Diners find hidden restaurant charges hard to swallow

Restaurants urged to be more transparent on pricing as Consumer Council reports 13pc increase in complaints by dissatisfied diners

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 4:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 9:26am

Diners are finding unreasonable hidden charges in their restaurant bills increasingly hard to swallow, the consumer watchdog has found.

The Consumer Council recorded 423 complaints about restaurants in the first half of the year alone, a 13 per cent increase from the same period a year ago.

Practices complained about included prices being rounded up to whole numbers and charity donations being added without consent. Most involved negligible amounts of money, reflecting "strong consumer dissatisfaction over unfair trade practices rather than personal loss", the watchdog said.

One case highlighted in the watchdog's Choice magazine this month involved a diner who found his dim sum bill of HK$55.44, which included a 10 per cent service charge, to have been rounded up to HK$56.

He was told the company's computer system rounded all decimals to the nearest whole number. It was noted in small print at the entrance and on the dim sum price lists.

In another case, a complainant was charged an extra dollar on her bill for a charity donation she was not aware of or told about.

Professor Michael Hui King-man, chairman of the council's publicity and community relations committee, said the absence of specific legislation regulating the charging and billing practices in the trade allowed restaurants to set their own price and charging strategies.

But with the amended Trade Description Ordinance now extended to cover both goods and services, restaurants were at greater risk of breaching the "misleading omissions" statute in more serious cases, he said.

"As long as they are informed, many customers don't even mind because the amount is so small," Hui said.

"The thing about misleading omissions is whether the extent of it is enough to substantiate a charge under the ordinance." He urged restaurants to clearly display all prices and charges.

Yeung Wai-sing, chairman of the Association of Hong Kong Catering Services Management, said since the ordinance was amended last year, restaurants had been under greater pressure to comply for fear of penalties.

He said the rising number of complaints did not reflect more unscrupulous practices but rather, declining service standards in the local catering industry and a dire labour shortage.

"All information is provided on the menu. But these days, why would a waiter bother to explain to a customer in detail what the pricing scheme is when he also has to be the cashier, cleaner and server?" Yeung said.

He said catering service standards, even for restaurant managers, had declined to one of the "worst levels in East Asia".

By the end of last year, the Customs and Excise Department had received 1,303 complaints of false trade descriptions and 346 cases of misleading omissions.