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Friday, January 30, 2009

Petrol price down, but prices of food and services still high!

DOMESTIC Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad is probably right when he stated this week that “the hawkers know that there will always be customers even if they raise their prices.”

But what choice do consumers have when hawker fare is still the cheapest around. Office workers, students and others who regularly eat out are dependent on hawkers and coffee shops for their meals. We can say that most are in a way forced to patronise these outlets even when they know they are being fleeced.

Let me share this situation with you. The nearest eatery to my HQ office in Kuala Lumpur is a mamak shop. When my colleagues and I want a quick meal, we will patronise the shop. When it rains or when we feel lazy to drive elsewhere for lunch, we will have our meals there. Tea breaks are also spent there. So we can be considered regulars in the mamak shop.

As time went by, many of us became good friends with the shop owner. He is actually a nice guy — only that I never like his business ethics (as if there is any ethic at all?) The trouble with this fellow is that he never has a price list for the food and drinks he sells. My colleagues and I used to talk about the matter and whined over it privately. I suppose we were too nice to tell him he has been overcharging us right in his face.

On one occasion, I politely mentioned to him that he could attract more customers if he were to charge not more than RM6 for a simple lunch. Not many office workers can afford a RM8-10 lunch everyday.

Charging RM1.30 for a small glass of teh tarik is steep. Previously, before the petrol price hike, it was only RM1. A can of Coke is RM2.20 when it was RM1.80 previously. Roti canai becomes RM1.20 when it was 90 sen. Nasi ayam is sold at RM6 when it was RM5. Mee goreng becomes RM5 when it was RM3.50. The list goes on.

For a while, I think my friend took heed of my advice. On and off, I still have my lunch in his shop and I could see that he was extra careful with my bill. However, I was really unhappy with him on one occasion when he billed three of my friends RM35 for a simple lunch in his shop. At most, it could not be more than RM25.

This is something which we can call ‘cut throat’ business. I think many coffee shops are involved in such unethical practices. But I suppose this is how our small-time business people survive in the rather competitive kopi tiam environment. At every opportunity, they will go for the ‘kill’. That is not right, of course and the best way to discourage such practices is not to patronise these outlets.

This week, my friend in Kuching rang me to say that consumers are really fed up with being fleeced by traders — be they in the supermarkets, coffee shops or the laundrettes. He likened it to being robbed in broad daylight.

He lamented that although the petrol price has gone down several times over the past few months, goods and services are still as high as ever.

This is a phenomenon throughout the country and I believe it’s the same everywhere in the developing world. There is always the excuse and reason to raise prices of goods and services whenever there is a petrol hike. However, when the petrol price goes down, there is no corresponding decrease in the prices of goods and services.

Unfortunately, it is not easy for the government to clamp down hard on such an unfavourable situation for consumers as Shahrir explained this week.

He said he was willing to give the benefit of the doubt to traders who do not lower the prices of their goods despite the petrol price reduction.

“Manufacturers have explained that prices of goods will only come down around the first quarter of next year as they were still utilising materials bought previously,” he was quoted as saying in a national daily.

However, if the traders refused to slash prices later, Shahrir said he would “persuade” them to do so as reasonable prices would in return encourage demand among consumers.

The ministry, he said, would also review licences given to wholesalers supplying essential goods as checks revealed that they were imposing unreasonable conditions on traders.

Shahrir added that wholesale companies were still charging higher prices although they were enjoying diesel subsidies from the government.

I think this is another area where the government should pay attention to. Action must be taken against suppliers if they have been operating in an unethical way despite receiving the ministry’s contribution.

There is really this concern among our rural populace for they are the ones who feel the pinch most if the prices of essential commodities continue to increase.

Indeed, the government must ensure that its efforts to standardise the price of essential goods in towns and villages, especially in rural Sarawak and Sabah, really works.

I’m glad to learn that Shahrir’s ministry is now assessing transportation costs to the remote areas in Sabah and Sarawak which were difficult to access. The minister said that the government was aware that fuel prices in some remote areas in Sarawak were about three times higher than those in towns as they could only be transported by boat.

We would all be very happy for our rural brethren if shops in rural communities are able to sell goods at prices similar to those in major towns with the government subsidy.

The only worry is that along the way, there could be unscrupulous parties out to make a quick profit at the expense of our rural folks. This, the government must take pains to prevent.

I’m not sure what else we, consumers, can do to prevent ourselves from paying more than is the actual price for the items and services we require. I suppose the only way is to ‘shop smart’.


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