Reveal the Lemons- Speak up for Consumer Rights
[Sulzhan Bali and Venkat Kuppuswamy write on personal shopping travails on World Consumer Rights Day]
A bride-to be dressed in lehenga and fleets is sitting on a dharna outside a showroom in one of Delhi’s luxury malls. What may appear like a scene straight out of a movie might just be one approach to seek reprisal from a deceitful trader. For those of you who consider this rather extreme, reviewing and sharing experiences online would just prove to be equally effective at protecting consumers. Here is why we think ‘responsible consumerism’ warrants emphasis and is a necessary tool in safeguarding the rights of the Indian consumer.
Like any 20 something bride-to-be, I have been have scouring high and low for that most important of important dresses – my wedding dress. However, a recent experience with an alleged premier designer has shed a light on practices that most likely go unchecked throughout our land. Now, whether you are a shopper on a mission like me or a casual shopper, you know that shopping doesn’t always go right. That suit you bought online looks completely different from the catalogue on its arrival. Your prepaid phone is short of a few hundred bucks for the ringtone service that you never ordered. That bottle of mineral water which cost more than its maximum retail price (MRP) just because you happened to be hiking at a tourist spot. Or the refusal of the seller to refund the advance you paid to book a dress less than 36 hours earlier. The last scenario is unfortunately what I encountered with a supposed top designer duo based at DLF Emporio – a mall epitomizing luxury in the capital. Though the dress was merely ‘booked’ and not purchased, possessed, or altered, the designer refused to return the advance and only offered a credit note. The ordeal took an interesting turn when she sprinkled details of her familial ties – a brother in the Ministry and a cousin serving as the Assistant Commissioner of Police. But of course, we were “free to take any action”. Although both a wedding and a court case appear to be on the cards for me in the next few months, it got me thinking: do consumers know their rights in the marketplace? And while a lengthy court battle may be unavoidable, what else can we as consumers do to uphold the integrity of the market?
Every year, the 15th of March is observed as World Consumers Rights Day and it represents an opportunity for us to look back on our rights and more importantly our responsibilities as consumers. India’s relatively recent rise as a world economic power has had the fortunate side effect of a middle class that is larger and more prosperous than ever before. It is this middle class that is both the envy and target of multinational corporations around the world. Although we Indians continue to enjoy increasing variety and choice in the marketplace, knowledge of our rights and protections has not kept pace. ‘Consumer is sovereign’ is but a myth in the present scenario and ‘Jaago grahak jaago’ is certainly a need of the hour. India is aeons behind its western counterparts when it comes to the protection of consumer rights as well as responsible consumerism. As a result, although marketplace choices in India are vast, the dangers of unscrupulous practices are aplenty. Our legal institutions do provide safeguards against certain unfair practices. However, these laws can only serve their intended use if consumers are aware of their existence.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to highlight the details of consumer protections that Indians enjoy, it does bear reminding that many stem from the Consumer Protection Act (1986), such as the right to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency and purity of goods; the right to choice; and right to seek redressal against unfair trade practices. It is the responsibility of Indians as intelligent consumers to have at least some knowledge of these protections. However, a lack of desire is certainly understandable. Our judicial process unfortunately suffers from delays and administrative roadblocks at most times. It is not uncommon for consumers to shy away from the protection of the courts, citing a long and arduous legal battle. As a result, one has to wonder at times, how beneficial are such protections when the path to legal recourse is littered with obstacles? A fair point indeed. While it is the responsibility of citizens to enact and demand change, such worthwhile progress will undoubtedly take time to occur. In the meantime, consumers can seize control of their marketplaces both by investing and putting more stock in sellers’ reputations.
Unless incidents of unfair acts are made visible, our consumers’ society as a whole suffers. As George Akerlof noted in his Nobel prize winning treatise, economic marketplaces where unscrupulous merchants or ‘bad lemons’ are allowed to evade detection ultimately deteriorate. While this is certainly an extreme outcome, it highlights the responsibility we all share on World Consumers Rights Day to be aware of our statutory rights, and to spotlight merchants who deserve our ire. The reputation of merchants is ever the more important in a country where legal institutions are less than efficient. As one can surely imagine, the experiences that other consumers have had with a vendor can be particularly helpful in warning a future consumer or in encouraging that same consumer to visit the store. However, a merchant’s reputation is only as good as the information on which it is based. As a result, we as consumers have a responsibility to highlight and spread the word of practices – both good and bad. When a seller sells you a substandard good, or when it promises one item but delivers another, make it your responsibility to make that action visible to the marketplace as a whole. By the same measure, if a merchant consistently delivers a good on time as per specifications, or if he surpasses your expectations, shine a light. When consumers can assess the quality of a product or merchant through the prior experiences of others, it will significantly diminish the ability of ‘bad lemons’ to hide in the market. Eventually, such merchants will exit the market and all consumers will benefit. Consumers in Western marketplaces enjoy several avenues through which they can share and collect information on merchants. Online reputation websites such as Yelp and the rating systems on Amazon.com allow consumers to share their experiences and have a significant effect on the financial fortunes of merchants – both in a positive and negative respect. Such websites are in their infancy stage here in India, but there is no reason why Yelp cannot be extended to the Indian context, as long as there are consumers who are willing to invest time and share their experiences. Furthermore, certifications from non-profit organizations such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB) carry significant weight and provide assurance to customers in the United States that a vendor is trustworthy. While the Better Business Bureau has a registered office in Kolkota, its presence and stature in India has a very long way to go to.
On this World Consumer Rights Day, let us remind ourselves of our rights as consumers to expect fair and transparent transactions. At the same time, we must accept responsibility as consumers. While legal recourse is our right as citizens, it is unfortunately not always the most expedient path. An attractive complement to legal action would be to attack the reputation of deceitful traders in an organized fashion. By sharing our experiences with the media and through online websites that aggregate consumer sentiment, we can ensure that unscrupulous sellers have an increasingly hard time surviving in a more transparent marketplace. Either way, if you are the victim of an unjust act, do yourself a favour and spread the word.
[Image Attribution: By Bob With from Fresno, United States (Consumer madness at Costco Uploaded by Gary Dee) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]