After trying out everything from vegetable soup diets to running at the gym and even acupuncture slimming methods, Elaine Teo, 36, was still unable to lose her post-pregnancy weight. She was desperate for a solution.
The housewife decided to try her luck with a chain of local slimming salons after seeing an advertisement in the newspapers about a celebrity dropping two dress sizes due to their treatments. She went for a "free trial".
The visit ended with her being allegedly pressurised into signing up for a $4,000 slimming package after an hour of hard-sell by a therapist who refused to return her clothes until she had signed on the dotted line.
"It was an expensive nightmare. The therapist talked non-stop during the treatment about how fat I was and how ugly my cellulite looked, and the more I resisted signing up, the more threatening her tone became and she held on to my clothes," Teo recalled, in an interview with Yahoo! Singapore.
"After leaving, I was really angry at myself. I was half naked and feeling so self conscious about my fats (sic) and she really took advantage of me. I have not gone back since then because who knows what they will try to make me buy next."
Teo's story isn't rare -- similar horror stories abound in local beauty forums, detailing nightmarish experiences in slimming salons, spas and other beauty service providers.
The numbers are telling -- nearly 2,000 angry customers e-mailed or called in to the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) to complain about the beauty industry here last year.
Ranging from ineffective treatments and overcharging to accusations of hard-sell and dishonest advertising, 1,984 complaints were lodged with CASE.
The record high number of complaints is a 25 per cent jump from 1,565 cases in 2011.
Yahoo! Singapore breaks down the top four categories of complaints with real-life stories from customers.
1. Undue pressure
CASE mediated the most number of "undue pressure" cases, also known as accusations of hard-sell, by sales personnel in the beauty industry.
Undergraduate Joanie Tan, 24, feels that she, like Teo, was a victim of high-pressure sales tactics. In her case, she ended up paying over three times the normal price of a single manicure session.
"I was first lured into the shop as they were offering full manicures for $12 and it sounded like a really good deal. I thought it would be safe as they were an open concept salon and had many branches across Singapore," said Tan.
"Instead they brought me to some room upstairs where it was just me and two other nail technicians. They said my nails were dry and brittle and I needed to do a 'spa' and started applying the mask before I agreed. Then, they said that the mask had 'uncovered' that I had a fungus problem and also applied fungus treatment which I had rejected."
The total bill? A whopping $60 for a simple manicure, which Tan said she paid because she felt "trapped" in the room.
She claims that the manicurists had taken her bag for "safekeeping" and passed her only her wallet when she asked for it back, returning the rest of her belongings after she paid.
- Take your time to consider. Even if consumers are keen on a package, they should take a few days to think over the offer. Purchases made impulse might not be financially viable in the long run.
- Know your rights. Consumers should not be pressurised into signing a contract. Request for time to consider whether to enter into a contract. Simply leave if you feel pressured to sign up. Exerting undue pressure on a consumer to enter into a transaction is an unfair practice under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act. Consider calling the police if you are not allowed to leave the premises.
2. Treatments causing more problems
In what has been Singapore's most publicised case of ineffective treatment so far, makeup and beauty blogger BunBunMakeupTips posted horrific and graphic photos of a facial gone wrong as well as a blow-by-blow account of her traumatic experience.
A sponsored facial had left her with a terrible allergic reaction, and after returning to the salon to seek help, the aggravated areas of her skin were subject to another round of "extraction" by the salon's director who allegedly told the blogger that "it has to get worse before it gets better".
Bun Bun, who, in real life, goes by the first name of Juli, was later told by a doctor that she was experiencing a severe allergic reaction to the beauty treatment. She blogged that she had suffered from depression following her ordeal.
Ex-part-time actor Chan T K, 35, took on a facial salon after a "fruit acid peel" left him with "burnt-looking" pigmentation patches on his face and won over $10,000 in compensation.
"I was told by a few talent companies that my face doesn't look so good now that I'm older, so I went to this salon for a so-called face peel that they promised would make my face look smoother and younger by removing the top layer of my skin," said Chan in Mandarin.
Instead, 10 minutes into the peel, he felt his face start to burn in patches. This happened around his nose and cheeks. He was told by the therapist that the pain was temporary but after five days, the large, purple-coloured burns remained.
"I don't need to say what happened after that. Obviously I had to go back to my day job, no one will hire me to act in ads with a face like this," said Chan, who is now self-employed.
- Check terms and conditions. Many contracts drafted by beauty salons state that “all payment made are not refundable” or have disclaimers such as “the salon is not responsible for any failure of the treatment”. Consumers need to consider these unfavourable terms before accepting any offer made. Verbal promises made should be put in writing.
- Seek medical consultation. Before committing to any beauty treatment, it is advisable to seek the opinion of a medical doctor. Some of the conditions can and should be treated by a medical professional. For instance, The National Skin Centre and some medical clinics offer professional help for skin problems.
- Health should be the priority. When considering a new beauty, skin or slimming treatment, inform the beauty salon of any existing health conditions, e.g. allergies, illness, pregnancy, etc. If in doubt, it is always good to get a doctor's opinion.
3. Ineffective treatment
Once bitten, twice shy is usually the case for most women who have had bad experiences with certain beauty treatments. However, self-called "beauty junkie" Amy (not her real name), 41, has fallen prey to empty promises more then four times in the years she has spent experimenting with new beauty procedures.
Last year, she went for "V-shaped face" facials and a series of bust enhancing massages, all of which did not deliver the "lasting effects" initially promised to her by therapists.
The V-shaped facials, which touted itself as a "surgery-free" way of making her jawline appear slimmer and more heart-shaped, cost Amy a total of $700 for five treatments.
"It's true when they measured my face after the facial, it was slightly smaller, but it only lasted maybe three days before it was back to normal. Then, they told me once I did five treatments, it would be permanent, but obviously it was not true," said Amy resignedly.
Her bust-enhancing massages also did not give her results. Instead, she said, she felt that her chest was swollen and uncomfortable post-treatment and stopped after three massages when her therapist was unable to tell her what ingredients went into the massage cream.
"I was worried that the cream might be cancer-causing or I might be allergic to it," she said.
- Know the limitations of current beauty technology. The Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP) has a section that states, "Every advertisement of a product, service or other activity which purports to alter the shape or appearance of the breasts or the bustline shall contain the following disclaimer: there is no scientific proof that any non-surgical treatment currently available can enlarge breasts."
4. Failure to honour contracts
Best friends Michelle Yeo and Li Xiaoting, both 28, signed up for an IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) hair-removal package together after chancing upon a salon in Orchard Road offering "unlimited sessions" for a fixed price of about $400.
As the treatment usually costs at least $100 per session at other salons, the two decided to go in for a $20 first time trial and emerged satisfied with the service and treatment.
However, when they subsequently tried to book appointments at the IPL salon, the receptionist kept telling them that they were fully booked, even two months in advance. Eventually, the line was cut and when they went down to the shop, they found that it had closed down.
"I think the obvious answer here is that it was too good to be true but you know, we thought we'd done the research and made an informed decision," said Yeo, a sales executive with a pharmaceutical company.
"Most women are easy victims for these salons -- who doesn't want to be told they can look better, slimmer, prettier?"
- Check prices before accepting. Ensure that prices are correct before signing on the credit card slip or keying in the NETS PIN.
- There is no such thing as a free lunch in this world. Free gifts are generally tactics used by marketeers to attract consumers. Offers of free gifts should be treated with extra caution .
While there were almost 2,000 complaints lodged with CASE, only 356 went on to file official complaints and request assistance with CASE and 13 received mediation.
CASE has a "white list" of CaseTrusted companies in the spa and wellness industry available on its website.
If you're looking to resolve a dispute, besides CASE, consumers can also lodge claims at the Small Claims Tribunals (SCT) if the amount they are claiming is within a certain range and happened within the past year. To find out more, go to the SCT's website.
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