Sifting out retail's rotten apples

The case of a tourist begging after an iPhone 6 purchase turned bad, and public anger towards the rogue retailer, is instructive. Overcharging to some extent is an expected hazard of an imperfect marketplace but certain acts are beyond the pale. Cheating and being too clever by half over it can, it seems, quickly gather a restive posse of citizens in search of more effective means to put away bad hats.

Total eradication is, of course, unachievable as there will always be some who are wedded to Venus flytrap business models, like certain timeshare marketeers, car salesmen, property agents, spa operators and financial product sellers. Indeed, some small-time traders operating on the margins of respectability might even be sought after by those seeking bargain-basement goods, knock-off gadgets, cheap software and hard-to-find parts from spots like Sim Lim Square and People's Park Complex. But when a shopper is badly fleeced, there is no shortage of suggestions to eliminate all black sheep.

In fairness, one should not ride roughshod over basic rights by, say, overturning legal contracts, terminating leases and deregistering businesses summarily over a few incidents. Nor can one expect the police to play a more active role, as this will be at the expense of other policing work. Blacklisting can help but is vulnerable to abuse and can be circumvented when rogues operate under another business name. As for the suggestion of asking global tech giants to mandate recommended prices and sales terms here, this might not be realistic given Singapore's small market size and the dynamic effects of demand and supply on prices.

In general, business regulation must not unduly hinder enterprise and jeopardise livelihoods while promoting sound practices like the primum non nocere principle of first doing no harm. Egregious abuses, of course, must face the full weight of the law. Existing legislation on cheating, criminal intimidation and the sale of "lemons" should be leveraged. The Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act offers remedies against unethical practices, and the Small Claims Tribunal provides a simple way to enforce legal rights.

To safeguard consumers and protect the nation's shopping destination cachet, another defensive layer to achieve speedy results ought to be considered. For example, should disputed sales contracts be voidable within 24 hours to facilitate refunds when products have not left the store? Ultimately, the caveat emptor principle should remain the first line of defence as shoppers cannot be fully chaperoned in the marketplace. While it is right to get tough against the unscrupulous, consumers will also have to wise up when dealing with them.