Warning on weight-loss salons
Amy Nip and Agnes Lam
More slimming companies are luring customers into being their 'spokeswomen', but some of the women later regret it when they fail to meet weight-loss targets.
The women are told that if they meet their weight targets, they will be given the opportunity to become spokeswomen in advertisements. But the customers are required to pay a deposit to show their 'determination and sincerity' - and the sum is about the same as the market price of the treatment. If the woman cannot reach a designated weight, she may lose a month's deposit.
In the first eight months of this year, the Consumer Council received 31 complaints from women persuaded to become spokeswomen. There were 24 complaints last year.
Among them was a woman, with diabetes, who signed a contract in which she paid a deposit of HK$24,800, equivalent to the cost of 46 treatments.
To lose more weight to meet the target, she paid an additional HK$7,000 for acupuncture, but missed her first-month target.
She said she tried harder, but found the company slowed the progress of her treatments and required her to do less exercise. She decided the company was being dishonest, and reported the case to the council.
In another case, in which a spokeswoman succeeded in losing a certain amount of weight, she was required to report back to the centre every month for a year to see whether she was able to maintain the weight loss. If not, the instalment for that month was forfeited.
The city's consumer watchdog warned that there was no 'free lunch' in the commercial world.
'Contract terms stress that the effectiveness of a slimming programme depends on co-operation of participants,' said the vice-chairman of the council's publicity and community relations committee, Ron Hui Shu-yuen. 'It is hard to define whose responsibility it is' when a customer fails to lose weight.
It was hard for consumers to claim their money back once they had signed such contracts, he said. As much as HK$60,000 was involved in one of the slimming complaints the council received.
The watchdog is negotiating with the beauty sector for a cooling-off period during which a consumer can retreat from a deal.
Danny Chan Chung-cheung, a member of a slimming centre's 'victim' alliance, said dozens of cases were referred to the Consumer Council in the past few months.
About 20 per cent were settled with the council's help, the victims receiving varying levels of refund, Chan said. 'There are still some new victims, and we find that the amount of money involved has increased. In earlier cases, the amount was about HK$20,000 to HK$30,000, but now we find more cases involving more than HK$40,000.'
The alliance would continue to help victims regain their deposits, Chan said. 'If a victim negotiates with a slimming centre alone, usually the victim will get nothing back. But if we do it as a group, the bargaining power is much stronger.'
The chairman of the Federation of Beauty Industry, Nelson Ip Sai-hung, said the marketing managed to capture the desire for a perfect figure, but the strategy was illogical.
'The slimming centres are telling potential customers they are being offered a job as spokeswoman. What kind of job would require a person being recruited to pay a deposit? Also, the slimming centres have full control over the effect of those treatments, while refunds are being made based on the treatment result.'
However, he said that though the promotions were high-profile, there were only a few companies involved.
A spokeswoman for the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said it was reviewing the consumer-protection legislation to tackle unfair trade practices better. It plans to formulate legislative proposals for public consultation by the end of this year or early next.