Time to shop around

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 November, 2010, 12:00am

You've got to admire Pong Yat-ming. He's taking a one-person stand against the big companies that rule our lives through their control of so much of what we do. By buying from small, family-run shops instead of chain stores, and cycling, he figures he'll help inspire a movement to break their dominance. In the weeks since his crusade began, he's saved hundreds of dollars.

I've long been aware that the ParknShops, Mannings and the like of this world have used convenience to spin a bigger-than-others profit. With shops in good locations that are big by Hong Kong standards, they can stock a wide array of popular products. As they're one-stop shops, it's easy to fall into the trap of making every purchase from them. Little do we realise that a good number of the items can be found elsewhere for markedly lower prices.

Being a foreigner in a part of town where I am overwhelmingly a minority, I can meet my tastes only by shopping around. Typically, my weekly grocery needs require trips to at least three supermarkets in addition to regular forays to a nearby wet market. That has exposed me to the wide array of prices that are being charged for the most basic of items. The more unfamiliar they are to the local populace, the greater the chance of price gouging.

With inflation biting into my budget, I figured last Saturday it was time to take the Pong approach. First, a shop around to check prices, starting with the Vanguard supermarket in my building, then the Wellcome across the street, to ParknShop via a Mannings and finally, the small stores in the wet market. The supermarket chains swear blind that they don't collude on prices, but it was intriguing to notice that of 10 items ranging from instant noodles to milk, they were charging exactly the same for seven. Less than half of what I needed could be bought from the small shops, but what they offered cost up to 40 per cent less.

The price differences were shocking. ParknShop and Wellcome have enormous buying power; each have more than 250 stores in Hong Kong and through subsidiaries of their parent companies Cheung Kong and Jardine Matheson, extensive retail networks in the region. Such purchasing strength means that they should be able to offer a fair price. That they obviously can, but don't, gives reason to join Pong.

So I tried - but quickly gave up. Apart from supermarkets having gained a monopoly on necessities like rice and milk, time became a factor. Although buying washing powder, six bars of soap and shampoo from small shops put an extra $52.40 in my pocket, it soon became apparent that my day would be lost meeting grocery needs. Another tactic is necessary.

I'd like to think it can be found in the competition law before legislators, but chain stores charging what they think they can get away with isn't part of that. Nor is such legislation likely to be meaningful as long as the definitions of anti-competitive practices being discussed remain so broad. Ultimately, fairer prices lie in the government revamping its land policy so that property can be bought and rented at less exorbitant rates, which opens up competition. But we can forget any such shift, as tinkering would cause the property market to crash and slash government revenue, which for a century and a half has been centred on land auctions.

So if we want to pay fair prices, we shouldn't depend on an organic or legislative change. Instead, like minds have to come together and do what Hong Kong does best: entrepreneurship. That means food co-operatives that find suppliers, buy in bulk and collectively meet costs. With our city's free-port status, it's simple.

The idea is far from new, but has undergone a resurgence across Europe and North America. It's not just in Hong Kong where people feel that big business has too much of a hold. In the barest form, co-operatives order in what neighbours have decided they want and distribute the goods. With ambition and sophistication, some have evolved into markets, clubs and shops.

Companies need trust to serve communities. Questionable business practices mean that some in Hong Kong have lost our faith. Perhaps it's time to return to traditional ways of trade.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post



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