Interminable wait

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

If e-businesses want to thrive in this pandemic, they will have to behave more responsibly. And the government will have to improve its regulation of the burgeoning e-commerce.

A woman I know ordered Korea-made Richenna hair color on July 22, which was on promo at five boxes for P1,995 on Lazada.

The order, made to a company called Philsalgi, was delivered to her home on July 24. Since the box seemed too large for the products ordered, she opened the package. Lo and behold, it contained a set of pots and pans.

She was told that she could no longer return the package as it had already been opened. And the delivery guy refused to budge unless he got the P1,995. Calls and text messages to both Philsalgi and Lazada got no response. So the P1,995 was paid, just to get rid of the delivery guy.

Near the close of office hours that day, she finally got a response from Philsalgi. The company had the decency to admit that it made a mistake, and said it could refund the payment – but the woman would have to pay the LBC remittance fee. Why should the customer pay for the mistake of the seller?

The customer said Philsalgi should just deliver the correct item. She was told that they wanted to refund the money first, and then she would have to place another order.

Philsalgi’s website says its office is in Mandaluyong and it has been with Lazada for over four years, with a 98 percent positive seller rating from 588 customers. I take these ratings with a grain of salt; a seller can goose the reviews to rate highly.

Philsalgi posted a promise of a refund on Facebook, after the buyer complained online. As of yesterday though, the P1,995 still had not been refunded and the kitchenware not taken back. Not a breath from Lazada.

The customer intends to pursue a complaint at the Department of Trade and Industry, just to see if it will amount to anything.

For sure, such problems are not unique. Before the pandemic, my brother also had a tough time getting Shopee to replace a wrong item that was delivered to his home.

With the exponential growth of e-commerce during the pandemic lockdowns, industry players should be ramping up their services commensurately. Instead the complaints are the ones that are growing exponentially.

*      *      *

E-commerce isn’t the only problem. The weakness of our digital ecosystem is evident in the plethora of problems that emerged in one year of distance learning as well as in e-governance.

Consider the voter registration. Two women – both transferees from the province – registered online through the Commission on Elections website earlier this month. They waited to get a digital alert for an appointment for their biometrics.

Unable to get any alert for several days, they browsed the internet and learned, through Facebook posts, that the Comelec has stopped online registration because of poor internet connectivity.

So last Monday, the two walked into the Comelec satellite office at the Las Piñas city hall compound.

When they arrived there at around 8 a.m., they were dismayed to see a long line. They were given numbers and forms to fill out, and told that their schedule for biometrics was at 9:30. By 12 noon, hunger and fear of the Delta variant in the crowded area (even if they are both COVID survivors and fully vaccinated) made them consider leaving. But they also didn’t want to waste four hours of waiting, so they sat it out. They finally finished at 12:45 p.m. and were given long, narrow slips of paper as proof of registration.

*      *      *

President Duterte, in his final State of the Nation Address, asked why people have to go through such ordeals.

I’m pretty sure there are better ways of doing things digitally. As I have previously written, I booked a reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction saliva test at a mall during the COVID surge last summer, registering online with the Philippine Red Cross. The PRC provided the available dates and times, with intervals of about half an hour.

After I picked my preferred date and time, the PRC immediately sent me booking confirmations by text and email, with an advice to arrive 15 minutes early for preliminary processing. I arrived there on time, showed the confirmation on my phone, got my test and was out of there in half an hour. There were no lines.

Online registration for the national ID also crashed in the early weeks. This improved later, but there were many complaints of slow, clunky service.

In my case, I tried registering one Saturday at 10:30 p.m., expecting the worst. I was pleasantly surprised to get through immediately, and to complete everything, including securing an appointment for my biometrics (the last slot for July), in just under 30 minutes.

Last Wednesday at past noon, I showed up on the dot at the mall where PhilSys has a satellite office. I was fifth in line, and I was done in 40 minutes.

I must say though that the environment for registration is a potential virus spreader, especially with epidemiologists warning that Delta can take as little as 15 seconds of exposure to latch on to a new host. The fingerprint recorder is wiped clean with alcohol after each use. But masks are taken off for the photo, and pathogens can stick to the iris scanner (I wiped it with alcohol and didn’t stick my face to it, but still…).

Overall, however, my PhilSys experience was infinitely better than the two women’s ordeal at the Comelec. If the poll body wants more people especially the impatient youth to register, it should improve its system.

Even in physical banking, efficiency is possible, through well-crafted procedures. I do business regularly with six banks. The most efficient, unfortunately for our homegrown banks, is a foreign banking giant, although one major local bank makes up for it through a more personalized service.

President Duterte is right: efficiency is possible, and there must be a way of keeping people from waiting in line interminably (11 hours from 1 a.m. for one family in the city of Manila), even in the rain and flood just to get their COVID shots.

Grueling waits cannot become the rule in our country, whether for vaccination, on-site banking, voter registration or an e-commerce refund.

And e-consumers need better protection than the admonition to let the buyer beware.

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