Woman's $5 haircut ends up costing her $5,000
She had gone into the salon for a $5 haircut.
But over a period of seven months, Madam Betty Chia, 62, ended up paying $5,000 for hair treatments to the New Station Beauty and Hair Salon in Ang Mo Kio.
And it would have been more if she had not exceeded the limit on her credit card.
Her son, Mr Jason Ong, later went to the company to ask for a refund on her behalf.
The businessman has also filed a complaint with the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case).
He is one of 22 people who have complained against New Station to Case in the past nine months. (See report above.)
In Madam Chia's case, it started when she was at Ang Mo Kio town centre in March. She went in for a $5 haircut at the salon.
After cutting her hair, a salon employee offered to do a free scalp analysis.
When the analysis was done, she said Madam Chia had problems with her scalp.
Madam Chia told The New Paper: "They showed me images of my scalp and told me that I might lose my hair. I was scared."
The salon staff said she could have a one-time treatment for $298, but they tried to persuade her to sign up for a 20-session package that would cost $198 each time, saving her $100 per session.
Madam Chia, who earns about $2,000 a month as a cashier, said she was deterred by the cost and insisted on paying for just one session.
But she claimed that when she handed over her debit card, the cashier charged her an amount close to $4,000 and insisted that she sign for it.
"I kept asking her why she had done that as I hadn't agreed to the package. But she insisted that she could not void the payment on the card," Madam Chia said.
She also claimed that the staff made her sign up for another $2,000 hair package that promised five free sessions and hair dyeing credits worth $500.
Madam Chia could not recall the exact cost of the packages she signed up for that day.
She said: "On the same day, I insisted that they give me back $1,000 and they did so in cash. I had to give up the free sessions as a result.
"Since I managed to get some money back, I was not so angry after a few days. So I decided not to tell my children about it."
Madam Chia said she was asked to sign up for another package worth $4,000 earlier this month as the condition of her hair had not improved after 11 sessions.
But she could only pay $1,300 of the $4,000 as she had maxed out her credit card.
She said: "They told me that I could pay the rest by monthly instalments".
Mr Ong, 38, went to the salon later and managed to get a cash refund for the $1,300.
Madam Chia said: "Thinking back, I'm really angry about the tactics they used to make me sign up for packages.
"They just kept showing me numbers and I got confused after a while."
But she admitted that she could have been more adamant about not signing up for them.
The manager of New Station's Ang Mo Kio outlet, Ms Huang Anqi, said the company has never forced anyone to sign up for a package.
"We will recommend that customers sign (up for) packages that benefit them because it's a lot cheaper.
"Our management has stressed during meetings that we should not force anyone to sign up," she said.
Ms Huang also said the salon refunded $1,300 to Madam Chia out of goodwill.
"Many of our customers are happy after signing up for packages. But after going home and speaking to their children or spouses, they might change their minds."
When contacted, a representative of the company declined to comment further, except to say it had set up a 24-hour hotline to deal with customers' feedback.
According to its website, customers can call 9615-8968 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr Ong is worried that other elderly folk could be facing a similar situation like his mother.
"These salons are located in the heartland.
"They lure them in with cheap haircuts and then try to sell them expensive packages."
"We will recommend that customers sign (up for) packages that benefit them because it's a lot cheaper."
- Ms Huang Anqi, New Station's Ang Mo Kio outlet manager
Hard-sell tactics ruin experience
Like Madam Betty Chia, I succumbed and signed up for a hair treatment package worth a few thousand dollars two years ago.
I had an existing haircut package at a salon I frequent.
It was a typical hair cut-and-criticism session the moment the hairstylist laid hands on my head.
"Your scalp is so oily. Do you use any hair conditioner? Why is your hair dry like grass?"
I had been long used to their biting remarks and would usually just nod meekly.
But in a moment of exasperation one day, I agreed to a free scalp analysis.
As a salon worker prodded my head with a pen, I saw all my hair faults in high-definition images.
Then he whipped out a calculator and started furiously punching numbers.
One session to fix my hair would cost $288, but sign up for a package and the price would be just $199, I was told.
Vanity and the fear of going bald won over common sense and I signed away $2,388 for 12 sessions, an extravagant amount for a fresh-out-of-schooler.
It amounted to almost a whole month's salary.
But it was not the end. It never is.
I signed up for more packages over the next few months.
After several sessions, they offered another scalp analysis to check the progress of the treatment.
It showed that my scalp was still in dire condition and they asked me to sign up for a more intensive treatment.
"Mei mei, we want to help you. All your past treatments will go to waste if you don't sign up for this," cooed the stylist.
I am ashamed to admit that I gave in again.
My mother would kill me if she knew the amount of money I spent on these treatments.
National University of Singapore Business School associate professor of marketing Ang Swee Hoon explains why these packages are popular.
"There's already a foot in the door as these women are customers of the hair salon and are in the midst of having their hair done," he said.
"They are already telling themselves that they like this hair salon and the services. Otherwise, why else would they be frequenting the salon?"
Some women also think that the package is worth the money.
"They forget that they are paying upfront and are committed to the package," said Prof Ang.
"If they decide to stop the treatment or change to another salon, they can't get their money back."
And it is not just the hair industry. Every time I go for a manicure or facial, I have been pressured to sign a package.
In moments of weakness, I have given in, although the amounts for these were much lower compared to my hair packages.
Trips to the salon or spa should be relaxing, but hard-sell tactics ruin the experience.
After listening to Madam Chia and other elderly aunties, I am determined to avoid such places.
Unfortunately, just like them, I can do so only after my packages are used up.
And I hope to remain steadfast against pressure tactics to get me to sign up for another package.
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22 out of 81 Case complaints against New Station
New Station Beauty and Hair Salon accounted for more than a quarter of all complaints against the hair industry in the first nine months of this year.
Of the 81 hair-related complaints received by the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) over this period, 22 were against New Station.
Complaints against the company have been on the rise. In 2011, there was one complaint, then three in 2012 and four last year.
Most of them had to do with the company's sales tactics, unsatisfactory services and a misrepresentation of its services and products.
New Station, which started in 2009, has a chain of nine salons islandwide, according to its Facebook page.
Most of its outlets are located in the heartland in estates such as Jurong, Bedok and Toa Payoh.
Case executive director Seah Seng Choon said there was currently no mandatory cooling-off period for the hair industry.
But there is a CaseTrust Spa and Wellness Accreditation Scheme which covers beauty-related services such as spa, facials, massages, hair treatments and slimming.
Since 2008, businesses that are registered with the scheme have to commit to a five-day cooling-off period, during which consumers who sign packages with them can change their minds and get a full refund.
The companies also promise not to engage in any form of selling while the client is undergoing treatment.
There are about 235 companies under the scheme, according to the Case website.
Mr Seah said some hair salons might commit to a cooling-off period of their own accord.
"Consumers should do their own research, read the terms and conditions of their contracts carefully and ask about the cancellation and refund policies of the hair salon," he said.
"Consumers should keep in mind that they can always walk away if they are not interested or do not feel comfortable in making a purchase.
"If they are detained against their will, consumers can call the police."