Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Ripped off!

This is my column today.

There was a time when traveling around the major cities in this country gave one a distinct feeling of being in a completely different place each time.

I used to love going up to Baguio and browsing along the various little shops along Session Road and the stalls in the public market for unique finds. Most of the shops along Session Road are now closed and the stalls in the public market don’t really offer anything new anymore, as sales have not been brisk enough to encourage the development of new products. I know my friends in SM will put me to task for saying this, but big business is killing specialty shops. At the rate things are going, it will only be a matter of time when even the ubiquitous sari sari store will have to give way to 7-Eleven and the other convenience store chains that have sprouted all over our urban centers.

Going to Cebu used to mean discovering finds along the many shops along Colon Street or Mango Avenue. Every city in this country boasted a row of specialty shops and stores that sold local products and the works of craftsmen in the area: San Pedro and Claveria in Davao City, Cogon in Cagayan de Oro, Zamora Street in Tacloban City.

Not anymore. Today, there’s SM, Robinsons, Gaisano, and company. You don’t walk up a street, you ride escalators or just promenade along pathways inside a mammoth structure. In some cities, they are building bigger and more malls. In Davao and General Santos cities where I found myself over the weekend, new SM malls were in the finishing stages. It would be the second SM mall in Davao and the first in Gensan.

I dread the day when outside of topography, each city in this country would be an exact replica of the others; when one would go to Butuan City in the south or to Vigan in the north and dine in exactly the same restaurant that could be found everywhere else. This is because every mall in this country offers basically the same fare everywhere. When my officemates brought me to the newly renovated KCC mall in General Santos City over the weekend, I felt like I was back in Mall of Asia in Pasay. The stores were the same, the restaurants even more. Needless to say, the products were the same; only the faces of the people were different. If all our cities would offer the same stuff, what will be the point of going anywhere else in this country? Why go to Zamboanga if your dining choices would be limited to the same cuisine that you would find in Makati anyway? La Paz batchoy, the original, is readily available everywhere so going to Iloilo to experience it is no longer an inspired idea.

Making the same products and services available everywhere does not, unfortunately, mean delivering the same level of service quality. Branches or franchise stores of established brands in the provinces offer the same products sold in Manila and at the same prices but one is expected to put up with inferior quality both of the products and of the service delivery– it’s as if people in the provinces don’t have the right to the same level of quality and efficiency as people in Metro Manila. In fact, salespeople in the provinces tend to have misgivings about serving customers who are from Manila because they allegedly tend to be “difficult,” impatient and demanding. I wish brand owners would take the trouble to define their customer service and quality standards and train their personnel to measure up to the same standards regardless of whether their branch is in Makati, Iloilo or Kidapawan.

I was in Davao City Saturday until yesterday (I am writing at the Davao International Airport – a huge complex that, alas, only had one functioning x-ray machine for baggage and no wi-fi) and I just have to write about a negative experience I had in a Bench store at this city’s G Mall.

I had lunch with a nephew I haven’t seen for quite sometime last Monday and G Mall was the closest to his university. G Mall aspires to world-class standards but fails dismally. The security procedures border on the nonsensical - I was asked to produce receipts for the shopping bags I bought at the nearby Aldevinco market and which I was carrying into the mall. The female guards went through the motions of inspecting bags, but were not really looking at what were inside the bags as they were so busy chatting with each other.

My nephew needed to do some shopping so we ended up at the Bench store inside the mall. They had a sale. A giant tarpaulin announced that the items in a particular bin were on sale. We looked at the items and my nephew picked a shirt. It didn’t have a price tag so we sought the help of a sales clerk. She went to check and came back to tell us that the shirt was no longer on sale, it was already being sold at regular prices. She picked up the bunch of shirts of the same kind from the bin and told us they would hang them back again in their regular display racks. I shrugged.

I picked up another shirt, one that had a price tag on it indicating its regular price, which was crossed out, and handwritten under it was the sale price, which was about 30 percent off the regular price. A sticker indicating the sale price (the same as the handwritten price) was also on the tag. While my nephew and I were going through the pile, a customer angrily dumped some shirts back into the bin, muttering something about “false advertising” before walking out of the store in a huff. I wondered what the fuss was about but let it pass.

When it was our turn to pay, imagine our surprise to discover that two of the shirts we were paying for were at “regular prices” rather than the sale prices indicated in the tags. I complained and pointed out the discrepancy to the cashier. I pointed out the two sale prices indicated on the tag – one written in ink and another one in sticker. She curtly told me that the shirts were no longer on sale. I told her that the Trade Industry department’s stand on the matter is clear – customers should pay for goods based on the prices written on the tag. Right in front of me, the cashier simply took off the sticker and was about to cross out the price in ink when I told her to call the manager.

Apparently, the manager was the guy who was sitting nearby just observing the exchange. He told me they received the “memo about the end of the sale” very late and had not had the chance to change the price tags. I told him they should bring the goods to storage and take out the tarpaulin sign – why continue to display the items when they knew they were no longer on sale? I lectured him about how it wasn’t fair for customers to spend inordinate time picking through an assortment of goods that they thought were on sale only to be slapped regular prices at the counter. He looked at me like I was from another planet.

In the meantime, a line was forming and people were starting to cast dagger looks towards my direction for holding up the queue. I figured I needed to consummate the sale so I could write about it. To be fair, I did tell them that I was going to write about the experience but the manager didn’t look like he cared anyway.

I was told by friends in Davao that this practice is rampant in provincial outlets of many established brands. They announce a sale but charge customers regular prices just the same. They get away with it because most people don’t complain; apparently, the attitude of store managers is that provincial people are lucky the brands are being brought to the provinces. The practice has to stop.

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