Making inflated profits is a talent, not a crime

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 November, 1997, 12:00am

Hong Kong is a paradise for peddlers and pavement artists of all kinds. In spite of the best efforts of the Urban Services Department, we are regularly pestered by people pushing fliers, or selling a range of items from paper tissues to plastic Rolexes.

This is all part of life's rich pageant and includes occasional young men selling speakers from the backs of vans. I had always supposed the speakers were stolen, actually.

According to a story in last week's Post, though, the speakers were legitimate - up to a point: it seemed a company had been shipping in 600 speakers every three days.

They were sold for between $6,000 and $10,000 a pair, depending, presumably, on your success in haggling. The salesmen paid $2,850 for the speakers. They were worth, according to police, about $500.

The story went on to say that the salesmen often told people the speakers were worth $10,000. Apparently the importing company would not, under any circumstances, take the speakers back so the salesmen were under some pressure to unload them come what may.

The story quoted a senior policeman as saying that some people had the speakers shoved into their cars, and then threatened to get them to pay.

This would be deplorable behaviour of course, but the story had some curious features.

Officers, it said, had raided two companies in Shau Kei Wan and Chai Wan and seized more than 2,000 speakers. Then 11 salesmen were arrested as they arrived at the offices in Fanling. The proprietor of the company was questioned and released.

Nobody had been caught threatening anyone. All the suspects spent the night in Wan Chai police station.

And the question which then arises is: why? Of course, no gentleman would dream of selling a speaker worth $500 for $10,000. But the world is full of people who are not gentlemen and it is not uncommon for nearly valueless things to be sold at inflated prices.

Hong Kong is full of minute flats whose owners ask - and get - millions of dollars for them.

Any decent hotel will sell you a cup of coffee for $40, quite unbothered by the knowledge the ingredients are worth a few cents.

At least a cup of coffee is a cup of coffee. How many times do you buy a piece of computer software and discover upon arriving home that, because of some mysterious incompatibility, it will not work at all? Of course we would not condone people using threats or violence to effect a sale, and the police must take action against those who do such things.

But it was difficult to avoid the impression that in this case - at least as reported - the offence lay not in overzealous salesmanship but in selling goods which were not worth as much as the customer might have supposed, or been led to believe by the salesmen.

This is deplorable behaviour but if it is going to be an arrestable offence, I can't help thinking the Wan Chai police can find some prime suspects a good deal nearer to their home patch than Fanling.

In these grim economic times many Hong Kong people are the unhappy owners of shares which they had been led to believe would make large sums of money for them.

Diligent enquiries would surely reveal that in many cases the value of these investments had been grossly exaggerated by those selling them.

Actually it is almost axiomatic that any product which you cannot see and test before you buy it will be talked up by its salesperson. This is what salespeople are for.

I fear half the people who read the overpriced speakers story will have thought it an inspiring example of the spirit which made Hong Kong what it is today. Buy something for $2,850 and sell it for $10,000? What vision, what drive, what business acumen! I have not seen any more news of the 11 arrested men. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, they are charged with. Perhaps they could be adopted by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce as prisoners of conscience.

It would be a pity if the business community lost the only human right it takes seriously: the right to make an outrageous profit from your fellow men.