Huawei has made the headlines again – though briefly for the better, it quickly descended into chaos widely reported by CNA, The Straits Times, and other online publications in Singapore and the region.
Here are the facts: the company released a promotion targetted at the “Merdeka Generation” – those aged 50 and above. They would be eligible to purchase the Huawei Y6 Pro 2019 for SGD 54, heavily discounted from a retail price of SGD 198.
The main issue was the fact that Huawei neglected to state that handsets were indeed very limited. The queue for the Y6 Pro started in the wee hours of the morning and quickly got out of hand, with many outlets announcing that all units were sold out hours before they even opened.
An elderly woman was also reported to have passed out in the gathering crowd, with another lady arrested at Huawei’s JEM outlet store in Jurong East for refusing to leave the premises in protest.
Crowds took to Huawei’s Facebook page in anger, accusing its Singapore staffers of not anticipating the demand, and for not having “compassion” for the elderly. Several filial children surfaced their parent’s ailments and the fact that they had stood waiting in vain in spite of their condition.
In all fairness, Huawei had allowed members of their public to queue on behalf of their parents if they presented their IC as proof of eligibility. They had also admitted, similarly via Facebook reply, that they had little oversight over the availability of the smartphone model in question, and stocks were limited.
Needless to say, that did little to assuage the crowd. Add the campaign’s focus on the elderly, along with the pseudo-patriotic tie-in with this year’s National Day celebrations, and it is easy to understand the overwhelming ire.
Was Huawei to blame?
On the surface, it’s just a marketing stunt gone wrong. The Y6 Pro 2019 might be a recent model, but it’s not been a best-seller prior to this debacle. Looking at the terms and conditions, Huawei had performed its due diligence in forewarning customers about limited stock availability and their ability to redeem handsets by proxy.
This means that legally, customers might find it difficult to seek recourse. If they had been aware of prior medical conditions (e.g. a recent knee surgery), friends and family could have redeemed the offer on their behalf.
The true issue is really mired in a he-said-she-said of store opening hours, handset availability and waiting time.
There’s a lot still kept under wraps by Huawei and the relevant authorities – key facts that would readily shed light on this debacle. How many total handsets were redeemed? How many stores were closed due to running out of stocks even before opening hours?
The Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act of 2012 makes provision for the “unfair practice” for suppliers to “omit to do or say anything” in a consumer transaction, resulting in consumers being “deceived or misled”.
It might be easy to say that Huawei could and should have put the number of available handsets in the publicity material, but Huawei would have little reason to do so. For example, if some units suddenly became unavailable because of shipment delays, would Huawei then be liable for saying something that “misled” consumers?
Clearly, a blanket “while stocks last” clause serves this role much better. Furthermore, it probably helps that bit more to make a small-scale promotion go viral with the mistaken illusion that all customers will receive a handset for S$54. Huawei really has little more to gain from such an episode than more marketing airtime.
Customers who had been bamboozled by the company’s spurious claims really don’t have much of a case against Huawei. Lost hours from work? Injury from standing? Again – covered by Huawei’s all-encompassing legalisms that already informed customers that 1) units were limited and 2) the promotion could be claimed by proxy by presenting valid ID.
What could Huawei have done?
Many irate customers have come up with several suggestions, including listing the number of available handsets for redemption. We’ve addressed that one, along with the fact that proxy redemptions were possible.
In my uneducated opinion, the real issue lay in Huawei’s poor crisis management. With looming irate crowds (and concomitant PR disaster), it is clear that planned contingencies and on-the-ground crisis aversion was severely lacking.
Say Huawei is telling the truth and did not forecast the swarm of demand prior to the debacle. The lingering what-if would find a way to ensure that all these loyal customers willing to queue hours for their device would not go home empty handed.
Many had taken leave from their jobs, and most of the crowd were seniors above 50. All participants would reasonably back up Huawei amidst lingering tensions with the US threatening the company’s smartphone business. The last thing Huawei needed was for this remaining batch of customers to be antagonised.
Say you’re the country manager and you catch wind of the burgeoning, irate queues forming around the country, unable to obtain their phones. What would you do? Perhaps offer alternatives like last year’s models with roughly equivalent price tags with similar discounts? Perhaps issue coupons to those who have waited the longest so they can redeem the phone at a later date?
This way, you would avert a similar disaster by properly amassing the appropriate number of Y6 Pro units appropriate for the demand.
The company has announced (and shortly after, indefinitely postponed) an offer for the flagship Mate 20 Pro – going at SGD 568 down from the regular retail price of SGD 998. We’re not sure if Huawei Singapore will go ahead with their plan – but if they do, here’s to hoping it’s that bit better organised.