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Over 30,000 Consumer Complaint Cases in 2020 Surge in Internet Shopping Complaints Triggered by “Stay-at-Home Economy” Face Masks and Travel Matters Became the Product and Category Attracting Most Complaints
2020 was an unprecedented year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite reduced social activities and a hard-hit economy, the number of complaints lodged with the Consumer Council still showed an increase with a total of 30,935 complaint cases received over the year, a steep increase of 26% from 2019 and a record high since 2015. Amongst these complaints, those related to anti-epidemic supplies and daily necessities had surged more than 350-fold from 13 cases in 2019 to 4,581 cases last year. Owing to social distancing restrictions and reduced recreational activities, services-related complaints showed a slight 6% increase from the previous year with 16,108 cases recorded.
Under the impact of the pandemic, people’s daily lives and consumption items have undergone significant changes. As such, online shopping has become prevalent and increasingly versatile. Ordering food delivery, anti-epidemic supplies and daily essential commodities online have become the new norm for many families. Consequently, complaints concerning online shopping have also increased by twofold, accounting for close to 45% of the overall cases. As the pandemic swept across the globe last year, travel restrictions imposed by many countries have resulted in a plunge in the number of tourists visiting Hong Kong as well as outbound travels. The thwarted travel plans of Hong Kong people have resulted in an increase of almost 1.5 times in complaints related to travel matters, making it the top among all complaint categories.
5 Major Complaint Categories
“Travel Matters” rose to 5,371 cases from the 2,232 cases in 2019, making it to the top among all complaint categories. With the global aviation and travel industry being brought to a standstill due to the pandemic, travel plans were severely disrupted and complaints related to air tickets showed a four-fold year-on-year increase, accounting for over 80% of the complaints in this category. Tour-related complaints also increased by over 80% with 330 cases recorded. Among all travel matters-related complaints, over 45% cases involved variation or termination of contract; 20% were related to price/charges disputes; and more than 1,000 complaint cases were resulted from the closure of 2 travel agencies in the year.
Complaints related to “Medical & Health Devices” leaped from the 9th in 2019 to the 2nd highest category in 2020, with 4,699 cases recorded in the past year. In this category, over 95% (4,486 cases) were related to face masks, a staggering increase of almost 640 times as compared to the 7 cases in the previous year. When face mask supply was scarce in the early stages of the pandemic, consumers scoured the city for face masks and ordered substantial quantities from various websites or social media platforms. Traders were overwhelmed by the surge in orders, often resulting in shipment delays. The remaining 200-odd complaint cases were related to “Massage Chairs / Sofa / Products”, “Slimming Equipment”, and “Infra-red Devices” respectively. Among all complaints related to “Medical & Health Devices”, “Late / Non-delivery / Loss” accounted for almost 65% of the cases, while 30% of them were related to “Sales Practices” (12%), “Price / Charges Disputes” (11%) and “Quality of Goods” (7%).
Complaints related to “Telecommunication Services” ranked 3rd with a total of 2,451 complaint cases recorded last year, representing a decrease for 4 consecutive years. Although the overall figures showed a 6% drop when compared with that of the previous year, there was a slight rise in complaints related to “Mobile Phone Services” and “Internet Services”, while complaints related to “Variation / Termination of Contract” even increased over 25%. The closure of a WiFi egg company during the year also gave rise to a hundred-odd complaints.
Ranked 4th was complaints related to “Electrical Appliances” with 2,026 cases received, representing 10% more than the year before, probably a result of people spending more time at home. Complaints about “Air Purifiers” recorded the highest increase margin of over 2.5 times, while complaints related to “Electric Fans”, “Washing Machines / Dryers”, “Refrigerators” and “Small Electrical Appliances” also showed a more significant rise. Besides, around 25% of the overall complaints were related to “Repair / Maintenance Services” and over 30% concerned “Quality of Goods”. The Council urges manufacturer to improve the quality of goods as well as to address repair and maintenance issues, to minimise disputes and support sustainable consumption.
Complaints related to “Food & Entertainment Services” ranked 5th with 1,478 cases recorded, representing a 15% year-on-year increase. “Variation / Termination of Contract” and “Late / Non-delivery / Loss” cases showed a four-fold and two-fold increase respectively. Owing to the surge in demand for online food delivery platform services, related complaints also soared by almost 3 times. The Council has pinpointed the service quality issues of online food delivery platform operators last July and urged for improvements from the industry.
Consumption Complaints Arising from the Pandemic
As the pandemic persists, the “stay-at-home economy” has propelled the popularity of online shopping, yet related problems have gradually surfaced over the year. In 2020, the Council received a total of 13,642 complaints related to “Internet Shopping”, accounting for almost 45% of the overall complaints, a stark increase of almost three-fold as compared to that of the previous year. Amongst these complaints, 30% was related to “Medical & Health Devices”, mainly regarding “Late / Non-delivery / Loss”, “Sales Practices” and “Price / Charges Dispute” related to face masks, while over 25% were on “Travel Matters”, mostly related to “Variation / Termination of Contract”, “Shop Closing Down” and “Price / Charges Dispute”.
Furthermore, due to the suspension of face-to-face lessons, complaints regarding “Education Matters” showed a significant increase of over 1.3 times with 874 cases recorded, whereas “Wedding Services” increased by over two times with 233 cases lodged, due to delayed or resized weddings as a result of social distancing restrictions. The unpredictability of the pandemic has hugely upset the plans of both consumers and traders that escalated the chance of disputes. Affected traders should clearly communicate relevant arrangements through appropriate channels as soon as possible, such as through their website or social media page, for consumers’ peace of mind.
Resource Reallocation to Fight the Pandemic Together
In the early stages of the pandemic in early 2020, there was a severe shortage in anti-epidemic supplies, including face masks, disinfectants and cleaning products. The Council was highly concerned about unscrupulous traders taking advantage of the situation to profit from sales malpractices, such as selling inferior quality or counterfeit healthcare supplies, or inflating the price. Therefore, during the year-ender press conference last January, the Council urged traders to uphold their social responsibility and combat the pandemic together with citizens instead of exploiting the situation. In response to the panic-buying of food and daily necessities such as rice and toilet paper, the Council swiftly took action to validate the supply with relevant importers and repeatedly urged consumers to stay calm. At the same time, the Council also advised supermarkets to handle the shortage with priority and replenish supply promptly to curb misinformation about shortage of such goods.
On the other hand, as the market was in acute shortage of face mask supply, the Council worked with The University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital, the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering of the City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute, and Hong Kong Science Park to seek ways to help consumers. In just 2 weeks, the taskforce developed and tested a way to make evidence-based do-it-yourself makeshift face masks and plastic face shields using accessible and low-cost materials at home, including kitchen paper and tissues, to alleviate the plight arising from the shortage of anti-epidemic supplies.
At the same time, the Council continued to publish test reports on anti-epidemic products. Apart from the report on disinfection alcohol and the report on surgical face mask released last December, the Council also conducted tests and research on novel anti-epidemic products cropping up on the market, such as disinfectant cards and badges, wearable negative ion air purifiers and the latest report on multi-purpose disinfectants published last month. In response to the increased prevalence of online shopping, the Council also published various articles in CHOICE magazine related to the prevention of online consumer traps as well as consumer alerts, including a survey on the service quality of online supermarkets; social media anti-epidemic product scams; as well as complaints and risks of the latest live-streaming e-commerce trend, for empowering consumers to continue shopping smart amid the new norm.
Consumer protection efforts have become increasingly important during the pandemic. The Council released a number of past epidemic-related product test reports for consumers to download for free, including face masks, bleach, alcohol-based hand rubs and disinfecting wet wipes, hand washes, box facial tissues, kitchen paper towels, etc., as well as setting up the one-stop "Together, We Fight COVID-19" webpage to consolidate all the latest and reliable official information for consumers.
Consumer Education for Persons with Special Needs to Avert Beauty & Fitness Sales Traps
In view of the considerable volume of complaints related to the beauty and recreation / fitness industries often involving victims from vulnerable groups or of introverted personality who are more susceptible to exploitation, the Council, in addition to proactively handling the complaints and assisting applicants through the Consumer Legal Action Fund (CLAF), advocated for the legislation of a mandatory cooling-off period. Despite the Government’s acceptance of the proposal and having completed the public consultation, the legislation was delayed by the social movement and the coronavirus pandemic. The Council is apprehensive that such interminable sales malpractices will re-emerge or even worsen once the pandemic is over and daily activities resume.
With the belief that prevention is always better than cure, the Council has launched the brand new “Support Programme for Persons with Special Needs”, that aimed at strengthening the self-protection capacity of the mentally handicapped. The programme provides training kits and case study videos featuring the unscrupulous sales tactics deployed by fitness and beauty centres, designed to help social workers and teachers educate the persons with autism spectrum disorder, mild intellectual disability or common mental disorder on the awareness and prevention of relevant trade malpractices and sales traps. The first training kit entitled “Support Consumers with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Enhancing their Self-Protection Ability – Training Handbook for Social Work and Education Practitioners (Fitness Service Contract Series)” was launched last November. The Council firmly believes that the legislation of the mandatory cooling-off period will better safeguard the rights of not only persons with special needs, but also all consumers at large.
Monitoring Oil Prices with the Brand New Oil Price Watch Mobile App
In the past year, New York crude oil futures recorded a historic low of minus US$40 a barrel, yet the auto-fuel price in Hong Kong remains at a high level. The Council published the "Auto-fuel Price Monitoring Analysis 2020" study report in May, which analysed 7 years’ worth of data and revealed that although the auto-fuel price in Hong Kong in recent years showed no signs of “quick going up, slow coming down”, there were consistent tendencies of " going up more, coming down less" in the pump price. The analysis highlighted various issues such as confusing discounts and promotions, low transparency of the Hong Kong auto-fuel market, etc.
In light of this, the Council launched the brand new “Oil Price Watch” website and mobile app with enhanced functions last November, offering a more user-friendly, informative and content-rich platform for consumers and car owners to check the auto-fuel retail prices of different oil companies after discount so as to facilitate them to make informed choices. It also pools the collective effort of consumers by empowering them to monitor fluctuations in oil prices together.
Price Trends of Essential Daily Commodities
The daily commodity market is closely linked to people’s livelihood. In view of the panic-buying and stockpiling early last year, in addition to the fact that cooking and dining at home has become more popular during the pandemic, the Council has been closely monitoring the price fluctuations in domestic daily commodities such as rice, oil and groceries based on the data from “Online Price Watch”. While the average price increase margin of these daily essentials over the past year were relatively in line with the Consumer Price Index, some goods (such as rice) which had become the subject of panic buying last February when the coronavirus outbreak became rampant, had seen a sharp rise in average price from February to the third quarter, and only went down in the fourth quarter. Upon reviewing the average prices over the year, canned meat recorded the highest overall price increase. The average price of 5 types of canned meat increased 7.4% to 27.8% from the previous year. Ranked second was rice that increased 2.7% to 14.5% in average price from the previous year. In comparison, the average price of cooking oil was relatively stable.
Looking Back and Ahead
Looking back at 2020, the Council’s work has not been halted or deterred by the pandemic. Despite tough times and much hardship, the Council has been diligently monitoring the latest development of the coronavirus pandemic as well as consumer news in the marketplace. Looking ahead, in anticipation of the end of the pandemic as vaccinations start picking up its momentum worldwide, the Council will closely observe the development of relevant industries such as travel, retail, and food and beverage once the pandemic has become more stable. The Council will continue to provide consumers with timely cautionary advice to safeguard consumer rights.
2021 marks the 45th anniversary of CHOICE magazine. The Council is determined to uphold its mission while keeping abreast of the times, and safeguard consumer interests by disseminating reliable consumer information and alerts through conducting rigorous product tests, research and surveys. The Council will also strive to advocate sustainable and responsible consumption culture, and champion CHOICE’s role as an authoritative shopping guide.