Helping customers and shopkeepers settle disputes is a daily job for the management of electronics mall Sim Lim Square.
Two to three complaints are made every day about problems such as overcharging. Sometimes customers call the police for help.
Discussions can last up to an hour and they can sometimes get tense and heated, with either side turning defensive, said a spokesman for the management of Sim Lim Square.
He said: "Sometimes the customer or shopkeeper gets angry, and we will try our best to talk to them." He added that the job of the management was to maintain the facilities and undertake advertising and promotions.
"It is not really the scope of the management to deal with such conflicts, which is why we have appealed to the authorities for help," he said.
On Monday, the beleaguered management issued an appeal for help, saying that despite its efforts, the problem of errant tenants has not been solved. It urged the authorities to intervene and take a tough stand against them.
Sim Lim Square is owned by multiple landlords, who have control over their respective tenants and shop rentals.
Foot traffic in the mall has fallen by about 50 per cent in the last two years, due partly to its tarnished reputation - broadcast in media reports and online forums - as well as competition from online stores, said the management.
However, the trouble seems to come from just six or seven shops out of 480 in the mall, it noted.
These shops are usually the focus of complaints about overcharging or cheating, and engaging in bad practices such as changing their names on signboards so that customers do not realise the shops have been blacklisted.
Last week, mobile phone store Mobile Air worsened the mall's negative image when it tried to give a customer a refund of more than $1,000, on the order of the Small Claims Tribunal,in coins.
To warn customers, the management began putting up posters last year, blacklisting tenants with the most complaints about them.
Some were torn down. Now, the lists can be found in plastic boxes at the lifts and carpark, among other places.
Both the Singapore Tourism Board and Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) are closely monitoring complaints, said Ms Choo Huei Miin, STB's director for visitor information and experience. She said: "Should there be evidence of unfair practices, appropriate actions that STB can take under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act will be adopted to curb these practices."
Case executive director Seah Seng Choon said the organisation asked Mobile Air yesterday to sign a Voluntary Compliance Agreement to stop its unfair practices.
If it refuses, Case can file a court order against it. Once this is granted, the retailer could face a fine and/or jail term if it disobeys the court order.
Several shopkeepers said they hope the authorities would be able to help rein in the recalcitrant shops in the mall. Mr Tom Tan, a manager at camera store Alan Photo, which has been in the mall for nearly three decades, said: "The mall management is already trying its best. We do not get involved; we just do our own business with integrity."
Black sheep and unwitting lambs
Ten shoppers at Sim Lim Square interviewed by The Straits Times yesterday said they were not aware that the shops they were visiting had been blacklisted by the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case).
All 10 were tourists. They also had not heard of Case, the consumer watchdog that warns shoppers of retailers' unfair sales practices.
Chinese national Lai Yen, 26, said she did not notice the list of errant retailers.
Thai tourist Thanit, 31, said: "I was just window shopping. They offered me good prices but I didn't stay around to ask more."
Increasingly, foreign visitors are steering clear of Sim Lim Square because of poor reviews on travel websites such as TripAdvisor, which gave the mall two out of five stars.
Tourist accounts abound of cashiers ringing up purchases with higher amounts than agreed upon, rude service and faulty products.
A mall spokesman said 60 per cent of foot traffic came from tourists a decade ago, and now it is 40 per cent. "The numbers dropped because of online shopping and the mall's bad reputation."
Case has a list of seven errant retailers as of September.
One retailer, Mobile Air - which holds the dubious honour of having the most number of complaints against it between July and September - has even made a customer cry.
On Monday, a Vietnamese tourist reportedly broke down and begged the shop staff to refund the $950 that he had paid for an iPhone 6.
Mr Pham Van Thuai, 28, who was buying the phone for his girlfriend, paid the amount before the shop staff told him he had to fork out an additional $1,500 for a warranty.
Upon hearing this, the factory worker, who earns about $200 a month in Vietnam, cried and knelt in front of them to ask for a full refund.
Police and Case had to intervene, and Mr Pham got $400 back.
The people manning Mobile Air ignored The Straits Times team when it visited the store yesterday.
Getting lots of flak
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) received the highest number of complaints from customers about these tenants, as of September.
The businesses are registered under the following names but these are not always marked clearly on their shop signboards.
1. Mobile Air at 01-41
2. Mobile22 at 01-42
3. Mobile Apps at 01-50
4. Cyber Maestro at 02-77
5. Gadget Terminal at 02-80
6. Camera Talk at 02-91
7. Mobile Planet at 01-41
This article was first published on November 5, 2014.
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