Thursday, May 23, 2013

From the Internet

It started innocuously enough. Two years ago Summer, one of my former students and now shopping pal gloated she had bought her new bag ‘from the internet’. I’m sure that is a direct translation from Chinese meaning ‘I bought it online’. Obviously one does not buy from the Internet.

The Chinese have taken to shopping online with a gleeful enthusiasm. In fact, the most modern gadgets or stylish clothing is featured only online. To wit: I have been searching for a floor lamp for about 2 months, since I rearranged my living room. Nowhere have I been able to find one. Over lunch the other day I asked Gary if he had any suggestions of where to look. He immediately pulled out his phone, logged into his preferred shopping site and pulled up several attractive floor lamps for sale. Had I wanted to, a few taps on the screen and a few bills exchanged from my hand to his, I could have been the proud owner of any number of floor lamps.

Starting last winter, during Spring Festival’s peak travel period, one could buy train tickets online. Now all sorts of travel tickets are available to the online customer. In fact, that is the preferred method of securing passage, encouraged by the government. One can still head to the train station or any train ticket satellite outlet to purchase a ‘piao’ (pronounced ‘pee-ow’, meaning ticket), but that is mostly for the internet challenged or those that do not have access, such as migrant workers.

And for travelers like me. I can now read enough Chinese to navigate a ticket purchase online but my bank card will not allow online purchases. When I attempt to pay for anything from cellphone minutes to a cute doodad spotted on TaoBao or Alibaba – China’s two premier online shopping sites, I get the message that there is a discrepancy with the name on my bank account.

There are several ways around that, the easiest being to simply open an account of my own, preferably at another bank, and to manually deposit funds there. My primary bank account was set up by the school, as specified by my contract, to credit my pay and debit for utilities. Any changes to that account must be done by the school’s manager of foreign affairs.  

A small aside: I’m a bit worried about the utilities debit. Since I’ve lived here I’ve not paid for electricity or water, as per my contract. Sam suspects that my utility usage might be rolled in to the cost of utilities for the admin buildings right in front of my building. I’m worried that the mistake will be discovered and I will soon be hit with a massive debit for all utilities I’ve consumed since living here. I keep urging Sam to get the powers that be to study the issue and make reparations now rather than later, when I would owe thousands of Yuan. I think he’s secretly laughing at me and prolonging my good fortune by not reporting the discrepancy. We’ll leave that one alone and let the chips fall where they may, being as there is not much I can do about it other than report it to Sam.

Back to online shopping.

That is not a new global phenomenon. Even while still living in the States several sales people told me while out shopping that brick and mortar stores carry only mainstream sizes and if I wanted clothes or shoes to fit me I would have to buy them online. On my yearly returns stateside, more and more I am hearing that same refrain during my stock up shopping ventures.

The problem is that I am of extraordinary size. Girthwise I’m about a 14, with a shoe size of (men’s) 10 1/2. Women’s shoes remain out of reach for the most part. As reported in The Quest for Shoes, posted August of 2010 I am virtually impossible to fit. So, even though I might wear a mainstream size 14 or less at my waist, at 6’ in height I tower over the average person, male or female. Finding clothes long enough is the challenge.

Shopping online may be all well and good for retailers and the average customer but, with my dimensions I really need to try things on, more so than the average size 8 shopper with normal feet. I understand that I can always return my purchases if they don’t fit. But imagine the aggravation or constantly ordering online, waiting for delivery, finding out my selections don’t fit or don’t look as good on me as I thought they might, and then having to send them back, wait for a credit to my bank account, shop anew, repeat cycle.

And what about quality defects? Shopping online does not guarantee you will get a top of the line item. Because you cannot inspect anything prior to purchase, you are liable to get any old thing of any quality. If poorly made or badly rendered, the shopper has to go through the whole return cycle, as illustrated in the above paragraph.

In China, with enterprising startups looking to make a fast buck, cheating is commonplace. Who is to say that what is represented online is what you will get? Or even that you’ll get anything? To combat that problem, the Chinese government quickly got proactive.

Your credit/debit card has a hold placed on it for the amount of purchase. Upon receipt of goods, you inspect your purchase. If it meets your approval you are to go to a website and enter a code printed on the purchase invoice. If you have a SmartPhone, you can scan a barcode. The hold funds are then released to the retailer. There are still many ways for retailers (or anyone else) to cheat and many loopholes, but at least the government is doing something to combat online fraud. 

Back to shopping and returns. Imagine how that aggravating cycle would work for me, here in China, if I could even purchase clothing online. With my still limited ability to negotiate because of my language skills, along with the problems due to my bank card, and the fact that online commerce here is not as regulated as in America. Shopping online would be an exercise in frustration for me.

The good news is that Google Chrome has a ‘translate’ feature. If I go to Alibaba or TaoBao the browser will detect the language and offer to translate it into English for me. The bad news is that the translation is poor, or even downright comical. I can still muddle my way through the Chinglish, but then have the bank card issue to deal with

Again back to shopping, and now broadening the range…

Buying train tickets: because most of the premium seats are sold online, and sell out rather quickly, I (and the poor migrant workers) who must present at a ticketing agency are left with the dregs. The dreaded hard seats or even worse, being reduced to standing in the aisles.

Buying plane tickets is out of the question for me. I believe I explained that process in a previous blog post but rather than chase through my archives I’ll recap: One spots a good fare online, calls the travel agency, negotiates purchase, a courier brings the tickets in exchange for cash. That is one more task that Sam (or Gary) must manage for me. So frustrating!

With summer break looming and my vagabond heart coming out of hibernation, imagine my consternation at realizing I don’t know how to buy passage for the Yangtze River cruise I planned on for my first adventure of the summer. And then, turning on the computer and reading an article that expounds on the growing online shopping business.

This two page article, badly translated (or, badly written in English – not sure which) talks about shopping centers disappearing. Because so many are now shopping online, China predicts that actual shopping centers will become ‘try-on outlets’, where customers window shop, maybe try garments on for coloring or style appraisal, and then go online to buy..

Is all this online commerce good or bad? Good for the retailer, bad for those already feeling the squeeze of a depressed job market. Bad for consumers like me who, in the near future might have to resort to custom made clothing and restricted travel options.

I can see the practicality of online travel ticket shopping. Travel hub lobbies less crowded, less vehicle traffic, more convenience, etc. And I can see the economic reasons for such a move, from the retailers’ perspective. Less inventory means smaller stores, less overhead and fewer personnel.

That part about restricted travel options may well be the worst of the deal, as far as I’m concerned. What do you think?                

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