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(Yonhap Feature) Blind faith in cyber word-of-mouth takes a hit

2018/10/18 09:11

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By Kim Seung-yeon

SEOUL, Oct. 18 (Yonhap) -- Mimi Cookie, a dessert purveyor in central North Chungcheong Province, is under police investigation for allegedly purchasing ready-made cookies from Costco and baked goods produced by SPC Samlip Co., a major food company, then reselling them under the false claim that they were home-baked.

A customer raised questions about the cookies in an online post in late September, claiming that Mimi Cookie's organic macarons and biscuits closely resembled Costco ones and were similar in flavor.

More doubts were raised about Mimi Cookie's signature roll cake, as customers suggested that they might be Samlip's.

It was not long before the owners of Mimi Cookie, a young married couple, confessed to something they insist they never intended to do when they opened their business. They claimed, in a post on a blog that has since been shut down, that they were struggling to meet soaring customer demand, so they bought stacks from stores, redecorated them with toppings and sold them to customers at twice the original retail price.

This image captured on Sept. 28, 2018, shows the main online page of Mimi Cookies, which is alleged to have scammed consumers by replacing their organic desserts with ones from a hypermarket and reselling them. The word in the red box reads, "We've closed down." (Yonhap) This image captured on Sept. 28, 2018, shows the main online page of Mimi Cookies, which is alleged to have scammed consumers by replacing their organic desserts with ones from a hypermarket and reselling them. The word in the red box reads, "We've closed down." (Yonhap)

Mimi Cookie earned its fame just three months after opening its online store, on the back of positive customer reviews. It touted its use of organic ingredients and no preservatives, likening their process to baking cookies for their own child.

Word traveled fast through social media channels, such as Instagram. At one time, the shop had to stop accepting bulk orders after three minutes. But the alleged scam has given consumers a chilling wake-up call as it indicated that word-of-mouth on social media, including customer reviews, was no longer trustworthy.

"I recommended Mimi Cookie macarons to my next-door neighbor whose 6-year-old daughter is allergic to flour-based food," an Internet user wrote. "I feel beyond betrayed and appalled that the two despicable beings, who I know are also parents, could do something like this to others."

   A petition calling for the owners to be punished has been filed on the website of Cheong Wa Dae, the presidential office, garnering 2,351 signatures as of Wednesday. The Naver blog market, under which Mimi Cookie ran its online shop, has refunded some 17 million won (US$15,100) to over 300 customers.

"I spend hours reading customer reviews and ask around on the community site or e-market page to find the best chokeberry juice and dried burdock roots for my parents. I just don't know where to look now," another online consumer wrote in a comment.

Experts say consumer confidence in online reputation is rooted in the belief that a business's reputation was built through an accumulated circulation of information among the general public, as opposed to paid marketing.

"The reviews were, or at least we thought they were, based on hands-on experiences of ordinary others who have used the item, not an ad that sometimes misleads consumers," said Prof. Lee Dong-gwi of Yonsei University's school of psychology. "It had been part of the process to make the most rational choice, like anyone would check ratings before they go and see a movie."

And going to the trouble of grasping the general view on the item before finally clicking to go ahead with the order reassured consumers who want to keep up with the latest trend and be "a smart consumer" who buys good stuff at lower prices, according to Lee Taek-gwang, a professor of Global Communications at Kyung Hee University,

"Plus, some consumers tend to be distrustful of the existing off-line market and industrial system led by a handful of conglomerates," he said.

For online-only, small and self-employed vendors, cyber word-of-mouth has been a critical factor, given its impact on the Internet community and their limited means for professional promotion and marketing. Hence some businesses have resorted to manipulating customer reviews.

Recent data from the e-commerce center of the Seoul Metropolitan Government demonstrate that the virtuous cycle of online word-of-mouth may no longer be valid.

A total of 498 cases of social media shopping-related consumer complaints were filed with the center by the end of June this year, up 18 percent from a year earlier.

The bulk of the complaints were about rejections of refunds or order cancellations, accounting for nearly 70 percent. Other complaints were regarding vendors who went out of contact after lodging an order, delayed deliveries or delivered defective products.

South Korea's Fair Trade Commission has announced a plan to launch a probe into irregularities associated with small online shops, starting with whether they hold legitimate business licenses.

Yet the blind spot is likely to remain as long as more consumers are exposed to dishonest practices and lawmakers drag their heels in bringing regulations up to speed, experts noted.

"Integrated efforts with web portal operators and law enforcement are key to restoring trust, including stricter penalties not only for the sellers, but Internet portals as well," Lee of Yonsei University said.

"We need to build a much more sophisticated verification system on the production and distribution level, instead of virtually letting anyone sell anything," Lee of Kyung Hee University added.

A graphic image that depicts online shopping, filed on Jan. 2, 2018 (Yonhap) A graphic image that depicts online shopping, filed on Jan. 2, 2018 (Yonhap)

elly@yna.co.kr

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