Buyer beware

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 12:00am

Caveat emptor' or 'Let the buyer beware', is good advice but, in this day and age, when increasingly sophisticated products flood the market, it is literally impossible for a purchaser to adequately examine an item before deciding whether to buy.

Manufacturers provide warranties for their products so that if defects should emerge within a certain period, usually a year, they will either replace the article or repair it.

It may be my imagination, but increasingly, it seems, products - from toasters to fax machines - are made to break down a year and a half after their purchase.

These days we are highly dependent on electronic gadgets, whose manufacturers are constantly coming out with new models. Naturally, perhaps, they are more eager to push new product lines than to repair existing items.

Recently, my Ericsson phone broke down, a phone I rarely used and then only to make outgoing calls. I took it to the Sony-Ericsson service centre in Causeway Bay. There, I was told I had to pay $150 before a technician would even look at the phone.

And there was no way to tell how much more I would end up paying, since no one knew how much work would be involved, whether spare parts would be needed and, if so, how much they would cost.

The person at the counter advised me to buy a new phone rather than fix the existing one. He showed me a range of products on display and told me where to go to purchase a new phone.

The company was obviously eager to promote new models and was not enthusiastic about providing a repair service. I accepted his advice since I could not tell how much the repair would cost.

As a taxi took me away, I noticed a sign that said 'telephone repair'. I suddenly realised there were other options. Eventually, the telephone was inspected for free and repaired for $250.

That was a story with a happy ending. Another story, however, remains unfinished.

My IBM laptop also broke down, and on August 18 I took it to the IBM service centre in Quarry Bay. There, I was told I would have to pay a minimum service charge of $700. Just as with my telephone, I could not know the ultimate charge because there was no telling how much parts and labour might cost.

In any event, I was told, I would be informed about the final cost after two working days. I could then decide whether to go ahead and pay the entire amount or forfeit the $700.

Not having a viable alternative, I agreed. Ten days later, I still had not heard from IBM and so telephoned them.

I was told they did not know how much the repair job would cost because they were waiting to hear from the parts centre.

Five days later, they still had not heard from the parts centre. By September 14, when I had not heard anything, I lodged a complaint with the Hong Kong Consumer Council. I hope they have better luck.

The consumer council, it turned out, regularly receives complaints from the public about electronic products.

Where computers are concerned, they received 616 complaints last year, of which 584 had to do with hardware. There were 941 complaints from users of mobile telephones.

Manufacturers, it seems, do not want to be responsible for older product lines, hoping customers will keep buying new products that come on the market.

And the individual consumer is in a weak position to resist.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator