Time for a human interest story, and — you’re forewarned — a long one.
You know that big KFC 50% off coupon fiasco reported on chinaSMACK? Guess what, I was uh, “lucky” to be witness to the madness. Wait wait, the best part is yet to come: I was witness to the madness for over six hours.
Yesterday afternoon, my girlfriend1 messaged me the coupon over GChat asking me to go ask the KFC near me if they will accept the coupon. I patted her head and praised her for a job well done foraging for the evening’s sustenance. However, not yet seeing any possible reason why I should stop what I’m doing to go downstairs and walk to the closest KFC to ask such a simple question, I replied “hell no, woman!” (or something like that) and said we’ll just go to the KFC near her office when I meet her after work. Despite her explanations of some restaurants accepting the coupon while other not, I was in a hurry to get back to plotting to really grasp that full ramifications of what might happen if the coupon was rejected. Worst case scenario, we’d just go dine at some other place, right?
Wrong! After picking her up at her office near XinTianDi, we walked over to the KFC on Huangpi Nan Lu (South Huanpi Road) across from the metro, only to discover that we haven’t been around the area in too long and it had long ago been cleared out for the massive renovations surrounding the metro station to redevelop the area into a high-end shopping district replete with all the requisite luxury brands like Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, etc. Turning around, we walked the opposite direction towards the KFC at the corner of Huai Hai Zhong Lu (Middle Huai Hai Roaad) and Xi Zhang Nan Lu (West Tibet Road), in what was the beginning of the quest for the Colonel’s secret blend of 13 herbs and spices, at a kick-ass price. My girlfriend expected crowds of people, especially as anyone who didn’t get off work at 5:30 usually gets off work at 6:00.
There was already a fairly large crowd inside gathered by the counter when we entered, and it took a while before I realized that the restaurant wasn’t accepting the coupon, largely because everyone was speaking Shanghainese, something that would persist all evening and night with me standing around looking lost and frightened. Most of the people gathered with girls and women, many being white-collar workers from the nearby area. The store manager, a bespectacled woman that looked completely unsympathetic seemed to be handling everyone quite, well, unsympathetically. Voices were raised.
Soon afterward, a tall and seemingly young man entered the store, hailing as some area manager or another from the corporate offices responsible for several locations. His name was Manager Tang, and he took over trying to turn away the gathering crowd of upset would-be 32 RMB Family Bucket Meal coupon redeemers…and failed spectacularly, though without losing his general cool and patience while sticking to his responsibility to the company, which became something quite a few begrudgingly admired by the end of the night.
Manager Tang quickly posted the official KFC statement that acknowledged the promotion but claimed that the specific 32 RMB Family Bucket Meal coupon everyone had downloaded was fake, and that no KFC restaurant will be accepting them. Compounding the Chinese crowds’ suspicion that KFC was merely regretting the potential losses resulting from their special promotion and now trying to renege on a coupon they had publicly released2, were a variety of explanations seen as unconvincing excuses about how the coupon is fake. For example, it was thrown out that printed or copied coupons were not valid, upon which the crowds held up their coupons and pointed directly to the fine print that said printed or copied coupons are valid3.
It didn’t help that this store, along with other stores, also tried outright lies in hopes of tricking the crowds to disperse without having to deal with the issue head-on, such as telling them to come back later or tomorrow. Hearing such attempts only made the patrons less likely to believe everything else. That the stores were still accepting other coupons that were released with the 32 RMB Family Bucket Meal coupon only led to people decrying why one coupon amongst the set is selectively not being honored4.
At one point, the crowd gave up listening to Manager Tang’s staunch refusal to accept the coupon or provide a reasonable substitute arrangement for the angry but still blameless masses, and decided to collectively try blocking the order counter, preventing incoming customers from ordering. It was effectively a picket line and yes, LoL, I was part of it. As new customers entered, the register staff would cheerfully welcome them with the usual Chinese “欢迎光临！” (huanying guangling), though they were helpless behind a wall of not-so-pleased Chinese customers. Of course, most people coming in were largely bemused by the sight and the girls in the “picket line” quickly explained what was going on, asking for their support — as fellow consumers — by either refraining from dining at KFC or going to the nearby McDonald’s. Few people muscled their way to the counter and most simply chuckled and left, seeing having dinner and offering token support for a bunch of people who seem legitimately upset as being something they could easily combine.
Eventually, KFC sent out some of their staff outside the door to take orders outside and deliver them around the human blockade. Those manning the picket line didn’t stop them nor did they insist on stopping anyone who was set on dining at KFC so, unfortunately5, no picket line violence of the American manufacturing union or anti-abortionist variety. What was clearly evident was that there were little ill-will between the customers and most of the KFC front-line grunts. Both sides empathized with each other, the staff not knowing what they can do, and the unhappy coupon-holders knowing that the staff had jobs to keep and no power to make any decisions. One male employee walked out with a tray of free drinks, only to shirk back into the kitchen when people rejected the drink as if it were to buy them off. Later, though, the staff would give drinks (fruit drink, soda, milk tea with grass jelly, hot coca, etc.) freely to anyone in the standoff, them keeping quiet and letting the manager struggle to find a resolution.
Manager Tang, as aforementioned and again to his credit, didn’t lose his cool, didn’t try to force the people out, and didn’t berate people for their peaceful “demonstration” or “protest”6. When the police arrived around 8:30pm, it was at the request of the crowd, and not KFC or Manager Tang. At first, two motorcycle cops arrived, then two more, and finally a patrol car came. Low-ranking officers then gave way to slightly higher-ranking officers, but ultimately to no avail for either KFC or the disgruntled coupon-holders. The Shanghai police had squandered an opportunity to improve their reputation amongst the civilians, to become heroes of the people by delivering buckets of chicken at the coupon price. Of course, they have no power to do that, and could only write up an incident report, expressing their helplessness to both sides.
The standoff would occasionally flare, especially each time individuals heard or read online about others getting the deal at other stores. Part me thought the situation would come to a head and something or another would be done as it got later and closer to closing time, since people would have to be vacated before the restaurant staff could go home. I was disabused of that notion when someone reminded me that this particular KFC was open 24-hours. Argh. The crowd did eventually thin out as the night wore on, especially after Manager Tang assented to taking down everyone’s name and numbers, promising that KFC would personally call them with an explanation for just what exactly happened, though how many thought the explanation would be any different is anyone’s guess.
At a bit past 11:00pm, there were only four of us left, two young women, my girlfriend, and myself (ever the loyal dog). Manager Tang sat himself down with us. Though I couldn’t understand all the details that were being exchanged back and forth throughout the night in Shanghainese, I felt the sum of the evidence and information I had up to that moment (both hearsay and from the KFC “statement” that was taped up) was inconclusive. That said, I didn’t think we had much of a chance of prevailing or winning any concessions, but I had been intrigued (and not hungry) enough by the dynamics of everything that had gone on to be just short of becoming impatient enough to stop being supportive of my girlfriend over something she cared about. To be honest, I was thinking about how I’d blog about this entire experience and what I learned from it.
Everyone understandably weary, my girlfriend at this point said that leaving empty-handed would leave everyone unhappy and unresolved, especially after so much and with everyone hungry. Manager Tang had, just moments ago when there were still more people around, offered to give everyone free Chicken burgers as a concession, only to then rescind his offer. One of the other girls agreed and piped up about Manager Tang treating them to McDonald’s. Much to my surprise, he actually and readily agreed. My girlfriend, trying to make the most of the unexpected victory, suggested Xin Wang instead, a nice Cantonese restaurant next to the nearby Babyface nightclub. We got up, and all five of us walked over to the restaurant together. As numb as I was by this point, I wasn’t without a measure of disbelief at the turn of events.
Dinner, at midnight, was decent. Everyone accepted this as some sort of concession towards the remaining hold-outs (of which I was dubiously a member of) who now openly respected Manager Tang for being the good employee to the bitter end.
In retrospect, one thing I noticed was that there was never really any strong emotional antagonism between Manager Tang and the crowd. No one got in each others faces to make things personal. Members of the crowd saw it as their goal to win a concession from a KFC that had inconvenienced them with how the entire promotion unraveled itself in an understandably disagreeable way. As much as both sides disagreed or called each other on what they considered to be unreasonable explanations or arguments, even with raised voices, the participants often tried reasoning with each other, even laughing at each others jokes, especially those joking about the predicament everyone found themselves in.
Manager Tang was friendly and invited everyone to order as they pleased. We have strong reason to believe that the meal was going on the KFC company expense account. Returning to a random aside that was brought up earlier in the night about how old he is, Manager Tang pulled out his Chinese identification card and smugly proved to everyone that he was indeed 38 years old, born 1972. He looks at least ten years younger. Dinner conversation included random other topics, including us asking why they changed the popcorn chicken (it sucks now) and him asking us if we liked the new soy milk KFC now serves (yeah, it was okay). He also asked if we were working for McDonald’s. No joke.
Epilogue: Earlier tonight, around 8:30pm, my girlfriend received a call from a KFC representative. This thoroughly, but pleasantly, surprised me. I cynically did not expect that they would actually follow through on that, and this is a good PR move by any measure. The KFC rep didn’t say anything that wasn’t already known, however, only reiterating that the coupon was fake, that it was made by other people and not released by KFC itself.
My girlfriend responded with what I’ve personally surmised as the general sentiment amongst the many Chinese consumers who are upset over this entire debacle:
- There is no way for Chinese consumers to know if KFC is telling the truth or just putting out a dubious explanation to cover for their own mistake(s), leaving the consumers in the wake to just “deal with it”.
- As such, they’re not liable to accept KFC’s explanation at face value, and in fact find it upsetting that KFC expects them to without reservation.
- And, ultimately, a lot of people feel KFC as a large company could’ve afforded to handle the situation more tactfully, perhaps generously (not her words), itself knowing that the customers didn’t do anything wrong themselves except get excited about KFC.
She acknowledged that the lady on the phone was likely only tasked with communicating her superiors’ side of things to the consumers, but asked that she try communicating these sentiments of the consumers affected to her superiors as well.
Wait, maybe not just yet. I originally intended to address some of the obnoxious but altogether expected reactions posted on chinaSMACK, especially since I’m amused by Fauna’s entering the fray when she usually doesn’t make much of a peep. Unfortunately, I think simply telling the story above, choking on the details here and there, is long enough for today. I may write a more specific follow-up later but until then, feel free to sound off.
Update: Stan shared this China Daily article with me just now, about Nanjing KFC’s business seemingly taking a hit following the aftermath of the coupon fiasco above. My girl mentioned earlier today similar reports for some Shanghai locations. Anyone following the Chinese language internet should already have an idea that this is actually a pretty big deal at the moment news-wise. Mmm. Chicken.
Update: Some people — disappointingly foreigners — are latching onto the suggestion that this is obviously a case of Chinese people suffering from the shady Chinese practice of making fake stuff. With some of these people, the suggestion is notable premised on certain stereotypes and prejudices. With others, I feel there’s a rush to wave a confrontational accusatory finger with mere presumption substituting for actual knowledge of how things work and how this entire KFC fiasco unfolded. I don’t expect the casual reader to gather and consider all the facts and details before commenting, but I want to disabuse some people of the idea that the specific coupon in question was “fake” in the sense that some mischievous person Photoshop’ed them and tricked everyone. That, I strongly believe, was not the case. My full comment of what I understand to have happened is below.
- Ah, let’s see if anyone takes the bait. [↩]
- As with many other places, not all coupons in China are advertised on the company’s official website, but instead released through other channels to benefit certain media partners, etc. This confounds one argument that the coupon is obviously fake because it apparently wasn’t on the official website. [↩]
- Many valid online electronic coupons are used by printing them out or, in more fancy cases, sent as a redeemable code to one’s mobile phone. [↩]
- If the coupon is indeed fake and not merely mistakenly released by KFC, it is conceivable that the fake coupon was replicated from and attached with valid coupons distributed online. [↩]
- Or fortunately, depending on your sense of humor. [↩]
- …which I hear wasn’t the case in many KFCs elsewhere in the country. People joke that the Shanghainese are rather wussy, unlike the easy-to-anger and easy-to-throw-blows dongbei ren, and fittingly, the Shanghainese never got physical, only argued. My girlfriend says some people in Beijing eventually just went into the kitchen to grab what they could. Could just be hearsay. [↩]