Recession a time for shoppers' revenge

Economic storm clouds are looming, the global economy is teetering on the brink of recession and general doom and gloom is descending. But there may be a silver lining in all this bad news - at least for us long-suffering consumers.

The start of the hard times may mean fewer arrogant shopkeepers and taxi drivers who don't give a damn, as well as less of the poor service that generally marks periods when the cash registers are ringing and finding customers is as easy as fishing in a barrel.

As the easy money dries up and consumers tighten their purse strings, these people may not take us so much for granted. They will actually have to start giving good service if they want to stay in business.

Hong Kong consumers are not a happy bunch judging by recent figures - and a record number of complaints last year to the Consumer Council. The council handled 38,521 complaint cases relating to goods and services last year, an increase of 7 per cent, or 2,559 cases, over 2006.

An example of what too much easy money can do to a lazy businessman: my wife was looking at a camera in an electronic store and asked if she could see a demonstration model - a reasonable request if you are going to spend several thousand dollars on an expensive piece of electronics.

'No', growled the surly shopkeeper. 'This is a hot item. It is sold out in other stores and other people will buy it without seeing inside the box. I do not need to open it.' Needless to say my wife walked out.

Of course, many Hong Kong businesses provide excellent service - this is after all an Asian city famed for its retail therapy. But it seems economic booms bring out the greedy worst in some of our business community.

Look at some of the great little shops and restaurants that have been forced out of local neighbourhoods when money-grubbing landlords double their rents. Or the tycoons who talk up the stock market, only to see the little investor burned when the shares take a bath.

It's little wonder that this short-term, narrow-minded attitude that the good times will keep rolling forever filters down to the street level.

Business owners may point to the fact that the city's robust economy means it is harder to find good employees and that poor service is sometimes unavoidable if you can only hire substandard staff.

But the buck stops with the man or woman at the top and if they can't recruit the right people then they shouldn't be in business.

Some of the best service I have ever experienced was during the Sars outbreak of 2003 when prospects for the city's economy were at their lowest. Retailers would go out of their way to seal a deal and taxi drivers would offer discounts for long journeys.

These days taxi drivers, who in the past would have rounded up to the nearest dollar when they calculated a fare, have started rounding up to the nearest five dollars. It is as if they expect you to reward their greed. And if you pre-book a taxi in peak times you face having to pay the usual service charge as well as an extra HK$20 or HK$30 to ensure they pick you up at all.

Recessions are necessary economic evils that weed out inefficient manufacturers and speculators and give the wheels of industry time to rejuvenate and replenish.

They also hopefully get rid of lazy retailers and replace them with business people who realise they shouldn't take their customers for granted.

Our loyalty could be a lifeline for them during an economic downturn, so they need to treat us with respect and care during both good and bad times.

So it is time to batten down the hatches, tighten our belts and prepare for a slowing global economy. It is also time for business people to polish their welcoming smiles and prepare to go the extra mile for their customers. The consumer is king once again.

Glen Norris is a business news editor at the Post