T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR – MUSCAT, May 26 – The consumer is the king. That’s only until s/he crosses the threshold and makes the decision to buy. After that, consumer can be a victim as well.
And it’s not that rare. Last year alone, in the US, the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network gathered more than 3.1 million consumer complaints.
Here, in Oman, the Public Authority for Consumer Protection (PACP) has received over 58,000 complaints ever since it was established in 2011, and as many as 5,883 complaints last year.
But numbers could be easily misleading.
According to White House Office of Consumer Affairs, for every customer who bothers to complain, 26 other customers remain silent.
Thus the number of dissatisfied or ‘victimised’ customers in the Sultanate could end up much higher.
So which business sector here fooled us the most last year? Going by PACP complaints, it was definitely the food consumption sector, with complaints reaching 1,789.
Complaints against restaurants and cafes numbered 567, while those against the “friendly neighbourhood” barbershops and salons touched 347.
There were 292 complaints against the clothing sector and 233 against the contracting sector.
Other major complaints were against the electrical and electronic sectors (166), vehicle repair workshops (141), car dealerships (128), spare parts (105) and tyre traders (76 complaints).
Disgruntled customers filed 68 complaints against telephone services while 51 complaints were lodged against the livestock and animal feed sector.
Thus, product and service providers across sectors created a lot of ‘fuming’ customers, some of whom at least went ahead and lodged complaints.
PACP’s office in Muscat received the major share of complaints last year at 1,275, while complaints registered at its Seeb centre stood at 1,146.
PACP office in North Batinah Governorate received 1,112 complaints and took the third spot.
Significantly, a quick glance at recent PACP statistics shows an encouraging trend.
The number of complaints has consistently registered a decline, from 14,000 complaints in 2014 to 12,800 in 2015, which further dwindled considerably to 5,883 last year.
So is it safe to assume that consumers are increasingly asserting themselves with better awareness about their rights and greater confidence in authorities such as PACP? Is it that cunning traders no more feel emboldened to go about their dirty games, having realised the true power of consumer watchdogs? The days when it was so easy to contemptuously categorise consumers as a bunch of weak, gullible and meek people who can be milked to the core are gone, it seems.
Meanwhile, at the global level, there are increasing efforts towards empowering the consumer.
The year 1983 marked a milestone in consumer rights with the declaration of March 15 as the World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD). The day focuses on activities aimed at increasing public awareness about consumer rights, and is celebrated annually to strengthen the international consumer movement.
World Consumer Rights Day offers a powerful platform for all to voice their grievances and ensures that their rights are respected and protected and violators are not allowed to roam free.
Everyone is a consumer, asserts Consumers International (CI), the global forum that organises WCRD.
It is arguably the only independent and authoritative global voice for consumers with over 220 member organisations across 115 countries.
Oman is a member country of CI, and is represented by the Oman Association for Consumer Protection (OACP).
OACP is an independent, not-for-profit and non-government organisation established in 2003.
It defends and speaks up for consumers cheated by businesses.
The association also works to educate consumers about multiple aspects including quality, safety and pricing of goods and services and deceptive product claims and misleading advertising.
It prepares and distributes brochures and other informative reports among the public, apart from hosting public lectures and seminars on consumer rights and challenges.
Anyone is free to approach OACP and directly file complaints.
It is also mandated with campaigning and lobbying with authorities and conduct meaningful research and policy analyses.
PACP, on the other hand, strives to protect consumers from price fluctuations, monitors market prices of goods and services and checks unreasonable price hikes, and guarantees that consumers enjoy the freedom of choice, equality, fair treatment and credibility in the marketplace.
Creating awareness and fighting counterfeiting, swindling and monopoly, as well as encouraging establishment and supporting consumer protection societies too figure among its priorities.
At the same time, there are consumers who stretch their rights to the extremes, as in the case of a man who sued a laundry for $65 million for misplacing a pair of trousers.