Opinion: Consumer protection

POSTED: 01/22/13 12:44 PM

Several things come to mind when discussions turn to consumer protection. In St. Maarten this has never been a priority otherwise a Consumer Protection Agency would have been established a long time ago.

It is too easy to look for an explanation towards the government. That may have a role to play in the sense that it needs to make sure businesses stick to fair practices, but when consumers get ripped off the government does not immediately suffer. The consumer is in the front line in this respect, so one would expect that frustrated consumers are the ones to take the initiative. Nothing stops private citizens from setting up organizations designed to call retailers with bad habits to order.

That this is not happening is most likely a sign of our times. Individualism has reached a point where every man (and woman) for him (and her) self is the prevailing rule. You’ve got a problem, you solve it, and you don’t bother others with it.

This lack of cohesion in the consumer market plays directly into the hands of retailers who refuse to accept responsibility for the quality of the products they are selling at sometimes extortionate prices.

One example we found in a story from an American tourist who paid $1,000 in cash for an iPhone. When he discovered that the gadget did not work properly he went back to the store, where the retailer told him with a straight face that the policy is guarantee until the door. This means that as far as the retailer is concerned, the guarantee ends when a customer leaves his premises.

That this is a ridiculous attitude, and also one that will hurt business in the long run, apparently did not enter this retailer’s head.

The frustrated customer told his story to St. Maarten weekly News, an online newsletter that targets American timeshare owners and other visitors to St. Maarten. As a result, thousands of Americans have been made aware once more: do not buy electronics in St. Maarten – and all this because one narrow-minded retailer misunderstands his own responsibilities.

It is a shame that the newsletter did not mention the name of the store that pulled this trick, because this newspaper would have gone after him with a couple of pertinent questions.

When a tourist from the United Kingdom approached us last year with a story about a rather expensive ring she had bought in St. Maarten and that turned out to show deficiencies upon her return home, we were able to convince the retailer to give this tourist a full refund. This turned a bad experience into one that offers at least some perspective.

At the same time we are concerned that there are many more untold stories about customers who have been fleeced one way or the other by retailers who suffer from a terrible short-term thinking syndrome.

These stories need to be told, and retailers need to feel the consequences of indecent business practices. A name-and-shame campaign is maybe a tad brutal. On the other hand: stories like the one that surfaced in the St. Maarten Weekly News newsletter cause damage to a whole sector of the retail-economy. One man’s behavior is damaging the bottom-line of all his colleagues in the same business.

For that reason alone retailers who do their customers an injustice for short-term benefits ought to be put on public display. We know that there are solid electronics retailers as well in St. Maarten. Maybe these companies ought to get together and establish a common policy about warranties. If they make that initiative sufficiently clear to consumers, retailers with a guarantee-until-the-door policy will soon be out of business. Then there is a chance that visitors to the island will feel confident enough to purchase electronics on the island again.

In this sense, consumer protection is something that affects consumers and businesses alike – and there is no need to wait for our ultra-slow government to take the initiative.

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