Why Do So Many Foreigners Shop at Carrefour? Too Expensive, Not Superior Quality

Now that we’ve moved out to the Gubei/Hongqiao area, we are close to the large and popular Carrefour grocery store. We’ve been there 3 times now, but we’ve decided to shun it as much as we can now that we’ve seen how consistently high the prices area and how iffy the quality can be.

The high prices are my main complaint–many things are 20% to 50% or more what you would pay at E-Mart and maybe twice what you might pay if you shop around a little more. But price is not the only problem. We’ve had some quality problems already.

Produce purchased on Saturday in several cases went bad by Sunday. I could tell it was getting on in age when I bought it, but having to throw vegetables away after one day is ridiculous. We found their baked bread quality to be poor (burned flavor from overcooking). Staff are not that helpful (likely to give you wrong directions or just point you in a general direction without really helping you).

Food is not the only problem we’ve had. A DVD player we purchased was dead out of the box and had to be returned, but returning was difficult because the staff person in the electronics area had us pay her cash and she put it on her card to get credit for the purchase. Took a lot of talking, but finally we were able to get a refund. Also, when you need a fapiao (for example, some people need to get them and turn them in to their employer to help them get some kind of tax benefits I guess), they take and keep your entire receipt so all you have is the fapiao that you might have to turn into the office. If something needs to be replaced, you won’t have your proof of purchase anymore. Good luck. Other stores like E-Mart let you keep the receipt when you get a fapiao.

On the plus side, their fresh herbs were fresh (ah, great mint for my favorite Brazilian pineapple-mint drink) and reasonably priced for the quality. And another big plus for Carrefour in Gubei is the Food Republic food court on the first floor with a dozen or so great places to eat at reasonable prices, including one of my favorite gelato/ice cream places, Ice Season, where natural mint is my flavoite flavor Not too sweet, and perfectly flavored.

On the down side, getting home from Carrefour is a chore if you want to take a taxi. There is along taxi line but very few taxis coming by. Since most of the people there are going short distances to get home, fares will be low, so cabbies aren’t motivated to go there. It’s about a 10-minute walk to the Shuicheng Road subway station on Line 10. Much easier to use that if you can.

But for better deals and fresher produce, go to your local wet market. Or try other grocers or other supermarkets like E-Mart at Laoximen. Much better prices there, and generally good quality.

Shopping in China: Are the Prices in Department Stores Fixed or Negotiable?

One of the challenges of shopping in China is knowing when the marked prices are firm prices or just an inflated asking price subject to haggling. In grocery stores, the prices are generally the real prices and there is no sense trying to argue anything down. But in many other settings, the marked prices might be negotiable, meaning they could be way too high and you shouldn’t pay that much.

Sometimes a store will have fixed prices on one aisle, and negotiable (inflated) prices on the next. If there are friendly sales people servicing a particular set of products or section of a store, let that be a warning sign. Why does this store have five or six people anxious to help me buy blankets or vitamins, but no one in other sections of the store to help me buy batteries or copy paper? It may be because the people selling blankets or vitamins are on commission. They may not even be employees of the department store, but employees of a manufacturer. They are highly motivated to see you the product for as much as possible. This can happen in malls, department stores, and even grocery

One way to know if the prices are flexible is to simply ask if they can lower the price a little. “Keyi pianyi yidiar?” If they say something like, “Well, since you can speak a little Chinese, I’ll give you the friend discount of 10%,” then you know the price is flexible. If they pull out a calculator and type in the price to display it for you (this allows them to show you a price privately without revealing it to other customers within earshot), that’s a sure sign that the price is flexible, and a sign that what they are asking is way too high.

If they say, “No, I can’t lower the price,” say “OK” and walk away. It’s when you walk away that you see if they are serious or not. If you walk away and they say, “OK, OK, 10% off!” then you know the price can be lowered. If they say nothing, the price probably is firm.

Many electronics, appliances, bedware (blankets, linens, quilts, mattresses, etc.), and relatively high-margin items have prices that can be negotiated when shopping in China.

The next challenge is knowing what the real price is. Sometimes you can only hope to shave off 20% or 30% from the price. Other times the asking price might be 10 times the real price (this is especially true of gifts like pearls or jade items). This is where knowledge is power. Chinese people ask each other what they pay for things all the time in order to learn real prices. Do your homework before you buy. But if you don’t have time, you can try several different shops and start very low, and seeing if they call you back after you walk out. Again, it’s only when you walk that you see if your offered price might actually be acceptable. You may have to walk away several times, raising your asking price each time, until you find a taker and realize that you’re close to the real price.

On the other hand, if you are not in a bind financially, don’t be too tight-fisted in China. Spending a little extra money for what you buy can mean a lot to the merchants. For a small extra amount that is still a fair price, you can bring a lot of cheer, and if you feel that a merchant is kind, helpful, and honest, giving him a “healthy price” can keep him or her happy to serve you and help you in the future. That’s my view, anyway.

By |June 14th, 2014|Categories: Business, China, Consumers, Shopping||Comments Off

Tailored Clothing in Shanghai: Great Deals, But Be Cautious About Leather

One of the great things about Shanghai for foreigners is being able to have tailored made clothing at prices much lower than is possible in many other nations. Here you can have a suit made for around 800 RMB, around US$140. Lower-end off-the-shelf suits in the US often cost $300 to $500, and custom-made suits are even more, so it’s an attractive option to have them made here. If you are going to be in China for 3 days or more, consider ordering a suit. It usually takes 3 days to get them back. There are many shops in Shanghai that can do this, but the most popular areas with a big concentration of competing tailors are the South Bund Fabric Market and the Science and Technology Museum.

The South Bund Fabric Market is 南外滩轻纺面料市场. Address is 399 Lujiabang Lu, near Nancang Jie. Chinese: 南外滩轻纺面料市场, 陆家浜路399号, 近南仓街. It’s probably enough to just tell the cabby “Qing Fang Shichang” (轻纺市场, meaning light wovens market). This is not far from the Nanpu Bridge subway stop on Line 4, about 5 minutes, and you can walk through old-city chaos from Xiaonanmen station on Line 9, maybe 10 minutes. The Science and Technology Market is very easy to reach. It’s right on line 2 at a station of the same name. You don’t even leave the station. It’s there, underground, with dozens and dozens of shops. But not always the best prices.

It’s good to get the advice of long-timers or frequent customers to get a recommendation for a place that can be trusted. But I’ve tried a couple selected rather randomly and still had fairly good results.

Of the two major centers, I think I prefer the South Bund Fabric Market. The prices may be a little lower. I suggest going to the second or third floors for the best deals. I think the first-floor shops get more business and may charge a slight premium. Not really sure on that.

For men, you can have a custom suit for 800 RMB. I suggest getting two pairs of pants with the suit, which will cost another 150 RMB or maybe 200. Add a shirt for about 100 RMB.

Based on reviews I’ve read, I would suggest that you avoid having leather goods made there unless you have a recommendation and have seen what was made. Make sure it’s real leather. The shop may show you nice high-quality leather, but what you receive from their tailor might be fake leather and poorly made. With suits and dresses, they are at least probably going to use the same material you selected. Be sure to try it and make sure it fits. The shops don’t have changing rooms for the most part, but can put up or in some cases have one or two people hold up a screen for you to change behind. Don’t be shocked to see some people changing without any privacy barrier, but don’t do that yourself.

For leather belts (or fake leather belts) with the new ratchet mechanism, go to the accessories and crafts market at 399 Renmin Road, across from the main gate leading to Yu Garden. In this five-story complex, you will find hundreds of shops with all sorts of too-dads and crafts, but on the 3rd or 4th floors to the right of the escalator as you come up is a shop selling belts at an asking price way below what you will negotiate at the popular fake goods shops or clothing complexes. 35-50 RMB versus 150 to 250 RMB. Give it a try.

By |April 6th, 2014|Categories: China, Products, Shanghai, Shopping|Tags: , , , , , , |Comments Off

Another Scam in China: Worthless Foreign Currency (and One More Sip of the Popular Tea Scam)

Thailand-currencyAn American friend of mine visiting Shanghai was shopping at Yu Yuan (Yu Gardens) and bought something from a pushy salesman on the street. He paid with a 100 RMB bill and was given several bills as change. What he didn’t notice was that the  bills he received was worthless currency from some foreign nation (he thought it looked like Arabic but I’m guessing it was from Thailand). So instead of paying 20 RMB, he paid 100. Rip off.

Make sure you know what real Chinese currency looks like so people won’t had you bogus currency for change. Look, verify, and count. Don’t be so trusting and gullible, like many of us Americans are.

Other Basic Scams at Tourist Attractions 

The day before my friend went to Yu Yuan, I warned him about some of the scams he might encountered. I told him that anytime someone approaches you there or at other major tourist sites and speaks English to you, no matter how friendly and attractive they may be, they are probably sales people whose job is to separate you from your money. I warned him that there are people who try to engage foreign visitors by asking them to take their photos, and then some sort of scam is likely to follow. Just say no politely and walk away, I said. I also warned him of the ever-popular and often successful tea ceremony scam, where gullible foreigners are lured by attractive English speaking girls to join them at a traditional tea ceremony for a cup of tea. In this scam, after a few minutes of tea, a gargantuan bill is presented, accompanied with solid Chinese muscle to enforce payment for what was allegedly a rare and exotic high-priced tea. One cup might cost you hundreds of dollars. Never fall for that, I warned. Stay away. Beware. Don’t go inside.

The next day at Yu Yuan, my friend ran into a couple of cute girls who spoke English and asked if he could take their picture. Being friendly and always wanting to help, this young man took the photos and chatted with them. “We are tourists from Beijing,” they said, “and have been to all these major Shanghai attractions on our tourist map except for one, a traditional tea ceremony right around the corner. It’s a great way to experience Chinese culture. Would you like to join us for some tea?”

“Well, I guess I can just take a look,” he said, and followed them into a tea house. But eventually, he later told me, my warnings began to enter his thinking–finally–and he realized he had better check a menu and see what the prices were before he did anything. He asked for a menu and saw that there was a 30 RMB service fee posted in addition to some high prices for the tea. But now he felt pressure to not just walk away, though he explained he didn’t drink tea and needed to leave, so how much did he need to pay for just taking a look as he had done? The waitress was puzzled and went to check with the owner, and came back saying that he needed to pay 200 RMB. That’s for absolutely nothing–what crooks. He said no way and gave them 30 RMB as I recall and left, but they were angry. I think he was lucky the muscle hadn’t shown up yet.  The result could have been much worse.

When you see young people at Yu Yuan waiting with cameras at busy corners or on busy streets, and out of all the thousands of passers-by, they choose you, the stand-out foreigner, to get someone to take their picture, know that the last thing they want is your photographic assistance. It’s a scam. Feel free to take their photo on your camera so you can let others know who these scammers are, but don’t let them lure you anywhere. They don’t want photos, just your cash. Lots of it. And they will use deception and force if you give them the opportunity.

By |March 26th, 2014|Categories: China, Scams, Shanghai, Shopping|Tags: , , , , |Comments Off

Artistic Bags from TheMozaik.com: New Company from a Friend in Shanghai

An example of a bag from TheMozaik.com

Example of a Mozaik bag

One of my friends at work has left the company (APP-China) to become an entrepreneur in Shanghai. Rinnie, a very sharp and artistic girl, has founded TheMozaik.com, a company focused on beautiful, unique bags, purses, and related goods. I ran into her recently and learned a little more about what she is doing. I was impressed with her tastes and want to give others a chance to check out TheMozaik.com.

You can buy TheMozaik products in Shanghai at several locations, including Yaang Life shops at The Cool Docks and K11, or Inshop.

You can also see more products and a photo of Rinnie herself on her Tumblr page at themozaikcollections.tumblr.com.

By |March 8th, 2014|Categories: Products, Shanghai, Shopping|Tags: , , , |Comments Off

Returning Defective Products: My E-Mart Experience

One of the challenges in buying food in China is that many stores don’t pay attention to expiration dates and will have food on the shelves that is way too old. It is best to look carefully before you buy. In addition, even if food is fresh according to the date on the label, it may still have gone through unacceptable handling en route with exposure to high temperatures or other improper conditions, so what you get can be unacceptable or inedible. Most of the time what I buy is fine, but handling the exceptions is something to be ready for.

Last night I returned a container of strawberry ice cream to E-Mart, one of my favorite retailers with generally high-quality food products. Unfortunately, the ice cream was ancient, almost one year past the expiration date. How that is even possible is beyond me–there must be some huge problems in the supply chain from Yi Li, the Chinese dairy company that made this product. The product had been missing from the shelves of E-Mart for a few weeks so I assumed this was a fresh shipment when it came. But nearly one year old? Amazing. When I opened the container, I could see something was wrong immediately. It was dark and oxidized in appearance, and cracked around the edges as if it had been drying. I dug out a spoonful and saw that it was hard and rubbery. Only a fool would taste that, and this particular fool reports that it was unpleasant. Time to help E-Mart recognize they have a problem by returning the product and asking for a refund.

Fortunately, I still had the receipt. I took the product and the receipt with me and headed out the door, and then had a thought. What is the most bureaucratic response that could be possible? Ah, they could ask not only for the receipt, but the fapiao as well. The fapiao is the official tax record that is optional and requires waiting in a line to obtain after making the purchase. I get one usually when I go to E-Mart because my work asks me to bring some each month. When the fapiao is obtained, they tear off a little piece of paper at the bottom of the receipt, so it is possible to look at a receipt and know that a fapiao was probably issued. Expecting bureaucratic snags, I went back to the apartment and retrieved my fapiao, which I had not yet turned in to my work, fortunately, for yes, I would need the fapiao.

The customer service desk was helpful, but in a crazy time-consuming way. They looked at the expiration date and realized this was too old and agreed to refund my 56 RMB purchase price. They asked for the fapiao in addition to the receipt, and then the woman began entering numbers into an old register of some kind. Entered lots of numbers. I waited and waited, and she was still entering numbers. Then I realized that she was manually entering the lengthy product code printed on my long receipt for all of the purchases I had made in order to recreate a new receipt with everything but the ice cream on it. It was a bizarre experience to watch her doing this. I was supposed to be on my way to an appointment, so I tried to explain that I didn’t really need my fapiao or anything and didn’t want to trouble her with re-entering everything. “Oh, it’s no trouble,” she said and kept going. What I really meant though was that I was about to explode and could she just let me go without waiting all night for all those keystrokes? Fortunately, all the strokes were hers and I survived without one of my own. With a few dozen deep breaths and a gentle fake smile, I got through it and was only a little late.

Lessons: 1) Check expiration dates before you buy products. 2) Test products right away before you lose receipts or turn in a fapiao. 3) Allow plenty of time when getting a refund. But to be fair, I’ve had faster and more reasonable return experiences at other places. Maybe there are better systems out there than E-Mart’s. Also to be fair, China is not the best place be buying ice cream. Another lesson learned.

By |March 3rd, 2014|Categories: China, Products, Shopping|Tags: , , |Comments Off

Scams in China (and Beyond): Some Tips

There are many scams that newcomers here must learn to avoid. The classic scam involves English speakers inviting Westerners to come to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. After a cup or two, there’s a bill for a huge amount, with some hefty bouncers there to enforce payment. Ouch.

Online shopping in China or with Chinese companies can be a big risk. Here is a list of Chinese retail websites that are reported to be fraudulent. One friend of mine bought a computer on one of these sites and lost his money. One of the warning signs that he should have known about: they told him they don’t accept credit cards but needed the money sent via Western Union. That’s the same as handing someone cash. No recourse. No protection. Don’t ever buy anything via Western Union payments! Ever.

If you are coming here for a job, there a plenty of crooks that will sign up foreigners for jobs here that turn out to be closer to slave labor. They promise to get a visa faster than should be possible, and some smuggle people into the country illegally or bribe an official at a “diplomatic desk” to get the victim into the country. They then keep the person’s passport, making the person completely vulnerable and at risk of imprisonment or deportation if they don’t cooperate, etc. It’s human trafficking. Don’t fall for these scams. They are aimed largely at people from less developed countries.

Remember, there are people looking for ways to exploit you. Be suspicious. Be nervous. Don’t give your passport to people you don’t trust. Don’t pay people in advance with cash. Don’t let a charming smile lure you into an out-of-the-way place where you’ll have to pay a lot for your tee, or pay even more to replace your teeth. China is a great place abounding in kind, honest people, but the few crooks here and everywhere else force us to stay on our guard at all times. Be careful.

By |February 11th, 2014|Categories: China, Scams, Shopping, Travel tips|Tags: , , |Comments Off