clothes and bags are available for sale.

The company did not immediately respond to requests to comment on the social media posts.

BasisAI, a Singapore startup from Bay Area returnees, comes out of stealth with impressive creds

An intriguing new startup is out from under the radar in Southeast Asia after BasisAI, a Singapore-based company, revealed itself this week. The startup disclosed a seed investment from two prestigious investors in the region and some impressive credentials to back it up.

Started by twin brothers Linus and Silvanus Lee and Liu Feng-Yuan — all Singapore nationals — the startup is, as the name suggests, focused on AI… but the exact scope of its business is not yet clear. In a phone interview with TechCrunch, the founders explained their goal is to work with enterprises to help scale data project and give artificial intelligence and machine learning increased accountability.

“We see a problem within a lot of enterprises with data, they are keen to scale and take their innovation and lab experiments into production and reality,” Silvanus Lee explained. “What we’re trying to tackle is to make AI scalable and accountable.”

That, Lee continued, is important for reasons include refining results produced by AI systems, explaining how AI products work to stakeholders and users, as well as of course allowing companies to operate systems at large scale. The initial focus is Singapore, a prime location for enterprises and corporates in Southeast Asia, the founders added.

That’s about all we know about the business so far, despite coming out of stealth mode a lot of information is being kept private, including the exact size of the team under wraps — we are assured, though, that it’s “lean.” The startup did confirm, however, that it raised a $6 million seed round from marquee investors Temasek, the Singapore sovereign fund, and Sequoia India, the branch of the U.S. firm that handles deals in India and Southeast Asia.

Lee said they spoke to a range of investors and chose these two for the strategic value they bring to the table, particularly in Singapore.

Those are indeed impressive backers — Temasek, in particular, isn’t known for doing seed stage investments — and that is likely down to the caliber of the founding team as much as their (mysterious) vision.

The Lee brothers are both Singaporeans returning home from Silicon Valley, where they worked with major tech firms. Silvanus spent 15 years in the Bay Area with Dropbox and then Uber, where he was a director of data science, and Linus spent six years at Twitter in California before relocating to Singapore in 2016 to lead the social media firm’s data science team in Asia Pacific.

Matched with those tenures at top tech firms, meanwhile, is Liu, who has spent significant time working within the Singapore government. That has included stints with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and on the Ministry of Trade’s Advisory team before nearly five years with GovTech Singapore, an agency under the Prime Minister’s office.

BasisAI founders [left to right] Silvanus Lee, Liu Feng-Yuan and Linus Lee

It’s the kind of ‘dream ticket’ that you’d imagine Singapore has dreamed of: two students which cut their teeth in Silicon Valley matched with another who has been part of the country’s digital push. (And, hey, twins, too!)

Still, it remains to be seen exactly what the company will bring to market.

Silvanus told TechCrunch that BasisAI is a product-driven company — as opposed to an agency-like outfit that advises enterprises — and he revealed that it has customers piloting deployments and software right now.

“Now it feels like the right time to come back and see if we can contribute to the tech ecosystem,” he said. “There’s a lot of world-class talent here, more so than ever before, and we feel like the time is right now to build a really high caliber tech and engineering company.”

“We really want to help grow the ecosystem in Singapore,” Lee added.

Sainsbury’s sees retail sales fall 1.1% over Christmas

Father Christmas at Sainsbury'sImage copyright Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury’s has seen sales fall over Christmas after general merchandise trading was hit by consumer caution.

Like-for-like retail sales, which exclude sales from new stores, fell by 1.1% across the Christmas period.

General merchandise sales, including at Sainsbury’s-owned Argos, fell by 2.3% and overall clothing sales by 0.2%.

Chief executive Mike Coupe said: “Retail markets are highly competitive and very promotional and the consumer outlook continues to be uncertain.”

He added: “General merchandise sales grew strongly over the key Christmas weeks and outperformed the market over the quarter.

“Sales declined in the quarter due to cautious customer spending and our decision to reduce promotional activity across Black Friday. Clothing performed well, with strong full-price sales growth in a tough market.”

However, the supermarket giant said in the 15 weeks to 9 January, grocery sales grew by 0.4%, with groceries online and in convenience stores up by 6% and 3%.

Image copyright Getty Images

Analysis by Today business presenter Dominic O’Connell

Pundits had expected Sainsbury’s to have the weakest Christmas numbers of the big four grocery chains.

They were right – but for the wrong reasons. Sainsbury’s core grocery business did quite well given the fierce competition from the mainstream rivals Tesco, Morrisons and Asda, and the extra squeeze from the German-owned discounters Aldi and Lidl.

The weakness came in so-called general merchandise, which includes Argos, which Sainsbury’s bought two years ago.

The problem, Sainsbury’s said, was not Christmas trading, but Black Friday.

It chose not to follow rivals’ fierce discounting and sales suffered accordingly.

While this explanation is undoubtedly correct, it will not impress investors, who will point out that Argos was meant to provide diversification away from the super-competitive grocery market, and that complaining about discounting on Black Friday is like complaining about cold weather in January.

All this week’s trading updates show only sales. We will not know the real winners – which retailers turned those sales into profits – until later in the year, in Sainsbury’s case in the full-year results in May.

The third-quarter retail sales figure was worse than analysts had expected, having predicted a 0.2% decline.

Retail analyst Teresa Wickham told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is a mixed bag. Christmas has clearly been difficult for them.”

She said Sainsbury’s had had to make difficult decisions about how far it should go down the promotional route in order to compete with Aldi and Lidl.

But she added that the UK’s second-largest grocery chain had a “very valuable property in Argos”, despite the fall in merchandise sales.

And Richard Lim, chief executive at Retail Economics said: “These results aren’t disastrous but demonstrate the significant challenges faced by the big grocers.

“Fiercer competition from the discounters, massive price investment from key competitors and shifting shopper behaviour have created a pressurised trading environment. Market share continues to slip away to the German discounters.

“The decline in non-food reflects the wider slowdown in consumer confidence as cautiousness shown towards discretionary spending. Hard-fought sales in a heavily-discounted environment will put profitability under further pressure.”

Sainsbury’s plans to merge with rival Asda, with the Competition Market Authority’s verdict on the plan expected to be published in February.

Mothercare woes deepen as sales slide

Woman with push chair walks past mothercare storeImage copyright Getty Images

Mother and baby retailer Mothercare has blamed a “difficult consumer backdrop” for a fall in sales in the UK in its last quarter.

Sales fell 11.4% and online sales dropped more, by 16.3%, the firm said.

The business is in the throes of a UK store closure programme, with 36 currently in closing-down mode. By the end of March, there will be 79 stores, down from 137 in May 2018.

The firm kept its guidance for the financial year unchanged.

Chief executive Mark Newton-Jones said: “Whilst the UK continues to be challenging, in part as a result of our planned restructuring, we are still on course to deliver the necessary transformation.”

Last year, Mothercare underwent a company voluntary arrangement (CVA), which allowed it to shut loss-making shops and reduce rents. It also raised £28m through issuing new shares.

Mr Newton-Jones left in March last year, but then returned in May.

As well as the difficult consumer backdrop, the company said the fall in sales had also been affected by “aggressive discounting” in the previous year, which had inflated sales in that period.

The figures – which are like-for-like, stripping out changes to stores – are for the 13 weeks to 5 January.

The international business was showing signs of recovery, he said, with sales down 1.1%.

Energy suppliers to face tighter rules, says Ofgem

hand on washing machine controlsImage copyright Getty Images

Energy regulator Ofgem is to tighten up the rules for new suppliers of gas and electricity after nine new entrants ceased trading.

The latest to collapse was Economy Energy, which ceased trading on Tuesday. Ofgem is looking for a new supplier for its 235,000 customers.

Mary Starks, Ofgem’s executive director for consumers and markets, told the BBC that there was “room for improvement” in the licensing regime.

She also defended the new price cap.

This caps prices at £1,137 a year for an average dual-fuel customer who pays by direct debit.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Ms Starks said that new suppliers were subject to rigorous background checks and subject to financial requirements.

“That said, we do said we do think there is room for improvement in the licensing regime and we are conducting a review of our licensing arrangements at the moment, with a view to strengthening our requirements to raise standards in a couple of areas, particularly around customer service and financial resilience,” she said.

Consultation is under way and new rules start to be introduced in April.

One of the areas that would be looked at, she said, was the “readiness [of firms] to weather the challenges in this market”, particularly when wholesale prices of energy go up.

She defended Ofgem’s approach, saying there were now 60 energy suppliers, compared with a dozen or so a few years ago, to take on the Big Six suppliers.

The prices offered by the Big Six – British Gas, EDF Energy, E.On, Npower, Scottish Power and SSE – have clustered around the cap. Ms Stark said it was early days for the cap, which only came into force at the start of the year.

“I think the prices at which the Big Six are clustering now are lower than they otherwise would have been, so it’s win in that sense,” she said.

And, she added, there were better deals on the market for customers who wanted to shop around.