The Consumer Protection Department in Dubai will soon issue black-and-white rules that empower shoppers and retailers alike, the latest in a series of education initiatives designed to reduce the number of aggravating communication breakdowns at the customer-service level.Jeffrey Todd reports
After the long months of summer, Sue Grundy emerged from her villa in Dubai to wipe the dust and sand off her outdoor furniture in anticipation of the milder winter season.
Mrs Grundy was especially anxious - with visions of barbecues and social gatherings - because last May she and her husband had bought a new patio set from a well-known western brand. As the humidity rose, the couple had only been able to use the furniture twice before they were driven indoors.
The pride of their patio was a large canopy umbrella to block out the sun's rays - an essential centrepiece that cost them Dh1,300.
But as she wiped the umbrella clean, Ms Grundy noticed that the top bracket holding the canopy to the stand had sheered off.
"I think it's quite a lot of money to pay for an umbrella, and it hasn't even been used," Mrs Grundy says.
"It looks like it has just worn away."
She immediately contacted the company's customer-service team to explain the situation and to arrange a replacement.
Now, after months of phone calls and e-mails, the company is still sending the same message: "it's not our problem."
"I get the impression they have a blanket policy to refuse to deal with any problems," says Mrs Grundy, who moved to the UAE two years ago from South Africa. "It's like they have made up their mind without taking any of the facts on board. From my point of view, this is a recognised brand and they should have procedures in place. You get used to a certain standard in the West."
Mrs Grundy, a sociologist, and her husband, Gary, who works as a transport engineer, are beginning to accept the fact there is no place like home. And they are not alone. Customer service, or the lack thereof, is perhaps one of the most common problems shared by thousands of expatriates in the country.
Varying standards, unclear policies and language barriers often create a retail environment that is both frustrating and inconsistent for droves of consumers.
However, there is reason to believe the situation could soon improve. The Consumer Protection Department in Dubai, under the leadership of the Department of Economic Development (DED), has announced it will publish an official "Blue Book" this year that will change the colour of the retail landscape from an ambiguous grey to a definitive black and white.
In other words, the book will serve as a constitution outlining the rights and guidelines for both retailers and consumers.
"We found that the policy is not clear for the consumer," says Adel Al Helou, the head of the consumer protection agency in Dubai. "Exchange policies, for example, and basic paperwork such as warranties and receipts, were not always offered by the retailer. And consumers often don't know what their rights are."
The action by the Consumer Protection Department is just one of a series of recent measures taken by the organisation.
Last December, it launched an awareness initiative targeting patrons. Thousands of posters, stickers and pamphlets were distributed in malls, shops and petrol stations in Dubai, alerting consumers to the organisation's hotline - 600 545555 - which enables people to lodge their complaints.
The department has also launched a new website, www.consumerrights .ae, which provides tips and information on the rights of consumers. Also last year, it introduced educational workshops for vendors across the emirate, including shops in Mall of the Emirates, Deira City Centre, Dubai Mall, as well as more fringe retailers such as Dragon Mart. Mr Al Helou says the organisation has so far awarded more than 3,000 certificates to retailers that have completed the workshop on consumer rights.
Random field visits, including surprise inspections at stores such as Union Co-operative Society, Carrefour, LuLu, Spinneys and Hyper Panda, have also been conducted to ensure responsible and consistent food prices.
Unfortunately, the department only deals with retailers, leaving financial institutions untouched - a sector that also tends to generate its fair share of complaints.
But Ethos Consultancy, a leading customer-service agency in the Middle East, has conducted an Annual Bank Benchmarking Index for banks over the past six years, and its 2011 report should appear in the next few months.
Similar to Dubai's Consumer Protection Department, Abu Dhabi has also embarked on a campaign with the DED (www.abudhabi.ae). It's now possible to review your rights and lodge a complaint through its hotline - 800 8811 - or by e-mail.
A detailed "consumer complaint form" is available for download on the website.
The approach seems to be working. Last year, Mr Al Helou says his department received more than 3,000 valid complaints. It's a statistic he plans to build on this year with the help of the "Blue Book".
But despite these efforts to engage the community, Amelia Joan Brown, a Dubai teacher who has two children, says she had no idea there was a campaign for consumer rights.
"I don't know if any consumer rights exist here," she says. "If I have an issue, such as a broken-down washing machine, the only recourse is to return to the shop. If the shop is difficult, what do you do?"
Meanwhile, Mrs Grundy, having continuously failed to get the attention of the retailer, hopes the Consumer Protection Department can help with her defective umbrella.
"I didn't know I could submit an independent claim, but I would be interested in doing so," she says. "It's been broken for pretty much the whole time we've had it. All I want is a replacement." Since moving to the UAE from the UK in 2006, Ms Brown says she's far more careful with her shopping. Recently, when she arrived home after purchasing a pair of shoes for her daughter, she noticed the clerk had placed two different sizes in the box. Not only did she have to take the time to return to the shop, but the employees, she says, turned the issue into a frustrating and lengthy production.
It took a great deal of arguing and several calls to the manager before the situation was finally resolved, she says. Similar to Mrs Grundy, Ms Brown adds she bought the shoes from a recognised western brand.
"Back home, I feel as if I have a safety net that would be protecting me through law, whereas here I am more concerned.
"You feel as if you are on your own. There should be more accountability and a link with the main office of these western companies."
Mr Al Helou says it will take time for retailers to improve standards and consumers to fully understand their rights.
He is sympathetic to Ms Brown's case, adding that ground-level workers at retail outlets with limited English is one major challenge to consumer service. The UAE has an enormous mix of cultures and languages, he says, making standardisation especially difficult.
Meanwhile, in some cases, basic rules of thumb, such as receipts, invoices and warranties, are often neglected or not properly acknowledged or understood by retailers.
"It's easiest to educate retailers - we need to convince them to change," Mr Al Helou adds.
But at the same time, he says, responsibility also lies with the consumer to educate themselves and be aware of their rights.
"People often believe we can solve any problem," he says. "It's important to really understand what the rules are."
On some days, Mr Al Helou says, the department is inundated with complaints that waste its time and detract from the real issues.
For example, on a recent call, one consumer made a complaint against a pet store after purchasing a dog. After taking it home, the family decided they no longer wanted the pet, so they tried to return it. But in this scenario, consumers are not permitted to return a product simply because they no longer wish to have it.
To help explain the difference, Mr Al Helou says there are two general grounds for complaint - issues with broken or defective items, and problems with defrauding patrons.
In the first case, the customer must engage the retailer before calling the Consumer Protection Department in an effort to resolve the issue. He or she should provide a receipt, warranty or invoice and any other supporting documentation. If the attempt is unsuccessful, consumers can call or e-mail the department and file a formal complaint, at which point the retailer will be asked to repair, exchange or refund the patron.
In the case of fraud, in which the retailer misleads the consumer in terms of the authenticity or value of the product, consumers should inform the department immediately.
First-time offenders, Mr Al Helou says, are subject to a fine of Dh5,000 or more, while repeated infractions can result in the business being temporarily shut down.
The customer should also receive an automatic refund.
Mr Al Helou says the problem with the dog, while regrettable, is not proper grounds for complaint. The dog was healthy and the family knew what they were buying at the time of the sale.
There are other scenarios in which consumers cannot file a complaint. If a patron finds the same product elsewhere for a better price, or damages it through improper use, the retailer has no obligation to provide an exchange or refund.
As a general rule, Mr Al Helou advises people to exercise common sense. But most importantly, both consumers and retailers must get in the habit of keeping proper documentation, following protocol and leaving nothing to chance.
"Everything must be kept in writing," Mr Al Helou says. "Verbal promises do not work."
Do you have a complaint? E-mail the Department of Economic Development in Abu Dhabi at firstname.lastname@example.org