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Coronavirus: Hong Kong shipping firms under fire as face mask frenzy causes weeks-long delivery backlog

People who have ordered face masks online are complaining about delays to their parcels, while freight consolidators say they are working flat out to keep up with a huge increase in demand for their services.

Over the past two months, the demand for surgical face masks has skyrocketed in Hong Kong and the rest of the world, as people scrambled to protect themselves from the coronavirus, which has killed two men in the city and more than 3,300 others worldwide.

Desperate to get hold of face masks, thousands of Hongkongers have queued overnight outside local pharmacies amid a citywide shortage, while many others turned to online shopping sites to source scarce personal protective equipment from abroad.

face mask queue overnight

People wait in line overnight to buy face masks amid a citywide shortage. Photo: inmediahk.net.

The mask-buying frenzy quickly cleared shelves on e-commerce platforms such as Amazon US and Japan, Rakuten Global Market and Gmarket. Since some sellers would only ship their products domestically, or charge expensive rates for international shipping, many people in Hong Kong had to rely on local consolidators to send their face mask orders home in bulk.

However, consolidators – who collect parcels at warehouses and ship them back to Hong Kong at bulk rates – have come under fire as their customers say they have been waiting for weeks, if not months, for their deliveries. On top of shipment delays, some expressed frustration at the lack of response from the consolidators when enquiries about their orders were made.

On the Facebook page of ShipBao, a local consolidator that operates more than 15 warehouses across 10 countries, complaints from customers can be found across almost every post since early February.

A ShipBao customer surnamed Li told HKFP on Friday that she lost track of her face mask order after it arrived at the warehouse in Japan in late January. Over the past month, she tried contacting ShipBao’s Hong Kong office through its hotline and Facebook Messenger, but did not receive any response. It was not until last week that the company informed her the package had been held up, saying it might have contained restricted items or have exceeded limits.

She would have to wait for the warehouse to review the contents of her parcel, before it could be shipped to Hong Kong: “I was really unhappy about waiting for more than a month and not knowing where my shipment was. I will never use ShipBao’s service again,” Li said.

Similar complaints were found on another consolidator’s page. Shipgo – a Taiwanese consolidator that only started operating in Hong Kong last year – was slammed by customers for ignoring their enquiries.

“My face masks order on Amazon Japan arrived at your warehouse two weeks ago, but its status never got updated. Customer service kept telling me they were looking for my order. When I continued asking, they just ignored me,” a commenter wrote last Tuesday.

In response to the complaints about the month-long delay in shipments, ShipBao’s General Manager Mars Hau told HKFP that it was due to a six-fold surge in the number of orders they received during the coronavirus epidemic.

Scenes from ShipBao’s overseas warehouses. Photo: ShipBao.

Hau said the spike began in late January, after Hong Kong recorded its first confirmed case of Covid-19 on January 23. Their two warehouses in Osaka and Tokyo in Japan were soon jammed with mountains of boxes of face masks, forcing the company to rent two additional facilities to store other incoming orders.

“We have shipped at least 30 million face masks back to Hong Kong since late January. Our staff members are working 14 hours a day to try to clear the warehouse, which has really exceeded our usual daily workload,” Hau said.

Another local consolidator Buyippee, which owns warehouses around the world, said they faced a similar challenge.

“None of us in the company has seen this amount of orders before, not even during the Black Friday sales,” said Jack Yim, marketing specialist of Buyippee. “We expected to see growth during the outbreak, but no one knew our warehouses would be jammed.”

Buyipee boxes of face mask

Boxes of face masks are piled up at Buyipee’s warehouse in Japan. Photo: Buyippee.

Yim went on to say that the outbreak had made it difficult for consolidators to operate, in particular with temporary bans on face mask export in place. Countries including South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan have imposed export restrictions to relieve domestic shortages.

Such bans came with short notice or immediate effect, which had put great pressure on consolidators to ship their orders to Hong Kong before they became stranded.

“We are in a very passive position when dealing with external factors like this. When customers complained about a delay in their shipment, we can only apologise,” Yim said.

Hau agreed, adding that pushing shipments in haste out of countries that may implement an export ban was the reason why the company did not have time to update the status of each parcel. 

“Most customers see their shipment status as ‘airlifting’. In fact, most shipments have arrived in Hong Kong, we just need more time to open the packages and update the status,” Hau said, adding that the company would complete handling shipments from Japan within a week, then they would tackle orders from the US.

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But the ShipBao manager said shipment delays were sometimes caused by customers themselves, who gave a false description of their parcel content. For instance, some customers had tried sneaking in hand sanitisers containing alcohol — considered as controlled articles with shipping restrictions — by declaring the package as “stationery.” It resulted in a hold-up at customs, and a penalty was slapped on Hau’s company.

“Depending on how serious the violation was, the penalty could go up to several hundred US dollars, and we have to cover that for our customers,” Hau said.

On top of the flood of orders, Hau of ShipBao said the main pressure on their business operations during the epidemic was the increased freight rates because of cuts in international and domestic flights.

The company had refused to raise their prices, however, saying they had a “social corporate responsibility” to help Hongkongers solve their urgent need for face masks.

“To be frank, there’s no profit in what we have been doing in the past two months. People needed the masks urgently and we just helped them transport their orders home,” Hau said.

virus masks

People in Hong Kong scramble to buy face masks. Photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

At Shipgo, staff members have worked overtime until 2am for more than a month to process mounting face mask orders, according to manager Stanley Szeto.

Reacting to complaints that the company has taken no notice of customer enquiries, Szeto said the customer service team, made up of two staff, had responded to almost 2,000 messages on Facebook and WhatsApp over the past month.

“We have tried our best to reply to everyone, but when so many people are messaging us at the same time, some messages will sink to the bottom,” Szeto told HKFP.

He said if customers did not get a reply, they should send a new message, rather than wait for the company to get back to them.

Face mask children

Photo: Kevin Cheng/United Social Press.

While most complaints to consolidators were related to shipment delays and slow customer service response, Buyippee has also been slammed for its pricing system.

A customer wrote on the company’s Facebook last Thursday that his parcel was charged with volumetric weight rather than actual weight, which resulted in a major price difference. He said information on the pricing system was hard to find on the company’s Facebook and website and he accused the company of being “sly.”

In response, Buyippee told HKFP that they would compare the two ways of weighing; whichever is heavier would be chosen for calculation. Yim said the company had stated clearly that there are measurement requirements for parcels from the US or Japan to be charged with actual weight — the usually cheaper one — and those requirements are “industry standards.”

He added the company would usually provide repacking service to help customers reduce the size of their parcels, but this service has been suspended since February 7 due to the high volume of orders during the outbreak.

“We have seen more complaints about our pricing after we suspended the repacking service. We will think of ways to make our terms and conditions more presentable, but that can only happen after this hectic period,” Yim said.

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The three consolidators agreed that there has been a slow down in online face mask orders by Hongkongers. They estimated that their shipment services would return to normal by the end of March, but it would still depend on the spread of the coronavirus.

If the global outbreak worsens, I don’t know if people in Hong Kong can still buy face masks from overseas. Domestic supplies in other countries will definitely be running short,” Szeto of Shipgo said.

Coronavirus: Hong Kong shipping firms under fire as face mask frenzy causes weeks-long delivery backlog