It's that time of year again. The last few weeks have seen Britain's energy suppliers announce double-digit percentage price rises and a further squeeze for power-hungry c-stores.
It's the latest in a series of hikes which have hit the sector hard, as Jonathan James, who owns a store in Soham, Cambridgeshire, recently revealed in Convenience Store. When he bought the business in 2003, the energy bill was £26,000 a year. Last year, despite reducing his power consumption by cutting down on night-time lighting, it had risen to £63,000.
Retailers' frustration with the power barons is not helped by what many perceive as shoddy service from the UK's six major suppliers. Poor billing and disputes over contract renewal are cited as the biggest source of problems, and Convenience Store's Dear Jac column regularly relates retailers' tales of woe.
As yet, neither the industry regulator Ofgem nor the government has seen the need to question whether this poor service is a result of lack of choice by referring it to the Competition Commission. So it looks as though it will be the retailer's own responsibility to make sure they keep those spiralling costs in check.
There are two ways to do that - either reduce the amount of energy you use, or ensure you pay less for what you do consume. Both require a proactive approach, but it's in the latter that you can make the biggest impact by shopping around when your current contract comes up for renewal. It's easy to overlook just how effective the threat of taking your custom elsewhere can be in keeping the suppliers keen - and you'll always be sure of a warm welcome, in the short term at least, if you switch to a new provider.
There's no shortage of price comparison services (see box) to help find the deal that's best for you - and that may not be simply a matter of a lower cost per unit. The length of the contract and the small print can be just as important.
"With prices now generally much higher than they used to be, I definitely pay more attention to the bills and the renewal letters that come through," says Jippy Powar, who owns a Londis store in Cardenden in Fife. "Another thing I've noticed is that increased competition between the suppliers means it's become easier to shop around."
Jippy noticed that his electricity consumption had gone up since a refurbishment and the addition of new chillers so made contact with Makeitcheaper.com, one of several online services which offer free independent advice to business on reducing bills.
"Our job isn't just to find the greatest savings, but to point out the advantages and disadvantages of a new contract," says Makeitcheaper.com's Khaled Hussain. He points out that, unlike Jippy, 90% of companies fail to act on their renewal notice, meaning the supplier can roll them over into a more expensive contract.
"Jippy pays about £90 a week to Scottish Gas Business (part of British Gas) for his electricity and suspects his rates will go up when the contract expires at the end of February. We found that both EDF Energy and Electricity4Business could offer him a better deal, but with different contract terms.
"Going with EDF will save Jippy about £15 a week and E4B more like £30 but, with prices on the rise again, he might want to consider that the EDF rates are capped for much longer," Hussain explains.
Paul and Gail Mather run Sherston Post Office Stores in Wiltshire with an annual electricity bill approaching £4,500. The Mathers make a habit of using business price comparison services on an annual basis to make sure they are paying the lowest utility tariffs.
On the most recent occasion they checked their electricity prices with Makeitcheaper.com and switched Scottish Power to Electricity4Business. Their new rates are only 1p per unit less than before but, over the course of a year, that saves about £500.
"Since deregulation of the electricity market, you just don't know who is operating in your area, and you ideally want someone else to do the hard work of finding out what your options are," says Paul. "That's what these brokers do, at no cost to the customer."
Make the switch