Elderly Consumer Rights & Interest in Focus Joint Efforts of Government and Different Sectors to Build an Age-Friendly Consumption Environment

4 October 2018
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Hong Kong is closely keeping up with the global trend in unabated rising ageing population.  Government estimates have put local population of elderly persons aged 65 and above at 2.5 million by 2043, from 1.16 million in 2016.  Or, 1 in 3 persons will be an elderly in Hong Kong.  In view of this structural demographic shift that will no doubt bring far-reaching impact on the market and consumer rights and interests, early planning is warranted.  The Consumer Council has published a report entitled “Risk or Opportunity – a Study on Building an Age-friendly Consumption Environment” which found Hong Kong’s elderly are in general socially active and affluent in consumption spending.  But the study has also raised serious concerns that the impact of physical and cognitive decline is exposing ageing consumers to become vulnerable targets of unfair trade practices. 

The Council believes that the risks posed by an ageing population can be turned into a golden opportunity for an emerging silver economy should there be active participation and close collaboration of the Government, the business and other stakeholders together with the elderly consumers.  Overseas experience has shown governments playing an active role in devising policy with foresight, and the business and other stakeholder with an attitude of respect and care for the elderly, should put words into action and strive jointly towards an age-friendly consumption environment.   

The study was conducted through survey and complaints analyses, focus group discussions in addition to review of overseas experiences in exploring the consumption patterns of the ageing consumers, their unpleasant consumption experiences encountered and subsequent reaction; and on the basis of the findings put forward proposals for the building of an age-friendly consumption environment in Hong Kong.  Between October and December 2016, a total of 1,779 respondents were interviewed on-street and on-site in elderly centres; the respondents aged 55-79 were divided into 2 groups – the “soon-to-be-old” (55-64), and “the elderly” ones (65-79).

       The survey found almost 40% of the respondents (38.7%) had encountered unpleasant experiences in consumption of at least once in the past year, with approximately one-third (28.9%) of the incidents related to unfair trade practices.

On the basis of the population demographics, the report categorized 4 types of vulnerabilities in relation to the ageing consumers’ physical, emotional, cognitive and mobility conditions.  Among the respondents, some 45% professed to have at least one vulnerability.  The analysis found that ageing consumers with one vulnerability, their likelihood of encountering unfair trade practices would increase by 99%, and for those with multiple vulnerabilities of two or more their chances would leap further by another fold to 198%.  The situation warrants immediate attention.

The findings revealed the market currently is not taking good care of the needs of the elderly.  A vast majority of the respondents (71.7%) in the survey opined that there were insufficient choices of goods and services in the market suitable for the elderly consumers.  Among the 10 most patronised sectors, only 3 – public transportation, banking and medical services – were rated favourably with satisfaction by more than 50% of the respondents.  The rest recorded a below 50% satisfaction rate with insurance, travel and elderly home design services came last with satisfaction rates under 30%.

The challenge of ageing population presents, at the same time, both risk and opportunity.  If different sectors of the community turn a blind eye and take no action to the myriad of problems facing the elderly, it would be difficult for them to place confidence in the market.   The prospect of a robust and healthy silver economy will naturally suffer.  However, if all stakeholders including the Government and business anticipate the challenge and collaborate closely towards building an age-friendly consumption environment, it could turn the risk into an opportunity for a better future.

The report observed that as post-war baby boomers soon to join the ranks of the elderly, with their education attainment and personal income generally higher than their older generation and better retirement protection benefits, the consumption power at their disposal cannot be dismissed lightly. Indeed the respondents in the survey reported a monthly average income of over $9,000 and total monthly average expenses of about $6,300.  A closer examination showed that among the “soon-to-be-old”, 44.8% of them were still holding a job with monthly average income and expenditure of over $10,000 and $7,300 respectively.  Therefore, when the “soon-to-be-old” become older, they could be expected to have spending power even higher than their present elderly cohorts.

The consumption patterns of the ageing consumers in fact reflected their active socialized lifestyle.  The top 3 recurrent items comprised transportation, dining out and telecommunications while the top 3 non-recurrent were entertainment / hobbies / leisure/ refresher courses, festive / birthday, and gifts for other occasions.  A further analysis of their aggregate expenditure revealed that apart from basic housing, meals and public service, over 10% were spent on recurrent expenses on apparels, health and personal care.

As for non-recurrent items, it is worth noting that travel, entertainment / hobbies / leisure/ refresher courses and massage services for the enjoyment of life took up nearly 40% of their aggregate expenditure; similarly festive / gifts expenses also accounted for 40%, reflecting an active lifestyle of the present day elderly, which is conducive to the growth of silver economy.

In addition, in the analysis of consumer complaints lodged with the Council, from October 2015 to June 2018, by consumers aged 55 above, it was found that the top 3 complaint categories were telecommunications services (23.6%), electrical appliances (11.2%) and travel (6.5%), totaling 40% of all complaints lodged by those aged 55 above.  The complaint statistics analysis and the findings from the survey on the expenditures and satisfaction level on different sectors are very similar, it reinforces that the performance of the related trades in their age-friendly measures has left much to be desired.  In the case of the telecom services, for instance, the typical problems identified were: sales promotion of products unsuitable for use by the elderly, lack of notification on the part of the trader prior to contract renewal, poor customer service and behavior of retail staff, resulting in unpleasant experiences to the ageing consumers.

The Council stressed that all stakeholders concerned play an important role in building an age-friendly consumption environment and having policy support is the first and foremost step.  The study has drawn reference from overseas experience in elderly consumer protection, and found in nations including UK, Australia, EU, Singapore, the US and Japan, governments there have all played an active role jointly with various sectors in devising measures through a macro policy framework, in laying the foundation for the growth of an age-friendly consumption environment.  For instance, the Australian Department of Social Services has run volunteers training to help enhance the elderly digital skills; Singapore government has devised a standard road map for its silver industry; and Japan has amended its consumer protection legislations to provide consumers the right to cancel contracts for excessive quantities purchased, in order to safeguard the rights and interests of the underprivileged, which includes the elderly.

               With reference to overseas experience and a review of various measures to support the elderly in Hong Kong, the Consumer Council suggested that the Government to provide a long-term and clear framework for elderly consumer protection through policy formulation to facilitate cross-sector collaboration between business, NGOs and academia to build an age-friendly consumption environment, in an effort to empower them against various unfair trade practices and to take an active part in a market of rapidly changing business and consumption models.

Recommendations to the Government: formulate policy to solicit cross-sector collaboration

-Develop gerontechnology under a long-term policy;
-Adopt “ageing well” or “age-friendly” as the theme for various innovation and technology fund applications;
-Facilitate start-up companies to turn their inventions into marketable age-friendly products through incubation programmes of the Science Park and Cyberport;
-Enhance money management tools developed by the Investor Education Centre (IEC) to support the ageing consumers to manage pre-payment purchases;
-Capitalise on the web-based learning portal to be launched by the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, and develop it into a one-stop information portal on consumer protection in the long run.

Recommendations to the business sector: increase diversity of goods and services

- Develop age-friendly operation guidelines or best practices;
- Provide an age-friendly shopping environment, customer service and specific guidelines on user interface;
- Provide diversified goods and services for ageing consumers.

Recommendations to the other stakeholders: Collaborate to empower ageing consumers for fair participation

- Reinforce effective interpersonal support at community level through cross-sector collaboration between the NGOs, academia, community organizations;
- Make good use of the existing volunteer support networks, incorporate consumer protection for the elderly into centralized training plans; further develop the initiative into a “Senior Consumer Ambassador” programme to assist the elderly in seeking redress for various consumer disputes;
- Strengthen elderly-consumption related contents in conventional media.

The building of an age-friendly consumption environment requires all stakeholders in the society to face and share the responsibility.  The Consumer Council is convinced that with the continued support of the Government and the cross-sector collaboration, the age-friendly practices and voluntary codes would be blossomed in the society, empowering the ageing consumers and increasing their confidence to the marketplace.  With all the effects, robust and healthy silver economy, and a win-win for all parties concerned – the society, the Government, the elderly and the business could be realized.