Dubai's Department of Economic Development's Blue Book looks to be on track to better educate retailers and consumers about their rights.
Initiatives aim to make consumer rights more transparent
Being treated fairly as a consumer is not always the case in the Emirates. So before you commit to a service or hit the shops, it pays to arm yourself with patience, determination and, most of all, a good knowledge of your rights.
Justine Cullen did just that and it made her daughter, Jessica, very happy.
It started badly, though. When Mrs Cullen and Jessica went to a shop where the nine year old intended to spend a voucher she'd been given as a birthday gift, she never expected all the fuss.
"It was just a Dh100 voucher, but my daughter was very excited by it, like any other nine year old would be," says Mrs Cullen, a 41-year-old Australian mother of two.
"The only thing she liked in the shop was a dressing gown, so we proceeded to the till as the voucher more than covered the cost of the gown. We presented the cashier with the voucher, who scanned it, but then said the item was Dh179, not Dh79 as advertised.
"I asked the cashier to look at the price tag, which did say Dh79. But the cashier said, 'We won't honour the price'. I checked the other gowns and every single one was priced at Dh79. Clearly, it was their mistake."
But the shop employees didn't realise they were dealing with an expert in customer relations: Mrs Cullen worked for years as a sales and marketing director in the hospitality industry in Australia and the UK.
"I know my rights as a consumer," says Mrs Cullen, who moved to Dubai last year. "My daughter was really disappointed. We asked to speak to the manager on duty. I told him about the situation, but he said no [too].
"By that stage, I was standing next to the till. That's when I spotted a yellow leaflet on consumer rights. So I said to him, 'There's a campaign to know consumer rights and I know mine. You've advertised the item at this price, so that's the price I'll pay.'
"He seemed a bit shaken by it, but phoned the shop manager, who was off that day. When their conversation finished, the duty manager said to me, 'OK madam, we have to honour it as this is what we've advertised it at, but the shortfall will be taken out of the staff's wages'."
Mrs Cullen says she was upset by this, but went ahead anyway and bought the gown. "I thought it was fair we paid the advertised price. I also felt relieved I could get my daughter what she wanted. But at the same time, I felt bad about it. I did not mean to penalise the staff. I still feel guilty about it."
Mrs Cullen's experience sums up the discrepancies between the modern shopping facilities of the UAE and retailers' often cavalier attitudes towards customer service.
To tackle the issue, Dubai's Department of Economic Development (DED) launched several initiatives in the final quarter of last year in an effort to make consumer rights more transparent.
The first step for shoppers eager to buy smartly is to read the Blue Book, the Commercial Compliance and Consumer Protection division's new bill of consumer rights. Released in October, it translates the law in simple terms.
The Blue Book aims to "create an environment for sustainable economic development and enhance the economic welfare and prosperity of Dubai and the UAE", says Mohammed Lootah, the deputy chief executive of the Commercial Compliance and Consumer Protection division, which comes under the umbrella of the DED.
"Because the Dubai economy is all about tourism and shopping, we want to create a healthy environment for business."
The first section of the booklet contains general policies on goods and services and then outlines rights and guidelines for three areas: vehicles, textiles and personal items, and electronics.
A second version, in which more areas will be covered, including finance, will be published this year, with more versions planned according to consumer needs.
"The areas covered by the Blue Book are based on consumer preference," Mr Lootah says. "In 2010, 2,700 complaints were received.We filtered the complaints and grouped them into four sections in the Blue Book. We work on a priority basis."
The booklet also offers simple advice that most people know about, but often choose to ignore: the need to ask for proof of purchase, to keep receipts and understand warranties and guarantees before buying. For retailers, it says they have an obligation to provide proper invoicing and contracts, as well as offer consumers a guide on refunds, warranties and after-sales service.
Mr Lootah says the Blue Book is aimed at both the consumer and the retailer because it "wants to work with all parties". To compile the book, 3,500 workshops were organised with traders.
The DED also launched its Be Right - Know Your Consumer Rights campaign in conjunction with the Blue Book. It is aimed at reaching consumers at the grass-roots level. In November, a number of mobile Consumer Protection Centres were set up in major malls in Dubai to distribute information leaflets and copies of the Blue Book, as well as to allow customers to meet DED representatives on site for advice.
"The centre aims to provide consultative support and solutions for customers on the spot, as well as to minimise disputes between consumers and traders," says Omar Bushahab, the chief executive of the Commercial Compliance and Consumer Protection division.
Mrs Cullen says the DED's campaign has worked. "The very fact there were leaflets in the shop meant that the manager backtracked and we eventually walked out with the item at the advertised price," she says.
"However, I'll never shop there again. They never apologised for their mistake; I did not feel respected at all. I was almost treated as if I had committed a crime, as if I was cruel. But it is not about a Dh79 item. It is about respect for consumers.
"I think consumer rights initiatives like those of the DED are important as retail is such a large part of residents' and tourists' experience."
Ola Sultani, a 32-year-old Lebanese national who has spent most of her life in Dubai, has noticed the centres and signs about the campaign in malls, but, unlike Mrs Cullen, she is sceptical about the effect it will have.
The entrepreneur, who owns The Craft Studio Dubai, which organises art and craft birthday parties for kids, says retailers in malls generally abide by the guidance on consumer rights. However, Mrs Sultani, who lives in Jumeirah and has two children, believes it couldn't be more different in Satwa, where she does a lot of business.
"This is definitely an issue there," she says. "Traders in Satwa work on their own, in wholesale; they don't think they're going to be checked by the DED. Fifty per cent of local shop owners will not accept returns. They don't understand the concept of consumer rights.
"Once, I wanted to return a couple of things. The trader refused. I said I would go to the municipality, that I knew about the campaign and told him that I have consumer rights. He said, 'OK, call them'. Truth is, I could not be bothered. Who's going to complain to the DED about Dh80, anyway? It's too much hassle."
As a business owner, Craig Gorman, a 29-year-old Briton who has lived in Dubai for four years, says he welcomes the campaign to raise awareness for consumer rights.
Mr Gormon, who owns the Race Performance Garage in Al Quoz industrial estate in Dubai, says his clients include pilots for Emirates Airline "because they're fussy".
"They come to us because we offer a decent, British-style customer service," Mr Gorman says. "We give our clients a leaflet with clear information on what we do - that's a 27-point check, with a guarantee. If they experience a problem after that, they can come back and we'll fix it. Most companies don't do that here. They don't even give you a receipt.
"We have customers coming to the garage to complain about other garages. The other day, I saw a poor woman. She went to a garage where they overfilled the engine with oil. The engine blew up while she was on her way to Oman. They wouldn't admit it. She went to the police to complain, but the police said it's a private matter; that she has to sort it out with the garage guys herself. So what can she do now?"
Report it to the DED is the simple answer.
"More than 90 per cent of the complaints we receive are solved in an amicable manner with the supervision of the DED," Mr Lootah says. "We can impose sanctions through the courts, but retailers need to know regulations first. Awareness is where the DED places 70 per cent of its effort."
To lodge a complaint, consumers can either send an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call the DED's hotline (600 545555) to talk to an adviser, who will register details about the case.
The DED will then contact the other party and try to find out more about the issue before getting back to the consumer within two working days. It will try to work out a solution that is fair to both parties. However, complaints from consumers who do not have a receipt will be not be processed because there is no proof of purchase.
The hotline has proven to be a success, Mr Lootah says.
"The number of complaints received increased 50 per cent compared to  - not because retailers have repeated violations, but because customers are more aware of what the DED can do."
The Blue Book provides many helpful tips on how to protect yourself as a consumer:
Research first, then buy Before buying an item, make sure you understand warranties, guarantees, origin, storage, expiry and the method of use, as well as the store’s exchange and cash-refund policy
Request a receipt/invoice and ensure the details are correct Written in Arabic and any other foreign language, they should include prices, quantities of purchased items and the trade name. Warranties should state coverage and duration details
Read and make sure you understand the details This is essential for after-sale services and warranties. Ask for further explanations if necessary
Keep your receipts for your records It is the only way for you to ensure your rights and to register a complaint with the DED
Know your rights (as stated in Consumer Protection Law No (24) 2006) The right to safety, the right to know, the right to choose, the right to representation, the right to satisfy basic needs, the right to be informed, the right to live in a safe environment and the right to compensation/redress
Keep your cool and be patient A smile and positive attitude will work better than threats and tantrums
Don’t expect refunds or replacements If you change your mind, find the same product at a cheaper price, have been notified of defects or defaults at the time of purchase (normally marked as “used” or “faulty”), or damaged the goods yourself, you won’t receive a refund