Day one of consumer protection law proves big deal

Bossini fashion chain fails to live up to 70pc-off posters; Wellcome twists its wording; and travel agency chooses not to show any prices at all

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 July, 2013, 4:18am

It was the first day in action for Hong Kong's new consumer protection law yesterday and some shops already appeared to be in danger of breaking the rules.

As the amended Trade Descriptions Ordinance came into effect yesterday, it became an offence for businesses to provide misleading information in order to persuade people to buy their goods or services.

In the city's malls, a great number of sale signs were still on display in shop windows.

Clothing chain Bossini proclaimed "up to 70 per cent off" on signs at the entrance to several of its outlets and more posters repeated the claim inside. Upon closer inspection, it appeared that shoppers may find items at half-price but would be hard-pressed to spot anything at the boasted discount.

When a Post reporter asked sales assistants where the 70-per-cent-off items could be found, she was shown an item priced down from HK$59 to HK$29 - barely 50 per cent off.

The posters appeared to put the store at odds with guidelines set by the Customs & Excise Department which has been given the task of enforcing the law.

It warns retailers that notices or advertisements proclaiming "up to 50 per cent off" for example should be avoided if the maximum reduction quoted only applies to a few products.

If the maximum reduction applies to less than 10 per cent of the product range, it is better to state clearly that only some specified products are entitled to the discount, it advises.

Some Levi's outlets were among stores advertising "50 per cent off selected items". However, inside it was difficult to hunt down items with this maximum discount.

Supermarkets, in particular, have come under fire in the past for confusing price tags.

In ParknShop, the crossed-out "original prices" which had been on many price tags on Thursday were nowhere to be seen yesterday.

For instance, a can of Mazola Whole Kernel Corn had been labelled as having an original price of HK$11.90 and an actual price of HK$8.90 two days ago. Yesterday, only the actual price of HK$8.90 remained on the tag.

Wellcome, however, appeared to have come up with a tactic which may fall into a legal grey area. Where it had featured the "original price" until recently, it now shows "standard price", while continuing to call the actual price a "special price".

Furthermore, Knife Pure Peanut Oil was labelled with a "standard price" of HK$158.90 and a "special price" of $107.90 on Thursday. Yesterday, the "special price" rose to HK$123.90 - meaning it had risen in price but is still referred to as a bargain.

Thomas Cheng, University of Hong Kong associate law professor, doubted if calling the "original price" by a new name would allow the chain to get around the rules.

"So long as what they call the 'standard price' suggests to consumers that it is the original price, it should fall within the ambit of the law," he said.

Some travel agencies appeared to be struggling to adapt, especially those selling rock-bottom tickets, which usually apply to a very limited number of seats per flight.

Explorer Travel Agency in Mong Kok had masked its sales posters with white paper rather than reveal special offers that may no longer be available.

Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung said other agencies were likewise choosing to play safe.

"Now, some agencies are deciding not to sell the more expensive tickets even if the cheaper ones have sold out," said Tung.

By 3pm yesterday, customs had received 95 inquiries and four complaints about pricing tactics via their hotline.

And by 5pm, the Consumer Council had received 25 inquiries and three complaints.