One woman's crusade to stop the rot in Hong Kong's beauty and fitness industry

A local start-up seeks to improve the quality of Hong Kong's fitness and wellness services

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 August, 2015, 12:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 August, 2015, 12:10am

Imagine one day you are stopped on the street by a promoter working for a fitness centre. You receive a scratch card and - voila - you've won a prize. The promoter then escorts you to the centre to collect your reward.

There, you are invited to take a free fitness assessment. Results show you have some health problems, and based on this you're persuaded to buy a membership. You agree to buy a 36-month membership, which the staff says can be paid by monthly instalments of HK$380.

But it turns out you're charged in full: HK$13,688. You question the staff and they explain the instalment scheme refers to that offered by a credit card and you'd have to apply for it directly with the bank.

This happened to one man in a case cited by Hong Kong's Consumer Council. The man lodged a complaint to the fitness centre's manager but to no avail. So he sought help from the Consumer Council. The fitness centre proposed to shorten the contract period from three years to one year. In the absence of any substantial evidence of misrepresentation, the man had no choice but to accept the offer.

Cases involving dubious sales tactics and services by beauty and fitness centres in the city are on the rise, Consumer Council statistics show. There were 1,140 complaints lodged against beauty services and 520 against fitness centres last year, a rise of 5.4 per cent and 10.2 per cent respectively from 2013.

Those figures look likely to be exceeded this year: the first seven months saw 795 and 312 complaints in beauty and fitness services respectively.

A new Hong Kong start-up hopes to help reverse this trend and enforce quality control of the city's beauty, fitness and wellness services. Spa Monkeys aims to do this by getting all Hongkongers involved as watchdogs, what founder Phoebe Song calls a "collective quality control culture".

"The industry is a crowded marketplace, yet there are no solid referencing systems in place that do more than user reviews," says Song, a former analyst in banking and finance. "Not all businesses are bad - there are some very good ones out there. There's just no way of filtering out the good from the bad."

Good merchants - that is, those approved by the start-up - are listed on its website, Members of the public, who need to register as users on the website, are encouraged to rate merchants and suggest new ones. The website launched about a month ago, and so far there are about 50 merchants on board.

Businesses get Spa Monkey's seal of approval - a logo sticker on their store door - if they have been vetted and sign the Spa Monkeys code of conduct. The code, drawn up in consultation with industry experts, includes: no hard selling; no misleading; no sale of packages over three sessions without a signed customer agreement form; consistent quality service standard; and sanitary practices and conditions.

Any complaint or negative review received through is noted and brought to the merchant's attention. A merchant with more than four bad reviews will be investigated and potentially removed from the list.

I was horrified by how unpredictable the service quality in the industry was
Phoebe Song, Spa Monkeys

Getting a basic listing on Spa Monkeys doesn't cost businesses a cent, says Song. "The high quality businesses that have nothing to hide sign right away," she says. "The dodgy ones see the risk on their side and they're hesitant."

Businesses also have the option of paying Spa Monkeys a five-figure sum for full business support - everything from logistics to e-commerce, marketing and PR. Paid merchants will also get publicity on the Spa Monkeys blog.

But if the business doesn't comply with the code of conduct, Song won't accept their money. "I've been kicked out of a business and called an idiot because I don't accept payment to put a merchant on the database," says Song.

The key mission of Spa Monkeys is to crush the culture of packages, she says, because it is the root of the problem. Packages enforce customer retention, which ensures cash flow and business survival. Consequently, staff, who are offered commission-based incentives to sell packages, devise all sorts of tactics to make customers buy.

"Many times the service quality goes down even after the packages are bought because the staff are no longer motivated to maintain service standards. There is also a risk of the business going under, making it almost impossible to get the money back safely in that event," says Song.

A team of 10 to 20 mystery shoppers hired by Spa Monkeys visit businesses regularly to ensure standards are being met and kept. Song says her mystery shoppers have many "horror stories" to tell (see sidebar).

Song's own experiences using skin, hair and fitness services in Hong Kong since she moved to the city four years ago was the inspiration for Spa Monkeys.

"I was horrified by how unpredictable the service quality in the industry was. Staff were constantly pressuring me to sign up to packages that were expensive, I had allergic reactions to bad products, and I was even injured once when a nail technician cut me by accident because she wasn't trained well," she says.

"Everyone I knew or spoke to had the same issues, so we came up with the idea to create a system that would help everyone."

Song, born in Australia to Taiwanese parents, studied hospitality at hotel school in Montreux, Switzerland. She went on to work in business and finance, where a large part of her role was due diligence and research. Aptly, she's applied those skills to Spa Monkeys.

Although it's early days for her business, Song says she's already been invited by Singapore government officials to start Spa Monkeys in the city state.

A Spa Monkeys membership programme will be launched soon, whereby members will get discounts on treatments at up to five chosen Spa Monkeys' paid merchants. "This is how we plan to break the package culture," says Song. "Businesses don't need to sell packages, and customers will return anyway."


Why all is not well in the wellness industry


Here are some instances of dodgy practices by beauty, fitness and wellness practitioners, according to Spa Monkeys

  • Potential customers being told they are fat, ugly and unhealthy, and bullied into signing fitness memberships, beauty treatments and weight loss products.
  • One mystery shopper being locked in a room of a gym for 45 minutes while getting the hard sell, and only being let out after convincing staff she was a student with no money.
  • In a case of discrimination, a therapist denying a potential client a service because of race.
  • Manicure and pedicure equipment rinsed only with hot water and wiped - not sterilised in alcohol - with the same tools used on hundreds of people.
  • Poorly trained staff who cause bleeding during waxing, laser burns, bruising and cuts.
  • Replacing branded treatment products with inferior ones after marketing and selling the treatment on the strength of the branded product.
  • Misleading promotions, unclear terms and conditions, hidden fine print, pre-charging membership to credit cards without consent.