Making the consumer a decision-maker
‘Customer is the king’ says the well-known maxim, yet in reality it is questionable. How many of us would stand up for our individual consumer rights which will ensure the welfare of an entire nation’s consumers? Instead of being passive bystanders before infringements of consumer right violations, it is time consumers recognise their rights and obligations as a progressive step towards building a content society. The Nation spoke to Dr. Ajantha Perera, Chairperson Association for Consumer Action and the former Board Director and Member of the Pricing Committee and Complaint Resolving Committee of the Consumer Affairs Authority
By Randima Attygalle
You walk out of a boutique or a supermarket with a bar of chocolate and once unwrapped, find white specks. The expiry date is a far ahead and you ruffle your brain, ‘how could it be’? You often come to the resolution, ‘tough luck’ and discard the chocolate. In a super market you may pick up an item priced at Rs.250 and at the counter you’re told its Rs.50 more, as the price has soared only a day before. You grudgingly pay knowing little that it’s your right to pay only what the label says!
On another occasion, the receptionist at an organisation gives you misleading information and you miss out an opportunity of a lifetime! You moan and groan and curse the entire bureaucracy and remain a passive bystander. “This should not be the case. Instead of remaining a passive, unsatisfied consumer, you got a right and an obligation to bring up the grievance before the Consumer Affairs Authority for the welfare of all consumers in the country,” says Dr. Ajantha Perera.

Ensuring consumer welfare
Be it goods or services, the common reaction of the unsatisfied consumer is either to cease patronising a particular brand or the source it comes from or look at a particular forum with a critical eye. As a responsible consumer, our mandate is much larger than making a mere verbal fuss or swapping the shop or the super market. As Dr. Perera observes, lodging a complaint with the Consumer Affairs Authority enables the authorities to summon the complainant and the particular manufacturer of a good or an organiSation rendering a particular service to a common platform and inquire into the grievance and offer the aggrieved consumer compensation. “It is not merely the cost of the inferior good which is compensated but the possible vulnerability it would have caused such as medical expenses and loss of wages. This applies to services as well,” explained Dr. Perera.

A written complaint with sufficient evidence is mutually beneficial in ensuring consumer welfare and quality assurance on the part of the manufacturer and as Dr. Perera advises, retaining a receipt for goods or services obtained or a wrapper, carton of a particular consumer good, serve as sound evidence before the Consumer Affairs Authority when investigating into a grievance. As she further observes, despite the increase in the volume of such complaints over the last few years, there still exists a dire need to create consumer-awareness on a larger magnitude. “Lodging a complaint should always be viewed in a positive light because the purpose is to better the society. A complaint is brought up to ensure the wellbeing of the entire population of a country and just as the authorities of the Consumer Affairs Authority takes a decision in good faith on behalf of all consumers, there is a corresponding obligation on the part of the consumer,” Dr. Perera opined.

Legislative provisions
A lightly-printed bill where figures are hardly visible, a bill where the ink blotches moment it’s touched, may escape the notice of most of us, ignorant of the fact that they are shrewd marketing strategies devised to wipe out the best evidence consumers may hold. A product in the market which doesn’t adhere to the basics of consumer safety including the price, manufactured date, packed date (in case of bulk products which are re-packed), expiry dates are products to be shunned by the consumer as Dr. Perera observes. “In addition to the above, there are certain products in the local market such as bottled water which requires mandatory SLS certification as well as Health Ministry’s certification. Many consumers are also unaware that the consumer protection legislature requires a display of prices pertaining to all products which do not endorse a price on the label. This requirement is specifically related to unpacked items such as rice, grains, flour etc,” elaborated Dr. Perera.

The legislative provisions stipulated in the Consumer Affairs Authority Act (No. 9 of 2003) are large in scope extending to goods and services provided by both state and private owned bodies enabling the consumer to exhaust his/her full rights as a consumer. However, the obligation which lies on the shoulders of the consumer should not be forgotten, making the bottom line, ‘common sense’. Readily paying whatever the seller demands and realising later that there is a discrepancy with no receipt to claim leaves the consumer in the lurch. Failing to sign the ‘guarantee card’ and post it to the seller on time will offer you no remedy if an electrical good causes trouble within the guarantee period. As Dr. Perera advises, “knowing the seller personally may not always do the trick!”

Emerging a decision maker
Advertisements which always aspire to win the attention of the consumers towards the ‘unknown’ are a yardstick which can also assess the decisive power of the consumers. “Everything that glistens is not certainly gold which is applicable in the case of advertising. TV advertising does not promote pure water, mangoes or jak fruit but goods which people are not aware of. This again doesn’t mean that if you don’t drink a certain milk powder you will start falling apart after 40 or your child will get more intelligent when fed on a supplement,” Dr. Perera explained adding that the customer should necessary possess the intelligence to ‘read between the lines’ and to emerge a decision maker.

Society wants a wise consumer and not necessarily a consumer going with the Bandwagon. As Dr. Perera notes, it’s the consumer who got the money in hands to cater to the marketing strategies and he or she should spend a little time pondering if everything that glistens is actually gold…
Spending a little time reading the labels and learning to bend down are two golden tips Dr. Perera offers to the consumer. “A well-known global marketing strategy is to place the most expensive products at an eye level and cheaper goods at the bottom compelling a customer to squat and bend down and select. Since most of the consumers don’t take the trouble to stoop down, this marketing strategy is often achieved,” pointed out Dr. Perera who also warned that goods displayed in a jumble at a super market may not necessarily be cheap or discounted items and at times, they may even turn out to be more expensive than the rest.

The secret behind a happy society is the consumer satisfaction and it’s necessarily a society which strives to ensure this satisfaction. “In the developed part of the world, people are very conscious of their earnings and they will ensure that the hard-earnings are productively spent. Today, we are also a nation moving towards development and no longer existing in the cave age, thus consumer welfare is a progressive step to be taken in that direction whilst ensuring quality life and increasing consumer awareness,” concluded Dr. Perera.

Consumer Affairs Authority Act (No. 9 of 2003)
• Sect 11- Selling or offering to sell above the marked price
Any person who sells or offers to sell any goods :the price marked on the goods in accordance with a direction issued under section 10, shall be guilty of an offence under this Act

• Sect 26- Trader to display price list
26 (1) Every trader shall exhibit conspicuously in his place of business, a notice specifying the maximum retail or wholesale price, as the case may be, of goods available for sale in his place of business other than the price of any goods, the price of which is marked on the goods itself or on the wrapper or pack containing it or marked in any other manner as may be required by any law.
(2) A complete list of the price of goods, available for sale shall be kept within the place of business at all times for inspection whenever required.

• Sect 31- False representation
31. Any trader who, in the course of a trade or business, in connection with the supply or possible supply of goods or services or in connection with the promotion by any means of the supply or use of goods or services:

(a) falsely represents that goods or services are of a particular standard, quality or grade, or that goods are of a particular style or model;

(b) falsely represents that goods are new;

(c) represents that goods or services have sponsorship, approval, performance, characteristics accessories, uses or benefits they do not have;

(d) represents that such trader has a sponsorship approval or affiliation he does not have ;

(e) makes false or misleading statements concerning the existence of, or amounts of price reduction or price increase;

(f) makes false or misleading statements concerning the need for any goods, services, replacements or repairs; or

(g) makes false or misleading statements concerning the existence or effect of any warranty or guarantee shall be guilty of an offence under this Act.