2021 was the second consecutive year badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic. After the steep increase in complaints received by the Consumer Council at the beginning of the outbreak (2020) due to travel restrictions and the shortage of anti-epidemic supplies, the overall number of complaints in 2021 saw a gentle decline as a result of the stabilised supply of anti-epidemic products. A total of 27,382 cases were received, representing an 11% YoY decrease, amongst which “services” accounted for 54% of the total number while “goods” constituted 46%, a similar ratio as the previous year. On the other hand, the total amount involved was a staggering HK$1.17 billion, a 116% YoY surge due mainly to the purchase of properties and the closure of a beauty chain.
The new normal has given rise to significant changes in all aspects of daily life, from clothing, food, household matters, to travelling, subsequently impacting the complaint trends. Firstly, the number of complaints last year involving household matters saw a steep upsurge, with increased figures across the board from electrical appliances, furniture and renovation, to property management and even purchase of properties outside Hong Kong. Besides, the pandemic has further changed the way consumers “dress” and “eat” — as e-commerce and online food ordering platforms have become more popular, the number of complaints relating to online clothes and accessories purchases, and online food order platforms have both spiked. In terms of travelling, though outbound travel has dwindled due to the pandemic, the “staycation” trend caused a spike in related complaints when the pandemic slightly eased in the second quarter of 2021. Meanwhile, as social activity slightly resumed, various sales malpractices relating to the fitness, beauty and time sharing industries also saw a resurgence.
Electrical Appliances Ranked Top in Complaint Category
Steep Upsurge in Various Complaints Relating to Household Matters
As consumers have been spending more time at home during the pandemic, complaint numbers and categories relating to household matters have shown a steep increase, amongst which “Electrical Appliances” soared to a 5-year high with 2,578 cases recorded, rising 27% year-on-year and involving over HK$10 million, likely due to consumers purchasing or replacing household appliances. Most of the complaints concerned traditional home appliances with air-conditioners attracting the most complaints with 399 cases, followed by television sets (345 cases) and washing machines/dryers (292 cases). It is worth noting that vacuum cleaners saw a twofold (+106%) increase with 198 cases received, which may have stemmed from the public’s heightened awareness of household hygiene during the pandemic. In terms of the complaint nature, most were related to “Quality of Goods” (776 cases) and “Repair / Maintenance Services” (742 cases), jointly accounting for almost 60% of the complaints in this category.
Apart from electrical appliances, complaints involving “Furniture & Fixtures” in 2021 also considerably increased by 42% to 1,008 cases, ranking the eighth highest amongst all complaint categories. Amongst this, 75% (756 cases) involved ready-made furniture and fixtures, 4 times that of made-to-order furniture (189 cases). In terms of the complaint nature, over 40% (448 cases) involved “Quality of Goods” while close to 25% (245 cases) were related to “Late / Non-delivery / Loss”.
For many consumers, purchasing property is the investment of a lifetime. Complaints relating to properties were consistently on the rise in the past 3 years, swelling 123% from 168 cases in 2019, to 374 cases in 2021. The amount involved in 2021 was HK$778 million, more than threefold increase than that of 2020 (HK$237 million). Amongst the complaints, the purchase of properties outside Hong Kong was particularly severe, a YoY surge of almost 200% with 167 cases recorded. The Council published the “Purchase of Properties Outside Hong Kong — A Study on Enhancing Consumer Protection” study report in October 2021, revealing various regulatory gaps and putting forward 5 recommendations to strengthen the regulation of POH sales in Hong Kong to protect the interests of consumers at large.
Besides, complaints on property management also doubled with 44 cases received, mostly involving “Quality of Services”. The management of residential buildings as well as housing issues are closely related to the livelihood of Hong Kong people. The Council will continue to monitor relevant topics and the trend of complaints to ensure safeguard of consumer rights.
Telecommunication Services Came 2nd in Complaint Figures with Almost Half Involving Mobile Phone Services
Close to 10% Rise in Internet Services Due to Working and Schooling from Home
“Telecommunication Services” attracted the second-highest number of complaints with 2,201 cases recorded. Despite the progressive drop in complaint cases for 5 consecutive years and a 10% YoY decrease, this category still climbed one rank as compared with its third-place ranking in 2020. Close to half of the complaints involved “Mobile Phone Services” (1,066 cases). The complaint nature was predominantly relating to “Price / Charges Dispute” (723 cases), followed by “Quality of Services” (506 cases) and “Variation / Termination of Contract” (479 cases). As 5G mobile services have become more popular, related complaints have also doubled to 164 cases, with close to 40% relating to the “Quality of Service”.
Besides, as outbound travel has almost come to a standstill, complaints relating to mobile data services have seen a significant drop in the past 3 years, decreasing from 448 cases in 2019 to 156 cases in 2020, and further dipping to 79 cases in 2021. On the other hand, demand for internet services has increased as more people have been working and schooling from home, resulting in a 9% YoY rise in complaints on “Internet Services” with 645 cases received.
Resurgence of Beauty and Fitness Trade Malpractices as Pandemic Eases
Ranking 3rd and 10th Place Respectively
As the pandemic situation gradually eased in the second quarter of 2021 and the beauty industry resumed their businesses, related complaints surged 159% year-on-year from 850 cases to 2,200 cases, making it the third-highest category in 2021. The total amount involved was close to HK$72 million, a significant 2.6-time increase when compared with that of the previous year (HK$19.76 million). The sudden closure of a beauty chain in September 2021 was a main source which gave rise to 1,039 complaints, accounting for half of this category. Aside from cases related to shop closures, the Council received a total of 1,144 complaint cases on beauty services, still recording a 35% increase when compared with that of 2020 (850 cases).
Amongst the complaint cases relating to beauty services, “Sales Practices”, “Quality of Service” and “Variation / Termination of Contract” recorded 408 cases (19%), 258 cases (12%) and 214 cases (10%) respectively. “Laser / IPL Beauty Services” and “Plastic Surgery / Injection Treatments” recorded 299 (14%) and 106 (5%) cases respectively. Consumers are reminded to evaluate the risks before undergoing medical beauty treatments, including possible skin problems after the treatment, as well as considering the reputation and service quality of the service providers. Consumers should proceed with caution, and consult a qualified doctor to assess the need for a treatment carefully.
Besides, “Recreation & Health Clubs” amassed 870 complaint cases, a 75% YoY increase, making it the tenth most complained-about category. The amount involved was a staggering HK$16.87 million, almost double (+95%) that of the previous year. Out of this, 398 cases concerned the closure of fitness centres, while the second-highest complaint nature was “Variation / Termination of Contract” that recorded 161 cases. In addition, time sharing gave rise to 100 cases in 2021, representing a 72% YoY surge and involving close to HK$6 million. Amongst the 100 cases, 82 were related to “Sales Practices”, a situation that gave rise to concerns.
The Council is highly concerned about the sales practices of the fitness, beauty and time sharing industries, as well as the potential risks of high-value prepaid services. While social and economic activities gradually resume as the pandemic subsides, trade malpractices relating to these industries may see a resurgence. The Council has long advocated for the legislation of a mandatory cooling-off period. Unfortunately, despite the Government’s approval of the legislative proposal in 2019 and the completion of the subsequent public consultation, the sudden change in economic situation due to social unrest and COVID-19 have stalled the progress of this legislation. Concerned that these unscrupulous trade practices may resurge or even exacerbate once the pandemic eases, the Council hopes to reintroduce the statutory cooling-off period bill in the new term of the Legislative Council, so as to safeguard consumers.
Food and Entertainment Services Ranked 4th in Complaint Volume
Pay Heed to Upsurging Trend in Online Food Ordering Platforms and Health Foods
Ranked fourth was complaints relating to “Food & Entertainment Services”, which rose 48% year-on-year to 2,182 cases, involving more than HK$1.6 million. The complaints were chiefly relating to “Quality of Services” (470 cases), “Price / Charges Dispute” (452 cases), and “Sales Practices” (410 cases), altogether accounting for over 60% of all complaints in this category. Excluding “others”, the services attracting the most complaints were “Restaurants” (764 cases) and “Fast Food Outlets” (356 cases). Under the pandemic, “Food & Entertainment Services” was also the predominant category under “Internet Shopping” with 902 cases recorded, representing a rise of 53% when compared with that of 2020; whereas “Foods & Drinks” ranked fifth with 551 cases, representing a 44% YoY increase.
Online food ordering platforms have become more and more popular in recent years and related complaints have also climbed quickly from 101 cases in 2019 to 637 cases in 2021, a six-fold surge in 3 years’ time. A significant rise in complaints were recorded across the leading online food ordering platforms in the market, which is a problem that should not be taken lightly. Furthermore, the amount involved exceeded HK$150,000, which was 80% more than the previous year. Although the hundred something dollars per food order may seem insignificant, the food and service quality would directly impact on consumers’ daily life as the demand for these services have surged during the pandemic.
Consumers have become more health-conscious under the pandemic, as reflected by the 36% rise in complaint figures relating to “Medicine & Chinese Herbal Medicine” with 354 cases recorded. In the past 2 years, the volume of inbound tourists has plummeted yet related complaints have seen a contrasting rise. As consumers’ demand for health foods has increased amidst the pandemic, “Health Food & Supplements” also became the leading complaint type in this category with 207 cases recorded, representing a surge of over 60% year-on-year.
Travel Matters Still Ranked the 5th Place Despite Falling Numbers
Complaints Relating to “Staycation” Trend Worth Noting
“Travel Matters” was the fifth highest number of complaints in 2021, plunging 77% from 5,371 cases in 2020 to 1,222 cases in 2021, involving over $9.7 million. In the second year of the pandemic, airline services continued to be affected across the globe and more citizens stayed in Hong Kong due to the pandemic. As a result, air ticket-related complaints saw a sharp drop of 86%, but was still the top-ranking type of goods/services (605 cases) in this category, involving over HK$4.5 million which was largely due to the refund arrangements from postponed and subsequently cancelled flights. “Hotel Booking” had the second-highest volume of complaints, with a total of 305 cases recorded which was around 15% less than the previous year. The most prominent complaint nature was “Variation / Termination of Contract” with 463 cases received, constituting around 40% of all “Travel Matters” complaints.
Although Hong Kong residents have been unable to travel abroad for almost 2 years, complaints relating to the new “staycation” trend recorded 47 cases. Last year, the Council conducted a mystery customer survey at staycation hotels and published the results along with several staycation-related complaint cases in CHOICE Magazine, reminding consumers to pay heed to the terms, restrictions and anti-epidemic arrangements of staycation hotels before booking.
Clothing-related Complaints Climbed to 6th Place
Caution Needed for Online Shopping
The public’s consumption activity has diminished under the pandemic, yet complaints relating to “Clothing & Apparel” recorded a YoY increase of almost 30% with 1,168 cases recorded, making it the sixth-highest complaint category and involving close to $4.3 million. A third of the complaints (382 cases) were related to “Quality of Goods”, while “Late / Non-delivery / Loss” was the second predominant complaint nature with 174 cases recorded. The goods in question were chiefly ready-made clothing and apparel (414 cases), followed by handbags (253 cases) and shoes (223 cases) which both increased by around 60% year-on-year.
The overall complaint figures relating to internet shopping in 2021 dropped by almost half to 7,000 cases, mainly because of the sharp drop in complaints for anti-epidemic supplies, hotel accommodation and air-tickets purchased online. However, online shopping for clothing and accessories has become widely popular, be it from official websites of fashion brands, online consignment platforms or e-shops on social media. Amongst the complaints on “Internet Shopping” last year, “Clothing & Apparel” ranked third with 623 cases, preceded by “Travel Matters” in second place (658 cases) and “Food & Entertainment Services” in first place (902 cases).
The Council is deeply concerned with online shopping scams in recent years which involve traders peddling goods on social media platforms. These sellers merely set up a social media account without a physical business address. Most consumers pay directly into the seller’s personal account through bank transfer or electronic payment tools, which makes it difficult to seek redress in case the seller vanishes after receiving the payment. When shopping online, consumers are reminded to pay heed to the trader’s background, such as whether they have a physical store or provide a valid means of contact. Consumers should only shop with reputable e-commerce platforms to avoid falling into sales traps.
Looking Back and Ahead
Consumption Modes Changed Under the Pandemic
Paying Heed to Consumer Complaints Amidst the New Normal
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Council has consistently disseminated test reports relating to combatting the pandemic. Entering the second year of the pandemic, the Council remained diligent in conducting tests and surveys on various newfangled anti-epidemic products that have cropped up on the market. Additionally, as more residents have started cooking at home due to social distancing measures, the Council’s safety tests on novel kitchen appliances including cast iron pots and air fryers, as well as food tests on ham, biscuits and other popular foods have helped safeguard consumers’ health. The Council has also conducted research on a variety of supplementary services that have arisen as a result of online shopping. For example, consolidated shipping services were found to have hidden details and costs. As part of the ongoing effort in monitoring livelihood-related issues, a survey on online supermarket service quality was carried out to help consumers continue to shop smart.
Drawing Experience from Consumption Vouchers
Boosting the Economy While Encouraging Happy Spending
To revive the economy hard hit by the pandemic, the Government announced the consumption voucher scheme in mid-2021, sparking a shopping craze amongst the general public. A variety of registration and consumption offers ensued as various industries and the 4 designated Stored Value Facilities (SVFs) competed for consumers’ HK$5,000 worth of consumption vouchers. Blindsided by a large variety of promotions and discounts, consumers may easily overlook the terms of the offers, or even fall into high-value prepayment traps which may result in consumption disputes. Foreseeing the potential risks early on, the Council disseminated useful consumption information to the public in early July 2021, a month ahead of the disbursement of the first consumption voucher. Consumers were provided with helpful tips on selecting the most suitable SVF and reminded to shop rationally.
Aside from consumer education, the Council also conducted a survey in mid-July to early August by means of in-person and phone enquiries, and through desk research of online promotional materials. The promotional tactics of over 250 traders were reviewed, including shopping malls and major retailers. The survey results were published in early August, the same week as the first disbursement of the consumption vouchers, together with 8 reminders to consumers on how to use their consumption vouchers wisely. Despite a number of operational issues in the early stages, such as complaints on recurring transaction failure of one of the SVFs when using consumption vouchers, traders imposing a handling surcharge, and minimum spend for consumption vouchers, etc., the consumption atmosphere remained positive.
Observing the trend of consumption voucher-related complaints between June to December 2021, it was found that complaint figures peaked in August when the first instalment was disbursed, with 305 cases recorded. The Council accumulated 577 complaints overall, the majority of which involved “Price Dispute” with 223 cases recorded. Complaints directly relating to consumption vouchers (e.g. excluding those associated with the quality of goods or services) accounted for 392 cases. In the same period, complaints involving the 4 designated SVFs came to 154 cases, two-thirds of which occurred in August 2021. Many of these cases involved transaction failures of the SVFs or duplicated deduction of spending value. As of recent months, the complaint figures had lowered to single digit. In summary, the consumption voucher scheme was a whole new consumption mode and experience for many stakeholders, from traders, SVF operators to consumers. Despite issues in the first month, the scheme eventually achieved a significant and positive outcome, as a result of the prompt improvement of services by the SVF operators and industries, as well as the consumers’ getting familiar with the payment mode. The scheme has also set an important milestone in promoting electronic payments in Hong Kong.
45th Anniversary of CHOICE Magazine
Brand New Integrated and Revamped Official Website
2021 was a momentous year for the Consumer Council as several milestones were celebrated, including the 45th anniversary of the Council’s flagship publication, the CHOICE Magazine; as well as the launch of the brand new official website in August 2021, integrated with the eCHOICE website. Apart from an extensively enhanced subscription experience, the revamped site also optimised the online enquiry and complaint services to reinforce consumer safeguard. As part of the 45th birthday celebrations for CHOICE, the Council also organised an online quiz contest in late 2021, giving out a total of 131 CHOICE covers autographed by 12 iconic celebrities or groups to share the joy with readers.
All-rounded Promotion of Sustainable Consumption Through
Publication of Study Report, Sustainability Conference and Submission to Public Consultations
Promoting sustainable consumption has long been one of the priorities of the Council. With the support of the Sustainable Development Fund, the Council published the “Embracing Sustainable Consumption for a Happy Life ─ A Tracking Study on Consumer Behaviour” report in June 2021. While the study revealed that consumers’ recycling behaviour needed improvement, it advocated for behavioural changes in consumers that are in line with their awareness. In the same month, the Consumer Council and the Centre for Business Sustainability (CBS) of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School jointly organised the “Driving Sustainability: Responsible Modelling and Effective Communication” conference. Furthermore, the Council proactively submitted responses to the Government’s public consultations on the Producer Responsibility Scheme on Plastic Beverage Containers (PPRS), Scheme on Regulation of Disposable Plastic Tableware and various issues relating to sustainable consumption.
Safeguarding the Vulnerable
Strengthening the Self-protection Capacity of Senior Citizens
In the past year, amongst the complaint cases with the age group of the complainants provided, a total of 1,052 cases were filed by senior citizens aged 65 or above — the only age group that had recorded an increase in complaints during the period (i.e. +33% YoY). To further safeguard the consumer interests of the silver-haired group, the Council appointed the first batch of senior educators through the “Pilot Educator Scheme for Senior Citizens (ESSC)” and launched the brand new “Elderly Hotline” in early 2022. The ESSC aims to train senior educators to host community talks for their fellow elderly, to share with them the latest consumption-related information and also strengthen social support network with each other. The dedicated “Elderly Hotline” aims to provide user-friendly and direct customer service for elderly consumers, encouraging them to seek help, make enquiries or lodge complaints when they encounter consumption disputes.
In fighting against the pandemic alongside Hong Kong people in the past 2 years, the Council has continued to uphold its mission of safeguarding the health of the public. The Council has also formulated new strategies and goals for the coming 3 years, including sustaining its efforts in safeguarding the consumer interests of vulnerable groups and strengthening their self-protection capability.
In the past 2 years, the pandemic has completely upheaved and changed the daily lives and consumption modes of the general public. The Consumer Council has set “Safeguarding the Health of Consumers” as its focus, and will remain dedicated to disseminating various anti-epidemic and health-related consumption information. Besides, the Council will closely monitor different consumption issues which have emerged during the new normal. In 2022, the Council will remain steadfast in its mission and strive to reinforce consumer protection.