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SINGAPORE: Last October, Madam Chan (not her real name) went for a trial massage at a spa. During her treatment, the staff urged her to buy a 20-session package at S$2,800. It was a promo and, besides, the staff insinuated she had a crooked back that could lead to paralysis.
Mdm Chan held firm – until she was told her massage wasn’t, in fact, free. Unless she signed up for the package.
But that wasn’t all. The next day, she went for a second session and was told she had to top up another S$800.
Mdm Chan’s situation isn’t unique. The beauty industry has consistently ranked among the top three industries with the most complaints, according to the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) – up there with motorcars and renovation.
And topping the beauty list are complaints about aggressive sales tactics. Since 2015, the consumers rights group has received 927 complaints about pushy staff who’d do everything to get you to sign on the dotted line for a beauty package or two. Or three. Or four.
And we're talking big money. The total contract value of just 97 cases taken up or assisted by CASE (including Mdm Chan’s) was a whopping S$720,000. That's more than half of the total amount of all their beauty-related cases combined (S$1.1 million).
Which is a lot of expensive massages, facials and manicure sessions that have been pushed unto consumers who eventually realised that wasn't what they wanted.
Thankfully, poor Mdm Chan would eventually get a partial refund thanks to CASE. But seeing as it seems to a growing problem – the group has noted a rise in complaints, from 15 per cent in 2013 to 21 per cent in 2017 – we posed some questions to CASE executive director Loy York Jiun to know more about these aggressive sales tactics.
1. Why are there so many complaints about sales tactics in the beauty industry?
Most companies in the beauty industry operate on selling packages. The industry has developed in such a way that everyone is trying to hang on to customers through selling packages with the hope that they don’t lose their customers to someone else. Because of that, there’s a natural tendency of the staff to pressure people into signing up ever larger packages... The customer is locked in and there is money upfront.
But very few customers actually get to the point of finishing these packages, because maybe halfway through – or even in the first or second session – they’re already trying to up-sell customers so that, basically, the package never ends. In this climate, it’s not surprising that sales tactics have become the number one source of complaints.
2. Are there any red flags that we should be aware of?
Most of them start off with a free trial. But that’s never free because the moment you step in, you’re in for a hard-sell session. They will try to recoup what they put into the so-called “free trial” and try to get you to sign up for something.
Second, if they give an offer that seems too good to be true, it usually is. If they give you a very cheap package, there is always a big chance that they will up-sell something else. Giving you a so-called “big discount” is a hook – but once you sign up, they will try to add on.
3. What are some of the tactics used by companies?
There’s a wide range. It could be just the person repeatedly asking you whether you want to sign a package. Or, if your belongings are in another room because you’ve just done a massage treatment – they might pull you into their sales room away from your belongings.
They might try to gang up on you. If one person can’t (sell you a package), the next thing you know, you’re surrounded by people.
During a treatment, salespeople might come in – so it’s not just the person who’s actually doing the service but others who are trying to sell you something while you’re undergoing treatment.
4. What are some of the worst cases you’ve heard of?
Sometimes, they take your credit card or IC on the pretext of registering you , and after that, they’ll try not to give it back to you.
We’ve also heard of consumers having their cards swiped without their explicit consent, or if a consumer says they’ve exceeded their credit limit, the salespeople will suggest you withdraw at an ATM – and they actually follow you! How intimidating is that?
5. Are there any places I should be avoiding?
Unfortunately, unlike, say Sim Lim Square, which has developed a reputation for having a high concentration of shops that are aggressive, beauty companies are all over the place.
You’ll find them everywhere – the heartland, malls, heartland malls, HDBs, even downtown. If you’re talking about top-end spas, there are probably a little bit lesser complaints than the smaller scale operations, but even those fairly big chains will have a certain share of complaints.
6. I'm being pressured – aggressively – to sign up for a package. What do I do?
You always have the right to walk away... We’re not saying don’t sign packages but be a bit smart about it.
And if they try to detain you, that’s a criminal offence. Feel free to say that you’re prepared to call the police because they have no right to prevent you from leaving. But a lot of consumers, sometimes because they're shy or they don't want to create a scene, are taken advantage of.
Always remember that before you sign a contract, the power is with you. Shop around. Don’t give your money so easily away. Look around for other alternatives.
7. I gave in – and I regret it. I want my money back. What should I do?
Basically, if you feel you’ve been pressured into something, they make misleading claims, or promise something they can’t deliver, you can come to CASE.
We give you some advice, and you can file a case with us. If you don’t feel you need us and are comfortable dealing with the retailer with some assistance, you can take up our Assisted option where we’ll write a letter you can use to negotiate with the retailer.
We negotiate for an amicable settlement with the retailer and the resolution is quite successful – between 70 to 80 per cent of cases, with a full or close to full refund.
If you've fallen victim to aggressive sales tactics and would like to speak with CASE, you'll find more information here.