Over the last two years, pages and pages of complaints have been filed with the Key West City Attorney’s office — the result of the cosmetic store industry practices in Key West. Written statements are filled with phrases like “not given price of product,” “pressured into buying,” “tried to return,” “no written estimate,” and “no refund.” Most of these were filed by tourists who, after returning home and checking the credit card bill, were shocked to find they had been charged thousands of dollars for cosmetic products.
Complaints range from the product’s price not being clearly stated before purchase, off premises canvassing (hawking on the sidewalk), products that are unusable, and not being able to receive refunds or make returns. So far, the City Attorney’s office has handled 19 cases, five that went to hearing and one which was dismissed. The cases usually result in settlement but not without legal strong-arming.
But, according to Code Enforcement officer Jim Young, 61 complaints have been filed since 2014. That’s enough to prompt City Attorney Shawn Smith and Chief Assistant Ronald Ramsingh into action. At the commission meeting on Jan. 3, staff told the commissioners that the stores weren’t going to change their game, so the city has to change the rules.
Often the sales pitch starts with the simple application of a “sample.” In the U.S., samples are usually free —a common practice, from food to perfume. However, at the Key West cosmetic stores on Duval Street, the samples end up on the total receipt of purchase and at outrageous prices. A dab of face cream could result in a charge for an 8-ounce bottle, which could cost hundreds of dollars. It’s hard to determine the price because the shops often do not lawfully display it.
Key West’s current law states, “No permit holder shall commence or initiate the application of cosmetic samples in any form for a customer without first furnishing to the customer a written statement showing the final total cost of the item or service to be purchased by the customer.” The problem with the law is the “to be purchased” phrasing. In April 2017, Magistrate Donald Yates declared the city ordinance too vague and, as a result, the city lost a case against one of the stores.
Ramsingh said the judge declared the cosmetics store employee could not guess what was to be purchased. “Vagueness is a constitutional challenge,” he said. “In order to bring the regulation in line with that ruling, we need to remove that phrase,” said Ramsingh. “So, if the new ordinances passes, we will not need to verify whether or not the samples were actually purchased; we will require an estimate before any samples are applied — irrespective of they are eventually purchased or not.”
The tweaks to the law have the commissioners’ support. Only Commissioner Sam Kaufman, an attorney, said removing “to be purchased” isn’t enough. “You’re going to get defense lawyers still arguing the vagueness,” he said. “This is not a complete fix for me.” Kaufman urged city staff to close all the legal loopholes the cosmetic stores might exploit. The commission directed staff to come back with more aggressive measures to deal with what Mayor Craig Cates calls “predators.”
One of the areas City Attorney Shawn Smith is looking at is looking at is tougher enforcement of the off-premise canvassing, or hawking goods on the sidewalk. Ordinance Sec. 1-15 of the city code allows the city to seek prosecution of those violations in county court as a second degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail. “I’m talking about imprisonment,” said Smith, who also suggested more undercover sting operations.
For now, the burden of enforcement falls upon the employees of Code Enforcement. Staff says they are further hampered by stores who remove employees listed in the complaints, change ownership and even the store name to confuse the prosecution.
The city’s consideration of the latest amendments is not yet scheduled.