The Straits Times says

Corralling black sheep of retail industry

A view of the shops in Sim Lim Square. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

A positive outcome of a notorious retail case, involving a mobile phone shop in Sim Lim Square, is that it opened consumers' eyes to the tactics of reprobates within the retail industry. Such traders do a disservice to legitimate and fair-minded businessmen when they resort to devious means to extract money from shoppers, like Jover Chew did two years ago when he drove a grown man to his knees.

Put off by such incidents, people might be more inclined to take their chances at online shopping sites that offer better bargains and spell out their terms clearly. With e-commerce sales said to exceed US$1 trillion (S$1.38 trillion) worldwide this year, the last thing brick-and-mortar store merchants should do is dupe customers and make them beg for the return of hard-earned money. The mall experience has inherent attractions like the buzz of the marketplace, the look, feel and smell of new wares and the guidance of knowledgeable sales staff. But shop owners out to make a killing can turn a shopping plaza into a trapping zone. That is hardly a reputation that a tourist destination would want to be associated with.

These are reasons enough to link consumer protection closely with the growth of local enterprises - the joint mandate of Spring Singapore, which is under the Trade and Industry Ministry. The agency is thus the appropriate one to investigate and enforce breaches of the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act, as proposed recently. While it would not do to encumber honest traders with red tape, which might lead to higher costs being borne by customers, it is not being over-solicitous to have a government agency spring into action when shady activities come to light.

Under the proposed amendments, on which public views are being sought, Spring will have powers to enter business premises even without a warrant, ask for documents, seize goods and ensure court injunction orders are followed, under pain of imprisonment and fines. It is proper to criminalise deliberate acts of evasion when, for example, traders foist lemons on unsuspecting customers and later close their shops to evade complainants. It is not uncommon for some of them to reopen their businesses using a different trading name, location and Internet address, as well as new people to front the operation.

Consumers are best served when they have more choices. Hence, protective laws should not have the effect of deterring entrepreneurs, especially those with novel products and services to offer. However, those who adopt fair practices have nothing to fear as consumer laws here aim to facilitate negotiation and mediation on minor disputes. It takes to task only those who choose to pull wool over customers' eyes. Market ingenuity is misdirected when the aim is not to offer better value but to fleece hapless consumers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2016, with the headline Corralling black sheep of retail industry. Subscribe