Membership card addiction

China has a massive addiction to membership cards: you can become a member of basically any business! From the hairdresser downstairs to the ice cream shop in the mall, without forgetting the pet store and absolutely every restaurant.

There are two kinds of membership cards: the free ones and the top up or purchased ones. The free ones are normally handed by restaurants when you spend a certain amount of money in a single meal. You get a shiny VIP card that entitles you to a small discount in all your future visits, normally about 5%. This is very cool! However, your wallet will get bigger and heavier.

Then there are the purchased membership cards, which are the majority. I hate them for a very simple reason: usually you never spend all the money you prepaid. Let me give you an example.

In the hairdresser’s downstairs:

– Do you want to buy our membership card? You recharge 1000 RMB now and then each haircut will be 20% cheaper.

– No thanks.

– Are you sure? It would be 20% cheaper!

– Sweetie, I cut my hair twice a year at most. Each haircut is 40 RMB because I always get the cheapest one. It would take me more than 12 years to spend those 1000 RMB. You might have closed your shop way before that! (Ok, I never actually say this aloud, but I think it).

In Suzhou there is this supermarket called Sam’s Club. You can only buy things there if you purchase their membership card first. It costs 150 RMB. Why would anyone PAY the supermarket for the “right” to buy things there? This blows my mind. The products are supposed to be cheaper than in other places, but when I went to have a look I didn’t think it was better than other supermarkets with free membership card, like Metro.

But it seems that, unlike me, Chinese people think very long term. This must be the reason membership cards are available everywhere and people actually get them. However, I still think they are a trap, and I will tell you two stories that happened to C.

Story one: there’s an ice cream chain we go sometimes. Once, a couple of years ago, they offered us the membership card. It was only 100 RMB and it included 3 coupons for free ice cream. Each of them is normally around 35 RMB, so it seemed a good deal. C. is an impulsive buyer and he got it. Do you know what happened in the end? We didn’t even exchange the last coupon. We lost money.

Story two: a few months ago, a friend of C.’s boss opened an imported fruit store. Their main attraction was the three avocados for 10 RMB deal. So cheap! I don’t particularly like avocados, but C. loves avocado milkshake. I’d rather buy local fruit, but C. wanted his damned avocados. In this fruit store the trap was quite obvious: each fruit had 2 prices, one for members and another, much more expensive, for non members. To get the membership card you only needed to recharge 300 RMB. Everybody did it. Then guess what happened. In our subsequent visits, the price of the fruit got more and more expensive. The avocados started being 5 RMB each, then 8, then 10, and last time it was 15. 15 RMB for ONE avocado. 15 RMB, my dear friends, is 2 euros or 2.29 USD. We spent all the money that remained in the card and left that shop, never to return. But imagine how much money that guy stole from unsuspecting customers! He should go out of business after everybody spends their cards and don’t recharge any more, but I am not sure that will happen.

After this last story happened I hope C. will not want to buy membership cards again!

Some of the membership cards I have.

Some of the membership cards I have.


Are non free membership cards popular in your country? Do you hate them (like me!) or love them?