Whines/Gripes: Market Encounters

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China is a tricky place to do business. Shanghai, doubly so.

Stereotypes are regularly re-enforced in business and non-business transactions. Lying, for example, is commonly considered to be a reasonable weapon in the business arsenal. Trust is like hen’s teeth.

It can be shocking, at first.

While it’s very important not become a griping Laowai, living in the bubble (as I did for 2 years) gave me a false sense of security. Now as a business owner my perspective is shifted. Pragmatic has come to the fore.

Encounters throw up some pretty poor ethics. Even when caught cheating, apology or remorse play second fiddle to laughter and shrugging. Maybe a smile, maybe an affronted outburst of anger; probably nothing.

Case in point: Some logistics guys tried repeatedly to cheat during the weighing of some wines being shipped across China. We had weighed the wines ourselves so we knew that they should be 45Kg.

After first demonstrating the scales by weighing me, they sneakily re-set the calibration so the wines were 132Kgs! I protested. Next they were 90Kgs, then, after a little more cajoling, ended up at the correct 45Kgs. Their smiles never went away.

After we got the right weight agreed, they then tried a new tactic: trying to make out I had to pay them a Shanghai export tax (which doesn’t exist, so I declined) Then there was extra insurance they felt we needed (which was already a part of the quote we had received the day before). This insurance was a bribe to make sure they get their share of the deal and to make us lack confidence about the wines’ safe arrival, otherwise.

At that point, I asked them to leave. Ethics. I won’t pay anything to grease the wheels of business.

They drove away laughing, unconcerned. We followed up the encounter with a call to their supervisor (and then his supervisor!) Nobody cared. After shouting at us for a bit, they hung up the phone.

Being a guest here in SH is truly important. Cultural differences are there and do need to be observed. It’s an environment that requires careful navigating but there are always surprises. Some easier routes through the cultural minefield, presented themselves early on. They have stood me in good stead.

  • Partner foreign businesses who have an awareness and desire to be ethical and use or emulate western practices.
  • Written contracts are worthless but personal integrity is everything.

This gives a sense of security to concentrate on finding the gems.

All LWwines suppliers are large, reputable, long-standing, western-run international companies. Picking and choosing from their inventory is infinitely more secure, if possibly less fun than visiting auctions and dump stores, sifting through outdated or bankrupt stock or hopping from winery to winery buying up container-loads. Those methods are fraught with the risk of ending up with the aforementioned hassle and in some cases dodgy and difficult stock. Some importers don’t meet the stringent criteria for quality. They are monitored yet ignored: There’s enough poor wine going around already.

And enough proper wines that are available from suppliers who like and know what they are doing for the rest of us.

The Wine Man

January 2013

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