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Consumer complaints against ginseng and dried seafood shops have been on the rise in recent years...

  • 1999.05.25

18 complainants parted with nearly $30,000 to purchase what they thought were exceptional bargain prices of Chinese dried seafood.

They are the victims of sales malpractice of 3 Chinese ginseng and dried seafood shops named by the Consumer Council today.

The shops in question are all situated on Nathan Road in Yaumati, Kowloon.

According to the complainants, they were under the impression at the time of the purchase that the merchandise was priced by the catty. But it later transpired that the price was marked actually in the unit tael, or in a few cases, in the unit pound.

As a tael is only one-sixteenth of a catty, they faced a bill that was inflated by as many as 16 times more than they had expected to pay. In the case of pound (which has only 12 taels), they received 4 taels less.

Despite protests, the complainants were compelled into the purchase on the grounds that the merchandise had already been cut or sliced up. Or, in some cases, they were allegedly scared into submission by the presence of burly characters who suddenly appeared to block their exit from the shops.

The shops sanctioned were identified as :

    Shop 14, G/F., Alhambra Building
    383-389 Nathan Road
    Yaumati, Kowloon
    (8 complaints totalling $10,180 since December 1998)

    G/F., 479 Nathan Road
    Yaumati, Kowloon
    (7 complaints totalling $15,576 since December 1998)

    Shop 3, G/F., Alhambra Building
    383-389 Nathan Road
    Yaumati, Kowloon
    (3 complaints totalling $3,048 since March 1999)

The complainants all told a similar story: They were invariably shown products at very competitive prices that appeared in large bold prints but, by contrast, the weight unit (per tael or per pound) was often in small characters.

In other cases, it was alleged that the salesperson of the shop would hold up the jar containing the merchandise, and deliberately conceal the weight unit from sight of the customers - with the fingers or palm. Sometimes the price label was partially concealed by the merchandise in such a way that only the dollar figure was visible but not the weight unit.

Once the prospective customers showed any interest, the salesmen would try to persuade them to buy by repeating the price on the label to emphasize the bargain but make no reference whatsoever to the weight unit. This led consumers to believe that the price was the unit price per catty.

In the few cases where the goods are priced by the pound (in small characters and obscured position), the shop would attach a notice in a prominent area of the price label stating " purchase limited to (so many) catties only". This had the effect of confusing the customers into thinking that the price was also in the unit catty. A pound has only 12 taels while a catty is 16 taels.

And no sooner had the customers showed any sign of consent to buy then the goods would be hastily cut or sliced up. The shops used such tactics to make the customers feel that they are bound to the purchase even though the customers realized later the actual costs involved were far more than they were led to believe, and wanted to withdraw from the transactions.

In cases where the goods had not been sliced, for instance dried scallops which need not be cut into smaller pieces, the shops would resort to pressure tactics to push through the transaction.

As is apparent in these complaints, the customers who fall victim of such trade malpractice are mostly the unsophisticated elderly. Four complaints were also from tourists who apparently have little or no idea of the price of these goods in Hong Kong.

Upon the Council's intervention, the shops denied having misled the complainants but contended that the disputes arose because of misunderstanding on the part of the complainants and therefore refused to refund, or even to improve their trade practices in the light of the complaints.

The Consumer Council has no objection to shops pricing their products in whatever weight units they choose, but they must clearly label the weight unit together with the price in equal prominence for the notice of consumers.

The Consumer Council gives the following advice to consumers patronising these shops:

  • first and foremost, clearly ascertain in what weight unit the goods are priced (whether in tael, catty, pound or any other units);
  • ask the shop to weigh the purchase and state the actual costs payable;
  • before you hand over your money, ask for a bill which should list out all the relevant details of your purchase;
  • only after you have paid the bill do you then decide whether or not to allow the shop to slice up the purchase;
  • under no circumstances should you allow the goods to be sliced up before you have ascertained and agreed upon the total purchase price; and
  • if you want the purchase to be sliced up, ask that it be done within your sight to ensure your purchase will not be switched to goods of inferior quality.

Depending on the particular circumstances of each case, the conduct under complaint may be prosecuted under the Theft Ordinance if there is supporting evidence sufficient for discharging the onerous burden of proof demanded by criminal proceeding, which is proof beyond reasonable doubt. The complainant may also institute civil proceedings to seek redress by suing on the ground of misrepresentation which requires proof of several legal elements. In Hong Kong, consumers are not protected by legislation from general conduct which is likely to deceive or mislead.

In other jurisdictions, such undesirable trade practice will be subject to legislative sanction. For example, in Australia, a broad provision under the Trade Practices Act prohibits companies from engaging in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive.

Consumer complaints against ginseng and dried seafood shops have been on the rise in recent years - 146 cases in 1996, 320 in 1997 and 340 in 1998. In the first 4 months of this year, there were 144 complaints. The complaints were related mainly to (1) sales tactics (e.g. price dispute) and (2) quality of goods (e.g. suspected spurious goods).

As the malpractices of these shops could affect honest traders, the Consumer Council has contacted three trade associations in the ginseng and dried seafood business sector to discuss the issue. The associations are taking steps to devise a code of practice for their members and assist consumers in recognising shops that are members of the associations.