When people have unhappy experiences with shops or companies, they usually complain to the Consumer Council and if that doesn't work they go to court.
But the council is now evaluating a possibly simpler and cheaper way of resolving disputes: arbitration.
The watchdog announced yesterday that it was planning a feasibility study on establishing a consumer dispute arbitration system.
"The Consumer Council can provide conciliation [services] between consumers and companies, but we do not have the legal power to make any rulings," its chairman, Professor Wong Yuk-shan, said.
"Eighty per cent of the complaints we receive are resolved, but the remaining 20 per cent are not."
Those who failed to settle their disputes with the council's help might have to take their claims to court, a costly, time-consuming and stressful process, Wong said. "According to experiences overseas, arbitration is quicker and cheaper."
Arbitration is more powerful than conciliation or mediation - an arbitrator has the power to make legally binding rulings which neither party can ignore.
The council's deputy chief executive, Simon Chui Chun-king, said another appeal of arbitration was that, unlike courts, the process was confidential, which made it more popular with companies that wanted to keep disputes low-profile.
The council said Macau for years had operated a consumer arbitration centre that could settle disputes within 10 days, so it could be worthwhile for Hong Kong to explore the option.
In the meantime, the council might need an extra HK$15 million a year on top of its annual budget of HK$80 million to revamp its monthly publication Choice and to run studies on service improvements, Wong said.
Chief executive Gilly Wong Fung-han said the watchdog was looking into developing a mobile version of the magazine and improving its content to make it more appealing to young people.
The council will also revamp its website to add interactive functions and educational blogs, although it does not plan to accept complaints via the site. Gilly Wong said it was difficult to verify online sources.
It will also carry out studies into legal protection for consumers who make advance payments or online transactions. Other areas of interest include electricity market reform, the competition ordinance, regulation of private hospitals and the Mandatory Provident Fund.
The council will also devote more resources to surveys of consumer behaviour on beauty services and online shopping - areas that draw many complaints.