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December 16, 2010

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Consumer craze for clipping coupons

AS China's consumer prices surge, coupon-clipping is not only trendy, but also a very practical way to get more for less, always a plus in China. Tan Weiyun buys one, gets one free.

Check, please." As Cherry Wang calls for her bill, the 28-year-old white-collar professional unzips her bulging handbag, exposing a stack of coupons. She spreads them out on the table, studies them for a while and picks one out.

"I can get a free drink because the bill is over 50 yuan (US$7.50). Thank you," Wang says, handing the coupon to the waiter.

Chinese always love a good bargain and it has been fashionable for quite some time for residents, young or old, to shop with discount coupons.

The Internet makes it easy to download and print coupons and there's a virtual coupon-clipping culture, a craze for amassing and using coupons of all kinds. E-coupons can also be downloaded to mobile phones and people can show the phone screen to vendors for a discount.

Coupons let shoppers buy one, get one free, get big and small discounts and free samples in restaurants, movie theaters, hair salons, spas, hotels and other businesses.

"The overall economy is discouraging and prices are rising dramatically," Wang says. "Everybody has a tough time, but we have to find a way to manage."

"It's partly because coupons save lots of money, but to a degree it gives me a great sense of achievement. It doesn't need to be the best, but it has to be the cheapest," says Liu Xiaoyan, a 30-year-old salesperson in a foreign electronics company.

Liu is also a loyal holder of the Velo card, a membership discount card that offers preferential prices at hundreds, maybe thousands, of restaurants, beauty parlors, convenience stores, fitness centers, hotels and many other places.

Velo has set up coupon-printing machines around the city in convenience stores, Metro stations, shopping malls and supermarkets so members can easily select and print out the vouchers.

It has been Liu's daily routine after work to check out the Velo discount information at Gate No. 4 of the Metro station on Nanjing Road W., which is always crowded with coupon collectors.

"Each time before I go out for a dinner or grab a snack and coffee, I check out my coupons or surf the net for discounts," Liu says.

"Some think people like me are stingy, but I would call it a pragmatic life attitude, to save every coin, especially in such a hard time - 500 grams of cabbage has soared in price from 1 yuan to 4 yuan," she says.

Traditionally paper coupons are handed out as shopping vouchers at supermarkets or department stores. Many are given as gifts from friends or relatives, for cakes, coffee and other items.

But as lives are now intertwined with the Internet, people can get loads of coupons from virtual space and enjoy discounts in the real world.

A survey last year by the, one of the largest dining commentary websites and e-coupon sources, showed that it got more than 17.4 million clicks for coupons from July to September, an increase of 13.5 percent over 2008.

"Internet coupons bring sellers closer to consumers who can buy what they want at home in the quickest, cheapest and easiest way," says Fei Guoming, manager of an e-trading company. "It will surely challenge the traditional shopping concept in China."

The country has nearly 400 million Internet users.

Catering and retail are the two biggest providers of coupons, but tourism and hospitality are catching up.

"E-coupons not only greatly lower the cost of editing, paper printing and distributing for sellers but also make the discount information accessible to a much wider range of potential consumers," Fei says. E-coupons are more easily viewed and saved.

Sensing huge business opportunities, many sellers are joining the craze, making such extravagant offers as 80 yuan for one night at a five-star hotel, 799 yuan for a Shanghai-Hong Kong three-day round trip, including star hotel accommodation, return air tickets, VIP membership cards for free service and other services.

At the same time, hosts of coupon speculators, the Internet versions of real-world scalpers, are making a killing. They get free coupons from friends, relatives, lucky draws or as corporate handouts - and sell them with discounts on the Internet.

"It's a way for me to make some pocket money," says Wang Luke, a 27-year-old civil servant in Minhang District.

Last month she found a fitness club selling membership cards with 60 percent off.

She bought all the cards and sold them on the Internet at 40 percent off. She made a profit of around 2,000 yuan.

The accountant and manager in a trading company, Chen Bin also casually posts his coupons and vouchers for sale or exchanges them for those that he needs.

Chen, who uses (one Internet information exchanger), has bartered his 1,000-yuan laundry card for an 880-yuan coupon for hairy crabs; a 700-yuan voucher for electric household appliances for a 950-yuan concert ticket for a Hong Kong pop star.

"Get mine and get yours. Each takes what he needs. It's a good thing," Chen says.

But there are some caveats about maintaining personal information security in all this trading.

"Be careful not to reveal too much personal data, such as home address, ID card or social security card numbers," advises manager Fei from an e-trading company. "Coupons make shopping easier and cheaper but one still has to be cautious."

Consumers should go to legal websites to download and print, he adds. "Most coupons have expiration dates, list branches where offers are valid and supply other information. It's best to confirm with sellers beforehand."


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