Consumers Alerted for Increased Complaints against Sales Practices of Beauty and Fitness Centers

15 June 2015
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Beauty and fitness centers often drum up new business by offering discount coupons, free trials and even free gifts to consumers as enticement, and then logged consumers into different form of contracts. Such sales practices are widely reviled by the public. Consumer complaints against beauty and fitness services received in 2014 rose 5.4% and 10.2% respectively year on year. In just the first 4 months of this year, complaints in these two categories have reached 395 and 156 cases respectively. The situation is worth alerting.

In one of the cases, the complainant visited Beauty Salon A to take trial of a moisturizing treatment at a favorite price of HK$98. While she was waiting for the treatment to start, however, she was persuaded to enroll in the "Pretty Lady Contest" to enjoy unlimited free use of a variety of beauty equipment. The top three winners of the contest will also receive cash awards ranging from HK$50,000 to HK$150,000, effectively setting-off all costs possibly incurred.

According to the staff, the contest would be based on the effect of the treatments, and since the complainant had fairly dry skin, the effect should be very prominent and she stood a high chance to win.

The complainant eventually decided to enroll in the contest. No sooner had she signed the agreement, than she realized the plan not only covered the "Pretty Lady Treatment" priced at HK$21,600, but also another pricy treatment of HK$50,400 which was never mentioned to her before.

She also found out later that all participating "Pretty Ladies" would have to complete a full set of 200 treatments in only half a year's time. She queried whether it was a practical requirement for contestants to undergo more than one treatment a day consecutively throughout the six-month contesting period. At this point, the complainant believed that the beauty salon had seriously misled her. She requested to cancel the deal but in vain. She then turned to the Council for assistance.

Upon conciliation of the Council, Beauty Salon A insisted that the terms and conditions were clearly explained to the complainant before she signed the agreement, and thus refused a refund. The Council recommended the complainant to make claims through other avenues or consider referring the case to the Customs and Excise Department.

In another case, the complainant received a scratch card from a street promoter working for Fitness Center B and "easily" won a prize. When he was escorted to the fitness center for prize collection, he was invited to take a free fitness assessment and the result indicated that he had some health problems. Unsurprisingly, the complainant was then talked into joining a membership program.

After a series of persuasion, the complainant agreed to purchase a membership for 36 months. Staff of the Center stated plainly that the fee could be paid by installments at HK$380 per month. Nonetheless, the complainant was charged in full of HK$13,688 in one go for the three-year membership. When queried, staff explained that the "so-called pay by installments" referred to the payment installment schemes a credit card holder was eligible and he had to apply for it directly with the bank. The complainant made a complaint to the manager of the fitness center but to no avail. He therefore sought help from the Council for redress. Upon conciliation, Fitness Center B proposed to shorten the contract period from three years to one year. In the absence of any substantial evidence of misrepresentation, the complainant had no choice but accepted the offer.

The third case also happened in a fitness center. The complainant joined a trial class at Fitness Center C and was talked into taking a package of 36 customized lessons conducted by two personal trainers at the cost of HK$23,760. Soon after she signed up, she was persuaded to take up more intensive training by two other experienced senior trainers so as to optimize the results. The complainant finally agreed to sign another contract for 84 private lessons at HK$55,440.

Later she was arranged to receive training from a "top-grade" personal trainer who charged a higher fee and she readily entered into a contract for 30 lessons at HK$24,000. She was assured that there would not be any further changes of trainers. Observing a noticeable improvement in her body shape after the training, the complainant was persuaded to subscribe additional 30 lessons, which she turned down due to financial burden. Instead, she signed to a new plan of 24 lessons at HK$18,000. However, the "top-grade" personal trainer quitted the job shortly after she signed up and she was assigned to another trainer charging lower fees. The complainant therefore asked for a refund but was rejected.

After the Council's intervention, Fitness Center C still insisted that the contract specified that change of personal trainer was allowed and flatly refused the refund request. After rounds of negotiation, a settlement agreement was reached. Fitness Center C agreed to allow the complainant to redeem the unused lessons in exchange for other beauty services provided by the center.

The above cases are not unusual. The complainants were credulous about sales talk which turned out to be falling short of reality. Here are some suggestions for consumers:

  • Review terms and conditions of an agreement in great details before signing up. If a trader refuses to explain it thoroughly before signing, consumer should decide wisely whether to proceed or not.
  • The trader has no right to withhold consumers' belongings, such as credit card, for the purpose of putting pressure to purchase. Such sales practice, in fact, could have possibly breached the Trade Descriptions Ordinance. Suspected unlawful detention of consumers by any trader should also be reported to the police immediately.
  • Should a salesperson deliberately omit or hide any important information from consumers, or cover up his real business intentions and purposes with a lucky draw or competition, this may be regarded as an offence of misleading omission under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.
  • It is also an offence if a salesperson applies a false or misleading trade description to a product he or she offered.
  • Credit card installment is essentially no difference from a loan from card issuing organization which would not be involved in any dispute between consumers and traders. Even when the consumers are dissatisfied with the service or denied of the services due to closure of the business, card holders may still have to continue repaying balance of the loan.
  • As beauty and fitness agreements generally involve prepayment, consumers may have to bear unexpected risks and consequences themselves such as bankruptcy of the traders. Therefore, consumers are advised to understand their real needs and think twice before making a purchase decision.

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