(Originally published in Journey To Samal blog)

Moving to a new country and culture requires making some adjustments. You’re used to doing things a certain way, and you move to a place like the Philippines and you discover that people here have their own ways of doing things, and they’re different.

One of the differences has to do with shopping. On the surface, it doesn’t seem all that different from America. There are malls, they have stores, they sell stuff. But one thing they don’t usually do is let you return things. In the U.S., most large retailers will give refunds on just about anything, no questions asked. You buy a coffee maker at Walmart or an electric drill at Home Depot, you can bring it back for a refund, even if it works perfectly.

Not here. Different system. On most items purchased at the larger stores, the usual . . .

warranty period is one week, and you’ll have to convince a manager that the item was actually defective. Smaller stores, once you walk out of the store, whatever may be wrong with the item is your problem.

In pretty much all stores, with anything electrical, it’s customary for the store clerk to take the item out of the box, plug it in, and show you that it’s working. That makes it hard for anyone to claim that an item was defective at the time of purchase.

It isn’t too hard to see why things work this way. Customers want low prices. In this part of the world, bargain-priced goods probably started life in a Chinese factory somewhere and passed through several hands before arriving on a store shelf. Walmart may manage its supply chain tightly enough to be able to make manufacturers take back returned goods, but with a lot of the items sold here, it would probably be impossible even to figure out who the manufacturer was.

You want those low prices, you take your chances. It usually isn’t a huge problem. I’ve bought plenty of inexpensive electrical things here, many of them costing considerably less than what Walmart charges for comparable items. The only one that has quit working so far is a computer mouse, and it was a well-known international brand.

But you do eventually learn to check things before you buy them.

USB LabelCase in point: I was looking for a USB hub for my computer, and I needed one with a long wire since I was trying to position the Globe Tattoo internet dongle at the one spot in our house where there’s a good signal.

I went to the mall and shopped around, and the best I could find was one with a 1.5 meter wire (see the picture). It was late, the store was about to close, the USB hub was in one of those sealed plastic packages that require a cutting torch to open, so I didn’t bother to open it.

USB_extensionNaturally, it turned out that the manufacturer’s idea of 1.5 meters was 39 inches (see the other picture), which is actually most people’s idea of 1.0 meters, not quite the same.

No big deal, it was only a few hundred pesos, and I’ll use it for something else. But it illustrates the point: here, it’s customary to check what you’re buying before you leave the store, and make sure you’re getting what you think you’re getting.

All this may seem a bit backward and inconvenient at first, but I’ve decided that the system here is actually preferable.

Here’s why: under the American system, you’re essentially getting an insurance policy, in the form of a right to return things for any reason or no reason. That insurance isn’t free – it costs the stores money, and they add those costs to the prices. You’re in effect paying, in the form of higher prices, for all the people who buy clothes that they wear for a weekend and then return, the shoplifters who steal expensive items and then return them for cash, the people who decide after a week or so that they can’t really afford the item or they can get it cheaper somewhere else. And you get to pay for that insurance whether you want it or not.

Under the Filipino system, in general, you insure yourself. Consequently, most people are more careful to be sure of what they’re getting, and to take care of things once they’ve bought them. But as a result, you get lower prices than you would get if stores had to subsidize American-style return behavior.

So as usual with these cultural things, the Filipino system isn’t inferior. It’s just different.

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