I did, indeed, accumulate a month’s worth of blog entries during my week in Beijing last month, and this is the latest installment. I propose it as a case study! I will relate the facts and leave the discussion to you!
My cell phone is a Hong Kong phone. Chinese electricity is the same current as Hong Kong, but it uses a different type plug. So, in order to charge my phone in China, I have to use a plug converter. On my recent trip to Beijing, I forgot to carry my plug converter.
The hotel where we stayed didn’t have any plug converters, either. They had one Hong Kong type outlet in their main office. There were some inconveniences and risks associated with leaving my phone at the hotel desk from late at night until early morning. I wanted to purchase a plug converter. None of the stores we walked past to and from our daily goings and comings looked like they would stock plug converters. My main hope was either a specialty electronics shop (think Radio Shack type store) or a large department store (think Wal Mart type store).
Lo and behold, on our second day out, I located a shop that had plug converters! It was primarily a camera shop, and it was in a major tourist district. Foreigners of all kinds were coming in there and plunking down big bucks for the latest in camera technology. When I asked if the store had plug converters, they opened a drawer full of them and asked what kind I needed.
Knowing that the store would ask an outrageous price, I had already called David and asked him what a fair price would be. He told me I ought to be able to get one for 10 RMB. Sure enough, the price they asked was outrageous: 200 RMB. I offered 10, they countered at 150, etc. After several minutes, they refused to budge off of 50. I figured that while 10 was probably the true, reasonable price, I really wanted a plug converter. Watching people plunking down 2500 and 5000 RMB for cameras and electronics gadgets, I also figured that they didn’t really need my 50 RMB business, and that they likely wouldn’t budge more. Moreover, the difference of 40 RMB comes to roughly $5.
Balancing on the one hand the fact that I probably couldn’t get one any other way without major inconvenience (to me and my traveling companions) during my trip, plus my need for one versus the extra $5 — I agreed to pay 50 RMB. It wasn’t that I didn’t know I’d been snookered. To the contrary, I made a calculation about cost and benefit and decided to buy it in spite of the poor bargain.
When I came outside from the store, to where my Chinese friends (and bargaining mentors) were sitting and waiting for me, I joked to one that I had to pay 50 RMB for it. She was appalled, and (I was told later) smitten with guilt that she hadn’t come inside to bargain on my behalf. She huddled with our other companions and they decided that I had been heinously taken advantage of. They conferred among themselves and, yes, indeed, everyone knew that 10 RMB was more than fair. A good price would even have been 5 RMB. I was not, until this time, aware that there actually are published prices that are supposed to govern plug converters! They called some pricing authority that someone knew about, and confirmed that the published price was 10 RMB. They marched me into the store with them and demanded that the shopkeeper refund the difference. He refused.
His primary argument was that, though the law does apply to a non-negotiated sale, the fact that I had counter offered and bargained took my transaction out from under the protection of the consumer protection law. Secondarily, he countered, they should not be helping a foreigner anyway. While all of this heated argument went over my head (way beyond my comprehension level of Chinese), my companions told me that he said some very derogatory thing about stupid Americans who come to China and think they can get around knowing just a little bit of Chinese. He told them that they shouldn’t be helping Americans because Americans were taking all their jobs and economy away from China and stealing from their country. Well, this latter tirade just served to incense my friends even more. They were embarassed and offended that someone had treated their guest this way. They were livid. But, there was nothing anyone could do, so we left to go catch our bus. It was late, as well, about 9 PM and we had been out since early morning. Everyone was bone tired.
We had walked only about one block when our group spotted two policemen. Eureka! Perhaps these policemen could help, someone said. My friends explained the situation to the policemen. The policemen listened, with a crowd of bystanders gathering. They replied that they didn’t know if they could help. They said that legally their hands were tied, since I had bargained with the store, but they would talk to the owner and see if he would voluntarily comply with the pricing regulation.
The store employees and manager’s tune changed when the policemen arrived. They were less hostile. They still refused to give me the published price, but they agreed that I could return plug converter and they would refund my 50 RMB. Of course, after all that trouble that’s what I had to do. After the policeman had negotiated this, I saw the store manager offer the policeman a cigarette, which he refused. I returned the plug converter and got my 50 RMB back.
During the entire week, I never did get a plug converter! I survived without one, too.