Ctrip Trouble: Beware “Free Cancellation”

Ctrip.com is one of the most popular sites for booking travel in Asia and my experiences with it have generally been positive. Unfortunately, I learned that hotel rooms advertised with “free cancellation” policies may leave the purchaser without the protection sought. I also learned that Ctrip’s customer service needs serious improvement.

I was booking a room for 5 people for a tentative stay in Haikou, Hainan. Seeing that the Tienyow Hotel offered some rooms with free cancellation, I booked one of those rooms and then prepaid. The listing with free cancellation had a higher price than the same kind of room without free cancellation, but the extra price was worth the security of having free cancellation if our plans were to change.

On the payment page, the listing continued to show the words “free cancellation” (I didn’t pay much attention to that at the time, actually, but have since verified this behavior on similar listings at the hotel) — but also had a confusing message about not being able to make changes once an order is confirmed. I figured that was standard verbiage that had not been updated to reflect the free cancellation that I was paying for. After all, I was paying extra for the free cancellation service.

When I completed payment, I received an email from Ctrip that said I had paid and that everything was nonrefundable in case I wanted to change. So I called customer service and was told that there was no free cancellation and they couldn’t do anything about it. The representative didn’t seem to get that it was a pretty disturbing, actually illegal, thing to advertise a service or benefit (free cancellation), charge extra for it, and then withhold the service. I asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor was too busy, I was told, but would call me back. He or she did not.

I later went to Ctrip’s live chat and explained the problem and asked for the email of the Legal Department and the CEO so I could register my complaint. They refused to give me that information, after repeated requests, and simply said that “We would inform the staff.” Huh? It took a while to get them to explain what they meant by that, but it was that they would ask a customer service person to call me. Other than that, the chat rep would not answer anything, in spite of my other questions about how they could offer free cancellation and not provide it.

Finally I did get a call from a supervisor in customer service who wanted to argue and tell me that they “had clearly” given notice that there was no free cancellation because of the conflicting message on the second page. They could not change my order because this was their policy, and they cannot change their policy.

At this point a native-Chinese speaking lawyer in my office jumped in and argued with the rep. After about 30 minutes, they offered to try to cancel the reservation for me. But that failed because the hotel refused to cooperate. Later, however, Ctrip did kindly acknowledge that there was something of a problem here and offered to cover 50% of my loss if we have to change or cancel the reservation that I’ve paid for. They also offered 100 RMB, later upped to 200 RMB, as Ctrip-bucks if we do complete the reservation. OK, that’s an improvement, but it took a lot of time and energy to get Ctrip to budge, and they still have a credibility gap when it comes to their offerings. They claim they will fix that soon. I hope so.

By | October 20th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Shopping, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

Shanghai Disney Resort: Fabulous Theme Park, Awesome Lines

China is buzzing about the new Shanghai Disney Resort in the southern end of sprawling Shanghai. On Saturday, May 28, 2016, my wife and I were kindly invited to attend a “soft opening” event at Disney, about two weeks before the official start date. Even though it was a rainy day, there were MANY people there. We were accompanied by about 40,000 other lucky people, creating lines as long as 5 hours (as in FIVE HOURS!!!). This was with about 70% of the rides open, so when in full operation, there will be more lines to divert the crowds, but the crowds could be even bigger. During regular operation, even bigger crowds are expected, perhaps as high as 70,000 or so. Wow.

This was a “stress test” day since other days of the soft opening had been limited to about half as many people. It was wonderful to be there, but there was plenty of stress.

Our favorite ride of the day, by far, was Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course, to be fair, I should point out that it was our ONLY ride of the day. We tried to get through the Tron ride, twice actually, but gave up even though we had managed to obtain a fast pass ticket for our second attempt (with the help of a kind friend) and were just minutes away from entering. But then there was a mechanical problem that shut the ride down before we could go on it (I later learned that an employee foolishly opened a door that could have let someone walk onto the track, and the interlock safety system shut the ride down for safety reasons until they could troubleshoot the problem), and we were out of time. We had to leave early for a dinner event, unfortunately. One day, one ride–but it was still a great day.

If you go, don’t make our mistake of attempting to get fast food in one of the big eateries. That wasted an hour and a lot of money, and we ended up walking away from our food, largely uneaten. Ugh. Bring you own. But Remy’s Patisserie was excellent and fast, with perfect spinach quiche. Try that, perhaps, but now the hamburger joint near Tron. Ugly lines, very slow, and lots of craziness.

Prepare for Disney by using the fast pass system and by making online reservations. Do your homework first! Then enjoy. Please don’t stand in any line over 3 hours long! Life is too short.

By | June 1st, 2016|Categories: China, Products, Restaurants, Shanghai, Shopping, Travel tips|Tags: , |Comments Off on Shanghai Disney Resort: Fabulous Theme Park, Awesome Lines

Renting an Apartment in Shanghai: Some Practical Tips

We’ve lived in Shanghai for almost 5 years now and have rented four different places in this time (#4 about to start). Moving is a pain, but it’s given us some valuable experience. Here are some tips based on what we’ve seen.

Looking for apartments in Shanghai usually involves a real estate agent who will help you find an apartment. You’ll be asked to sign a one-year rental agreement. Anything less is difficult, but can be done with special arrangements, but only with a minority of landlords. Those needing an apartment for less than a year might try subletting a place listings at SmartShanghai.com or by personal connections with Shanghai residents willing to let someone use a room for a while.

You will need a lot of cash. In general, apartments are rented out one year at a time with contracts requiring one or two months’ rent as a deposit, and then upfront payment of the first two or sometimes three months of rent. This is a big surprise for many foreigners coming here, for it means that obtaining an apartment in one of the most expensive cities on earth will require at least three and usually four or five months of rent paid before you can even move in. In addition, you will also need to pay 35% of one month’s rent (typically, but be sure to check) as a fee to the real estate agent. (That may seem like a pretty steep fee for the work of signing you up for an apartment, but it’s actually worse than that because the landlord has to pay also, and the going fee now seems to be 100% of a month’s rent as payment from the landlord to the rental agency they signed up with.) Many foreigners coming here are shocked to see how expensive apartments are (e.g., often 2 or frequently even 4 times as much as in many US cities), and are even more shocked to see how much cash they have to provide in their first few weeks.

The company that brought you here typically won’t help with any of that upfront cash you need to pay. If they offer housing assistance, as many do, it comes in the form of a monthly stipend that will start after (maybe a month or even two after) you’ve paid all that cash and moved in. You will need to provide a fapiao (official government tax receipt) for the first month of rent from the landlord to your work and it must be listed with the exact name of your company (generally) in order for you to get reimbursed for one month of rent at a time.

For the process of finding the apartment, here are some tips:

First, if you don’t speak Chinese, bring or hire a Chinese-speaking friend to help you get the information you need. If you rely on rare English-speaking agents, your choices will be much more limited and it will be hard to find multiple agents covering a desired region, which is part of Tip #2 below.

Second, work with more than one real estate agent to find a place to rent. The listings from landlords are not all visible to every agent, so the perfect place for you might not be known to the first agent you work with. The quality and diligence of agents varies greatly. Most recently, for example, we started looking about seven weeks before our current contract ended. We had one agent we really liked who took us to a few places but then told us that we needed to wait a couple of weeks before we came back because landlords were not willing to sign a contract what would start in mid-June when it was only early May. But as we were saying good-bye to that agent, another one approached us on a street corner and said he could do better and that he thought it wasn’t too early too look. He worked hard to come up with some places where the landlord was somewhat flexible, and we soon found an ideal place that we’ll be moving into shortly. But during out search, we worked with three different agents, each with different listings and different strengths.

Third, be very clear about what you want and understand where you can compromise. Some people want to be up high enough to have very few mosquitoes. But if you could save 1000 RMB with a place on the first floor, could you cope by using bug zappers and mosquito netting over your bed? Do you really need two bathrooms? If you have lots of guests, this can be especially valuable. Understand how much space you need for the kitchen. Do you need an oven? Do you need a dryer? These are rare but some places have them. Understanding the difference between “nice to have” and “game over if I don’t have” is vital, because you are probably going to have make some compromises or pay a lot more than you want.

Fourth, generate lists of questions and issue to consider and discuss by visualizing details of your life when you are in an apartment you are considering. Look at the kitchen layout and consider how you would use it. Is the fridge too far away for practical work? Is there inadequate storage space? Obvious dangers? In other rooms, look at the electrical outlets and see if there are enough. See if windows can be closed and sealed off in winter to keep cold air from flowing through your home. See if air conditioners work, hot water flows, etc. Sit calmly and listen: is there lots of honking from street traffic, or are you in an peaceful place where you have a chance of getting decent sleep? Try out the furniture. Designed for someone half your size? Feel the bed. Rock hard? If reading is important to you, is there a comfortable place with decent lighting you can use? Look carefully at the neighborhood and the street you will live on. Is the traffic clogging the road all the time? Are there no taxis? Also, make sure your clearly understand if the quoted rent includes a fapiao (if you need two fapiaos, this could be trouble, and make sure that is clearly and plainly explained, and make sure you explain that you need real fapiaos, not fake ones–no kidding!). Ask if there are any extra fees you are responsible for. Will there be an installation fee to start Internet or TV service? Understand parking rules for you or for visitors.

Fifth, don’t trust everything you see or hear. Many online apartment listings rely on fake information to lure you in, and some agents you meet will feed you fake information to win you as a client. This fake information will be a listing that looks absolutely perfect, such as an ideal apartment in the place you want, in your budget, with loads of cute extras that make it seem like a real steal. When you call the agent to schedule a visit, you’ll find out that it has “just been sold.” That same apartment may end up “just being sold” over and over again. It may not even exist. I suggest not relying on that service or agency if they play that game. Further, real estate agents will often make statements when they don’t really know the answer. Be suspicious and ask how they know. Some agents, especially those working for firms that seem to be trying hard to push market prices higher, will quote you greatly inflated prices. Checking with multiple agents can give you a feel for what the real price should be for a given type of apartment.

Sixth, negotiate. Three times we have offered somewhat less than the asking price and had success, but if you ask for more than, say, a 10% reduction, you might not only get a rejection but find that the landlord is not willing to talk with you any more at all. But do negotiate, respectfully. In one place, we pointed out how terrible the furniture was and got the landlord to agree to lower rent if we scrapped some wasted furniture and bought our own instead of requiring the landlord to buy new items. We got 1000 RMB a month off our rent which quickly paid for the cheap used couches and a used bed we bought from expat friends who were moving back to the US. In another place, we got the landlord to buy an over for us if we would pay 500 RMB a month extra, which was fine with us–but in the end a bad deal for us because we stayed there two years, and an over costs about 5000 RMB. Oh well!

Seventh, allay landlord concerns. The visit to an apartment with a landlord present is a two-way interview. You are trying to find out if the landlord will be reasonable, but the landlord is keenly interested in seeing who you are. They have invested way too much money in this place and don’t want to lose it through a disastrous tenant. Dress nicely. Be on time. Be very pleasant and polite. Compliment the landlord on the things you see that are positives. Act like a considerate guest. The feeling they have about you can play an important role. They want responsible, trustworthy people who aren’t going to trash the apartment or sublet it to a tribe of party animals.

Eighth, once you’ve found the right place, be prepared for the closing. Find out if the landlord wants the upfront payments in cash or via an electronic deposit (credit cards often are not accepted for these kind of things). If you need, say, 40,000 RMB, realize that you can’t get all of that on one day from an ATM machine, but you can get it from a bank if you have an account there with that much in it. Otherwise you may need to have money wired to China from a US bank. Also as part of preparing for closing, ask the agent to get a copy of the contract to you before the closing so you can review it, and make sure it is in English and Chinese (but the Chinese terms will govern if there are any differences). If they have changed the agreed-upon terms or offer new unexpected conditions, be ready to walk. Also have someone who knows China and Chinese be there with you are at least available to help if there are any issues or questions. Inspect the apartment carefully and make sure agreed-upon repairs or changes have been done or are spelled out in the contract.

Ninth, prepare for moving out of your old place.  Be sure to give your previous landlord plenty of notice (usually by 30 days or a month before the last day of your contract, you need to give written notice if you aren’t going to continue) and cooperate fully to help them sell the place. Keep it clean. Do your best to be thoughtful of your old landlord. While that’s just good human behavior, it also has a practical aspect: it may increase the chances of you getting your deposit back, or at least some of it. Sadly, some landlords make excuses and keep the deposit. We’ve had luck so far in getting our deposit back, though we have another deposit quest coming up soon. Wish us luck. Have an inspection meeting with your former landlord to review the apartment and see if there have been any unusual damages. It may be good to have photos of the place when you moved in and photos of the current place to show that you’ve taken good care. If you’ve spent money on repairs or other things, receipts will be helpful. You may need to prove that the furniture you wish to remove from the apartment is actually yours, since the door guards (“menwei”) at apartment complexes are trained to prevent theft from departing tenants and so will require conformation from the landlord for you to remove something you may own. Make sure you move on a day when the landlord is available by phone.

Tenth, when you move, take many precautions and get help. Hire movers to move your stuff if you have a lot, and watch over the process carefully. They may be fly-by-night and can damage many things. Work with them to protect whatever is really valuable or move it yourself. For special items like a piano, go to a piano shop and get their recommendation for skilled piano movers. Work with the agent and landlord to make sure that services like power, Internet, gas, etc. are operating when you move in. Be very careful not to damage walls, flooring, windows, or light fixtures as you move in. Make sure you have keys and understand how to enter the complex and the building (passwords, key tokens, etc.?).

It can be tiring, but with luck, you’ll have avoided major disasters and will find yourself in a pleasant new setting in one of the most delightful and beautiful cities on earth, Shanghai.

By | May 29th, 2016|Categories: China, Consumers, Housing, Shanghai, Shopping, Surviving|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |Comments Off on Renting an Apartment in Shanghai: Some Practical Tips

Facing the Real Risk of Theft from Your Bank Account in China

An increasing number of friends are reporting troubling cases of theft from their China bank accounts. One friend, after years of working in China and saving every penny, was preparing to return to the US, but suddenly every penny in her ICBC bank account was stolen. The ICBC bank officials told her that someone had a copy of her card and had taken the money out. She asked how this was possible without knowing her password. No explanation was given, except that it was somehow her fault. She spent five days arguing with them and got nowhere. They said that the thief could have been working with her to perpetuate fraud on the bank, so why should they refund her money? Her only option now is to sue, but she has to go back to the US soon and fears she won’t have the ability to pursue the case. But we’ve encouraged her to work with a lawyer to fight this. She will, and I hope to have good news to report sometime.

Her story has almost exactly the same set of facts that we find in a chilling account, “How I sued the world’s largest bank and won” at Shanghaist.com. In this case, it was a smaller amount, 15,000 RMB that was taken from the author’s ICBC account. He encountered the same helpful consumer service policies and attitudes, and was forced also to sue for something that was clearly not his fault. He won, and it only took 7 months and some modest attorney fees to get his money back.

If you have a bank account with an ATM card, there is a real risk that one day money will begin disappearing from your account. There are some very high risk factors in China you need to understand:

1) The daily limit for ATM withdrawals is much higher than it is in the U.S. and Europe. A thief typically can take out 20,000 RMB a day (over $3,000), which is 5 to 10 times higher than typical US limits.

2) The daily limit may not be over a 24-hour period, but may be based on the calendar date, so if that applies to your bank, then a thief can take 20,000 RMB out at 11:55 pm, and another 20,000 RMB out at 12:05 PM.

3) Banks in China often don’t have effective anti-fraud protection.

4) There are many thieves with card copying or card scanning devices who can make a duplicate of your card. If they or a small video camera can watch you enter your password, having your account number and your password leaves you defenseless.

5) Thieves can sometimes pull money out of your account without using your password. I don’t know how this happens, but it has happened to multiple people in China, and it happened to us with our US bank.

6) When someone pulls money out of your account without knowing your password, it should be the bank’s fault and they should reimburse you. But consumer service attitudes and policies may not be identical to those in your home country. China banks may tend to blame the customer and argue that maybe the thief was collaborating with you, so they might not cooperate unless you take them to court. You can sue and win in China, but it will take a lot of work and the help of an attorney.

Because money in the bank is so vulnerable, I suggest several best practices:

1) Do not keep large amounts in any single Chinese bank. Move a lot of it into US accounts without ATM cards or with two-part authentication, and keep plenty of cash.

2) Use your bank cards as little as possible. Instead, use cash to make payments when possible.

3) Do not let employees walk away with your bank card (they might run it through a card copier device of some kind). Keep your eyes on it.

4) Do not let your card be scanned in any place that seems questionable or seedy.

5) When using ATM machines, look for unusual devices, small video cameras, etc., that might have been added.

6) Keep good records of where you have been so that if the bank says it must have been you that pulled all your money out of your account in, say, Harbin, you can prove you weren’t in Harbin that day.

7) Monitor your bank account frequently, and make sure you receive automatic text messages when money is taken out of your ATM.

8) When you do find a problem, document in detail who you spoke with, what you said, what they said, etc. You will needs lots of documented details if you have to sue the bank to get back missing money.

9) Avoid trusting your money to any bank that has a bad track record of protecting the money of its customers. If you know of banks that have performed well in this regard, please let me know.

These problems are not unique to China, but they seem to be a lot more frequent here and more severe, especially with the high daily minimum that thieves can take out.

If you do online banking, your risks are also high due to hackers. I suggest you use complex passwords that you change often, and only use secure computers to access your bank accounts. It’s good to have a cheap computer that is never used for browsing but only for bank access, and even then keep good firewall and anti-spyware software on it, keep it updated, use more secure browsers like Chrome or Firefox, and don’t use untrusted wifi networks to access your accounts. For added security, use VPN when you access your bank account.

Don’t keep all your money in any one account, and keep a wad of cash somewhere, too. Thieves can get everything, but we shouldn’t make it easy for them.

By | June 17th, 2015|Categories: Business, China, Finances, Internet, Investing, Scams, Shanghai, Shopping, Surviving, Travel tips|Tags: , |Comments Off on Facing the Real Risk of Theft from Your Bank Account in China

Beware Fake Rental Fapiaos (Receipts) in China

Many expatriates living in China receive housing stipends that cover at least part of the monthly cost of rental here. In expensive cities like Shanghai, getting your housing stipend can be essential. Your reimbursement, though, requires that you provide a “fapiao” (official receipt from the government) which shows that taxes have been paid. The tax rate right now is 5%, so your fapiao of, say, 8,000 RMB costs your landlord 400 RMB. Your employer then uses the fapiao for some kind of tax benefits in reimbursing you. If you don’t provide a proper fapiao, you generally won’t get your housing stipend.

A few things can go wrong on this process. Make sure you know exactly what name your company requires to be on the fapiao. For me, it has to be the proper legal name of my company, not my name and not other commonly used versions of my employer’s name. One time my landlord bought several months’ worth of fapiaos all at once, but used the corporate name I pointed to on my business card instead of the official legal name, and I ended up having to pay for new fapiaos out of my pocket. In that process, though, I learned that getting fapiaos involves going to a local tax office, showing your rental agreement and your passport, and then simply paying 5% of your rent to buy the fapiao.

Also make sure you get fapiaos by the month. Your company will generally want one for each month, not one for three months at a time, even if you pay your rent once every three months as I do.

A more troubling problem you may encounter is fake fapiaos. Fake receipts? Yep, it happens, and is an easy way for an unscrupulous person to make some quick money. This may happen when a real estate agent, after closing the deal for your apartment, offers to save the landlord the trouble of getting fapiaos. The agent may have a friend allegedly at the tax bureau who can help you get the fapiaos easily. If the agent doesn’t need a copy of your rental agreement, that’s a clear sign that something is wrong. I don’t know if the seemingly official fapiaos are printed on stolen receipt paper from government offices or are just really good forgeries, but they look like the real thing and businesses may accept them and reimburse you, but if there is an audit or careful investigation, they may discover that the fapiaos are fake and you may then be denied your reimbursement.

For Shanghai folks, you can check to see if your fapiao is real or not using a government website: http://www.csj.sh.gov.cn/wsbs/WSBSptFpCx_loginsNewl.jsp. It’s in Chinese, so you may need help doing this.

If you are getting fake fapiaos, let your landlord know. It can hurt their credit and their reputation with the government. It may end up hurting you. The crooks who are stealing your money (and stealing tax money from China) with fake fapiaos need to be stopped. Of course, your agent or whoever gave you the fake fapiaos will be shocked that their friend in the tax office made some kind of error. Maybe they knew, maybe they didn’t, and maybe it was all an innocent mistake, but given the easy money to be made, chances are someone is just pocketing the money, and not pocketing it accidentally.

Unfortunately, one acquaintance of ours says that she got fake fapiaos by going to the fapiao office her business told her to use. I think this was an official fapiao office but I need to confirm that. Whether it was an accident or intentional theft, you need to recognize that there is a possibility that the fapiao you get is fake. Check to make sure they are legit, and try not to get too many months of fapiaos all at once in case there is a problem with them.

By | May 18th, 2015|Categories: China, Finances, Housing, Products, Scams, Shopping, Surviving|Tags: , , |Comments Off on Beware Fake Rental Fapiaos (Receipts) in China

Beware Inflated Delivery Charges in China: Get Pricing First

Delivery fees in China are usually surprisingly low. Kuaidi, rapid delivery, is far less than it is in the United States and is a pervasive way of moving goods, with the postal system being used far less for such things. But aways be ont he alert regarding fees. I’ve seen a number of cases where high delivery fees are being used to compensate for low asking price. When delivery is involved, make sure you have the delivery fee pricing before you buy. On TaoBao or related online services, check the delivery fee carefully–sometimes it can be quite large. Of course, this is a problem anywhere. In the States I’ve seen offers for “free” products that included $20 shipping and handling fees.

In China or anywhere else, never agree to any service before you know what the price is. The danger is that you’ll assume that the customary low price for something must apply, only to face a painful surprise, as happens in the karaoke scam and other scams.

By | November 12th, 2014|Categories: Scams, Shanghai, Shopping|Comments Off on Beware Inflated Delivery Charges in China: Get Pricing First

Real Italian Bread (Roman Style) on Gubei’s Pedestrian Street: Panificio Roma

While walking along Gubei’s beautiful pedestrian street, my wife and I encountered a little Italian bakery on a corner, where we met the owners (Francesco Mazzani, originally from Milan, and his wife, originally from Shanghai).  Panificio Roma is a real Italian bakery. In fact, the dough they use is actually made in Italy, made by his family’s traditional bakery there, and then frozen and imported to China, where it is baked in his store at 620 Jin Chen Dao (Golden Street) in Gubei. You can learn more about the bread and the Italian craftsmanship in every loaf at their website, http://panificioroma.eu/.

The bread is really great. We were in Italy earlier this year and learned that Italian bread can be terrific, although bread in Tuscany usually has almost no salt in it and seems like it has no flavor. But Panificio Roma isn’t that way–it’s a good, hearty bread that I like better than Tuscan-style bread. The ciabatta is perfect, and the baguettes are soft inside with great texture. We also had a panini for 45 RMB and some fresh squeezed juice. Outstanding. We will be back. The owners, both of whom speak wonderful English, are very friendly, intelligent, and interesting. They sat down with us and talked while we slowly ate out delicious food. Imagine, real Italian bread imported from Italy but baked in Shanghai.

By | November 2nd, 2014|Categories: Food, Restaurants, Shanghai, Shopping|Comments Off on Real Italian Bread (Roman Style) on Gubei’s Pedestrian Street: Panificio Roma

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

Now that we’ve moved out to the Gubei/Hongqiao area in Shanghai, 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.

By | July 29th, 2014|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Restaurants, Shopping, Surviving|Comments Off on Why Do So Many Foreigners Shop at Carrefour? Too Expensive, Not Superior 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 on Shopping in China: Are the Prices in Department Stores Fixed or Negotiable?

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

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

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