As Hong Kong businesses eye their slice of the government’s HK$36 billion voucher scheme to encourage spending, the city’s consumer watchdog has warned shoppers to read the fine print before grabbing early-bird offers popping up everywhere.
The Consumer Council received a handful of complaints last month, before Hongkongers started registering on July 4 for their HK$5,000 (US$640) electronic vouchers.
“We had consumer complaints even before the scheme began, because of a wave of early-bird offers from supermarkets, telecoms and beauty businesses,” council chief executive Gilly Wong Fung-han told the Post.
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“Consumers can easily get confused by all the offers and should take extra care in choosing payment system service providers and deals.”
As of July 9, about 4.5 million people or some 62 per cent of 7.2 million eligible residents had registered for their e-vouchers, which the government hopes will speed up the city’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
All residents and recent migrants from mainland China aged 18 and above are eligible for HK$5,000 worth of e-vouchers in two or three instalments beginning on August 1.
They can opt to receive the vouchers on their Octopus cards, or via three approved e-wallet systems – AlipayHK, Tap & Go and WeChat Pay HK – and will have at most five months to spend them on transport, retail shopping and dining.
The payment service providers have partnered with shopping centres and larger retail chains to roll out billions of dollars’ worth of perks, including rebates, lucky draws, concert tickets, smartphones and bonus point schemes.
For example, AlipayHK has announced HK$1.7 billion worth of perks through 100 merchants. It is affiliated with tech giant Alibaba, which owns the Post.
Wong urges spenders to check that the payment systems they have chosen can be used before they go to shops, restaurants, shopping centres or even hotels hoping to spend their vouchers.
Otherwise they may end up having to pay out of pocket, if the retailer does not accept their payment system.
“Even high-end restaurants do not necessarily accept these payment systems, for example,” she said.
People should also study the payment terms for whatever they buy as well as the conditions for cancelling deals or contracts if they change their minds.
She said people hoping to extend the time limit on the e-vouchers by using them to buy cash vouchers or gift coupons could end up worse off if the coupons had a shorter life and expired sooner.
“Consumers should keep receipts as evidence in the event of any disputes,” she advised.
Peter Shiu Ka-fai, the lawmaker representing the wholesale and retail sector, said businesses were excited by the scheme, which would give the sagging economy a much-needed boost.
Aside from injecting HK$36 billion into the economy, he hoped the vouchers would boost Hongkongers’ sentiment to start spending again. The government has estimated the scheme will add 0.7 per cent to the gross domestic product.
As far as the consumer watchdog is concerned, however, the improving economy and easing of social-distancing rules alongside the city’s vaccination campaign, are a signal of more consumer disputes to come.
Wong highlighted online shopping, beauty and fitness as businesses consumers should be more wary of, and watch out for unscrupulous sales tactics.
“Many of them were forced to suspend operations for a long time during the pandemic,” she said. “As they want to regain lost ground through offers, we will closely monitor complaints and consumers should pay attention to terms and conditions of contracts and deals.”
Even though beauty centres had to close for 114 days last year because of social-distancing restrictions, there were 850 complaints against them in 2020, close to the 867 complaints in 2019.
The first half of this year has already seen 479 complaints, 5 per cent more than over the same period last year.
Online shopping and food delivery services, which thrived through the pandemic, were another area where spenders ought to take care, Wong said.
“It is getting more popular for retailers to market products through live chats online, but it is hard to seek redress if the products do not turn out as they were touted,” she said.
Food delivery services have drawn a range of complaints, with consumers upset that cold items arrived warm and melted, hot food had cooled, deliveries took too long or went to the wrong address, or the quality of food was below expectations.
“Food delivery service providers and partnering restaurants need to come up with arrangements to enhance transparency and the quality of food,” Wong said.
“For example, can consumers receive a picture of their order before it leaves the restaurants like when you order a bouquet online and the florist sends you a picture of the finished product?”
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