City Beat

Taiwanese sandwich drama shows challenges for e-commerce retailers

Sandwich affair sheds light on the challenges for Ricky Wong's HKTV Mall

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 12:17am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 12:58pm

How special does a sandwich have to be for it to become a sought-after gift?” That question has suddenly become a hot topic of debate in town after dozens of people fell ill from eating Horng Ryen Jen sandwiches.

The Taiwanese brand became an overnight sensation as a succession of bloggers and food columnists in Hong Kong listed it as a must-buy item for tourists. That, too, triggered debate. After all, a sandwich is just a sandwich, isn’t it?

While all of this sudden acclaim could’ve been the result of a publicity campaign, the fact online shopping is becoming more popular helped take the brand to those who were not planning an imminent tour of the island. The orders came flooding in as comments about the special taste spread round.

But the rapid rise in the popularity of the brand has come to a grinding halt as tests on those who fell ill revealed they had contracted salmonella, and health authorities banned imports and sales – though online orders continue.

Many saw this as a straightforward food safety issue. But it also raises the question of how we ensure the quality and safety of products ordered online to the benefit of consumers and the reputation of e-commerce retailers.

Health minister Dr Ko Wing-man admitted the other day that food safety and hygiene regulations for products ordered online are relatively loose, adding that the government would study the rules and consider whether there was a need to tighten standards.

It is arguable whether regulations alone guarantee food safety. Still, the lack of proper regulation is something the government cannot ignore, given that e-commerce is booming everywhere – not least in Hong Kong, where one tech-savvy entrepreneur last week launched an ambitious new online shopping platform

Like him or not, everyone must admit that Ricky Wong Wai-kay is creative and never short of ideas. After failing to win a free-to-air television licence for his HKTV, he is now putting e-commerce at the heart of his business with a vow to build an online “shopping paradise”.

This will surely be no easy task, though I find his idea of a HKTV Mall, for which he launched a huge promotional campaign last week, quite attractive.

There has long been debate about whether e-commerce can really take off in Hong Kong. The city is, after all, a shopping paradise, with fancy, modern stores and slick public transport that makes it convenient to get to them. Going to the mall is a pleasant experience, not just a case of stepping out to get needed goods. Shopping websites, by contrast, tend to rely more on keen pricing.

But Wong is right: there is a trend towards e-commerce and there is no excuse for Hong Kong to be left behind. And he will not be confined to the city, with overseas expansion planned.

Well, this column is not about discussing the right business model to support Wong’s ambitions. It’s simply a coincidence that his latest venture coincided with the with the development of the sandwich drama, which focused the government’s attention on health issues raised by online shopping. This surely presents a new challenge for Wong and others keen to cultivate a share of this new market. After all, whether the mall is virtual or real, keeping consumers safe and happy is essential.

It was good, therefore, to see Wong personally step in to handle a complaint from a HKTV Mall customer to whom the wrong product was delivered. This won Wong much applause, and showed the effect of a personal touch. Regardless of format, in retailing, showing heart in serving customers is a guarantee of success.