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.