Wednesday, January 23, 2013

a suitcase full of rice

Hong Kong Chinese folks are nuts about freebies and special “buy-one-get-one” deals.

Today I hunted for a new suitcase at a local shopping center where few employees speak English.  With a wide selection of products to browse and low prices on cheaply made items, the shop proved to be a good choice.  (No need to spend lots of money on baggage when the airlines will just beat it up anyway, right?)  When I made my luggage decision and indicated that I was ready to purchase the piece, the saleswoman repeatedly pointed to another small bag on a shelf nearby.  Thinking she wanted me to buy it also, I politely declined.  After several attempts to draw my attention to it, I deduced that I could have it for a few dollars more, along with my main purchase.  The small bag was unattractive though, so I continued to shake my head, “No.” 

Soon the saleswoman pointed to a photo of a large bag of rice, implying that I could take it instead of the handbag.  More head shaking and “don’t want” comments from me in Chinese.  Another saleswoman—who’s employee ID card read “Off Duty”—was summoned, and in broken English, informed me that I should take the bag of rice.  With a mixture of English, Chinese and hand-gestures, I finally understood that it was a free gift, and, furthermore, the locals found it unacceptable for me to decline such an offer.  (No matter that I’m a single girl who might spend years trying to consume an eleven-pound bag of rice.)  The first saleswoman gave fifteen minutes of her time helping me check out, find the escalator and journey to another floor of the shopping center to locate the customer service counter, and retrieve my free gift.  My excitement about the new lightweight piece of luggage was severely dampened when I had to haul it home filled with rice.

What strikes me as odd about these kinds of situations is not the free gift concept itself; after all, “buy one ___, get one ___ free” is an age-old marketing tool.  It’s the utter incongruity of the paired items that I find strange.  “Buy a large suitcase to get a small handbag free” makes sense.  “Buy a large suitcase and get eleven pounds of rice” does not make sense.

Similarly, I have received several small jars of peanut butter free because they were attached to a package of Lipton tea bags.  Those who purchase a local newspaper from 7-Eleven, or some such shop, may be handed the newspaper wrapped in a small, clear plastic bag, which also contains a purse-sized packet of free tissues.  I was once given several pairs of men’s large athletic socks, which came free when I bought a pair of women’s shoes.  When I asked about swapping the socks for women’s footwear—or at least a smaller-sized sock—the employees looked at me blankly and said these were the only free socks they had.

The most absurd “freebie-combo” I’ve seen was a deal at a drugstore in which greatly discounted Coca-Cola would be offered to customers who purchased a certain amount of toothpaste.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around—buy the Coca-Cola and receive discounted toothpaste because of the overload of sugar on the teeth?  (Furthermore, this soda-toothpaste display sat on the checkout counter next to the lamb placenta.  I found it an unpleasant experience all around.)

Sometimes the freebies or good deals require a bit of effort and calculation.  For example, spend a certain amount of money over a period of time at a shopping mall, and you might—after presenting the relevant receipts that add up to the correct amount—receive a free holiday gift.

A few years ago, I found myself standing in a checkout lane behind folks who were willing to put in the extra time and effort to maximize the freebies.  The group of three directly in front of me looked like a well-to-do young couple and a mother/mother-in-law.  Apparently this store had a promotion whereby if you make a purchase over a certain amount, you will receive a free vinyl shopping bag.  Though these three people were together, they began to meticulously haggle over their items, in an attempt to divide their groceries into separate purchases.  It was a matter of arriving at the exact total for each grouping because they did not have a large number of items.  One item would be scanned and push the total too far over the necessary minimum purchase to receive the free bag.  That item would be removed and a lesser-priced item would be scanned.  Like a game-show challenge, this happened over and over until they arrived at three separate purchases—i.e. three free bags.  (It also seemed important for them to pay with exact change—even though I spied larger bills in their wallets—so each time a final total rang up, they sorted through their various pockets and purses, carefully counting coins and pooling their resources.  A flurry of conversation accompanied this arduous process, though I understood none of it.)

I caught the eye of the salesclerk more than once, and offered an amused, patient smile, hoping to ward off her apparent frustration with these customers.  I was in no hurry, and was actually enjoying the drama unfolding before me.  Eventually, the party of three happily departed with a few groceries, three free bags and fewer coins in their wallets.  As I stepped up to the checkout counter, I smiled at the clerk again, and waved my hand when she apologized for the lengthy wait.  She then proceeded to offer me a free vinyl bag; I laughed and declined—besides the fact that I had brought my own reusable sacks, I thought the free bag was quite ugly.

Perhaps I should have inquired about free rice.

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