Undercover visitor reveals slimming centre excesses

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2010, 12:00am

If Shylock was merciless in asking Antonio for a pound of flesh, what is a local slimming centre salesman who asked a slightly overweight man to shed 30 kilograms?

Unprofessional, according to the Consumer Council.

Unfortunately for the salesman, the slimmer was a mystery customer engaged by the council to inspect the city's slimming and fitness centres and did not buy into the plan.

The centre told the man, who was 1.77 metres tall and weighed 83kg, that he was severely overweight, and had 30kg of excess fat.

Other centres advised him to lose 7kg to 10kg, but according to the experts, even 10kg was too much. He needed to drop only 10 per cent of his weight - 8kg - gradually over 30 weeks, the University of Hong Kong's School of Biological Sciences said.

The case was one of many exposed by the council yesterday in an attempt to alert consumers to the parlours' dubious and baffling practices.

Complaints about them are growing: 469 in 2008, 514 last year and 777 in the first 10 months of this year. One in four complainants were from males, the council said. Apart from the wrong assessment of weight needed to be lost, other common disputes involve hard-sell tactics, termination and renewal of contracts, problems over refunding prepaid fees, as well as closure of shops.

In one case, a claim to 'reduce a belly' by 10cm in eight weeks was found upon inquiries to mean a total reduction, including the chest, stomach and areas around the waist, instead of just the stomach, as most people would expect.

The council also found that salespeople used tactics where they would start discussing memberships at a high price, and then lower it until the customer bought in. One beauty centre offered a 10-session slimming course, coming down from an original price of HK$33,000 to HK$18,000. At a fitness centre, membership was offered for HK$13,000 and then cut to HK$7,800, with the membership period extended from 18 months to 27 months.

'Free trials' were not free: one fitness centre asked a client to pay a HK$150 service fee because he had not been referred to the club by a member, a prerequisite for the offer.

In another case, a health club was reluctant to offer a free trial, saying there would be neither a trainer nor insurance coverage.

Slimming courses ranged from HK$4,000 to HK$42,000, and memberships of fitness centres ranged from HK$2,600 for three months to HK$27,000 for three years, according to the council.

Philip Leung Kwong-hon from the council advised men wanting to lose weight to watch for the sales tricks and tactics. 'It's important to think twice before committing yourself to prepayment or auto payment,' he said.

There were 71 complaints about slimming centres in the first 10 months of this year.

There were about 120 last year and 150 in 2008.