Consumers seek a balance of power with providers of rental phone chargers
Shared power banks, which provide portable phone chargers for rent in public places, have become a way of life for about 290 million people in China. However, pricing policies have recently set off alarm bells online.
Many people are finding that the hourly price varies in different places, even for the same providers.
On social media platform Weibo's hot searches, hashtags about shared power banks have evoked 57,000 discussions and been read 55.3 million times.
Many netizens accuse providers of three shortcomings: high prices, slow charging speeds and difficulty in returning devices.
"The cost of a power bank is so high now that any price increase is unwarranted," a man surnamed Shen told Shanghai Daily. "My ideal price for a shared power bank is 1 yuan (14 US cents) per hour."
Shanghai Daily investigated major shared power bank providers Meituan, Energy Monster, Jiedian, Xiaodian and Soudian in several venues, both downtown and in suburban areas.
At the popular tourist attraction Yuyuan Garden, most shared power banks charged 4-5 yuan per hour, with price caps of 40-50 yuan. But in the Mid-Lake Pavilion at the venue, the provider was charging 8 yuan an hour.
At Xintiandi, an upmarket shopping and entertainment area, the hourly rate of shared power banks ranged from 3-7 yuan, with a daily price cap of 20-50 yuan.
In suburban areas, rates were apparently a bit lower. In the Qibao Old Street area of Minhang District, rates mainly ranged from 1-4 yuan an hour, with price caps of 10-40 yuan.
Shared power banks have become a major segment in the world's largest mobile phone market. The industry peaked about five years ago amid the popular "sharing economy" trend.
At that time, rates for the rental phones users were free for the first 30 minutes or even one hour, and 1 yuan per hour after that. The daily cap price was only 10 yuan.
Why have rates soared up to fivefold since then? Consumers can't find a reasonable explanation.
"The rates are never displayed in a conspicuous place," a traveler in her 20s complained. "Once, I used a power bank in Nanjing, and it charged me 16 yuan an hour. At that price, I could buy my own power bank."
On August 4, the China Consumers Association criticized some providers for shared power banks that are "easy to borrow but hard to return." The later a shared power bank is returned, the more money a provider earns.
It's not uncommon for users to find no vacant places to return the devices at power bank stations.
A worker at Yuyuan Garden's Lubolang restaurant said sometimes one may borrow a power bank, only to discover it has no power.
"Once, a customer borrowed such a power bank and even though it was returned with no charging taken, the money was still taken. The customer was upset," said the worker.
A worker with restaurant chain Green & Safe expressed a similar frustration.
"A customer once wanted to return a power bank here but found all available spots occupied," the worker said. "The person then quarreled with us about it, and, in the end, we had to rent a power bank just to provide a vacancy for him."
A mother and daughter who borrowed a shared power bank in Yuyuan Garden complained that the charging speed was extremely slow.
"We used it for about half an hour and it only charged two bars of the battery," the mother said. "It cost us 4 yuan, and we thought the price was steep."
Unlike many shops and restaurants, some local transport hubs have their own shared power bank brands or charging services.
At the Hongqiao Railway Station, there is a Xiaohongmao power bank outside the station and Volt+ bank inside the station.
A male passenger in his 40s complained about the service.
"The shared power bank service is terrible here, and I've never come across these two providers, so I guess the devices can be returned only at the station," he said. "Volt+, in fine print, advises users that the power bank must be returned in the same city. If one doesn't notice that, he or she has to pay 99 yuan to rent it."
At the Pudong International Airport, no shared power bank stations are provided inside the terminal, but there are enough electrical outlets available for people to charge their smartphones for free.
"I wish all public places would provide free charging services," user Shen said, adding that it would be an ideal way to attract customers.
Shanghai Daily contacted five providers but found getting answers difficult.
Only Xiaodian provides an operator to answer consumers' questions, while the other brands ask consumers to contact them via their mobiles or mini applications.
However, those applications mainly gave automated services, and those who require specific help must wait in line and then receive only simple answers.
Xiaodian told Shanghai Daily that rates vary from place to place because stores set the prices.
"It may be cheaper roadside and be a bit more expensive in a shopping mall and in venues like railway stations or airports," the spokesperson told Shanghai Daily. "If you find the price of a power bank at a given place has changed, you can ask the venue owner about that."
When Shanghai Daily reporter asked Meituan about the high rates, the provider returned half of the money the reporter had paid for a power bank and the interview ended.
At a murder mystery game store in Xujiahui, where the price of a power bank is 8 yuan an hour, a clerk said the venue might adjust the rate depending on the store's income.
"If our income is a bit lower in a month, we will make the price a bit higher," the clerk said. "But we don't adjust the price frequently."
A staff member at bar DR in Xintiandi said shared power bank providers send salesmen to liaise with each shop.
"When they placed the machine here, they didn't pay us," the staffer said. "But we do get a small commission from each rented power bank. It's not a lot of money. We allow them to keep the machine here for customer convenience, not profit."
When it came to the issue of slow speeds, Xiaodian said its power banks are not fast-charging models.
"Normally, our product can charge 30-50 percent of a battery in an hour," the operator said.
The other brands all sidestepped the question in their responses.
On the "hard-to-return" issue, Xiaodian said if there's no vacancy, a user can ask the store to contact their staff to take some of the power banks away.
"Or you can call our customer service," he said. "In that case, we will stop billing and you can find another time to return it."
Energy Monster, Jiedian, Xiaodian and Soudian all post the status of their power bank stations on WeChat to let users know if devices can be rented or returned.
Energy Monster said it stops billing for six hours if a user submits an application saying the device couldn't be returned promptly.
Lu Man, a deputy to the National People's Congress, said that shared power bank industry has various problems and it is necessary to formulate standards for the industry, clarify contract terms and urge the providers to give good after-sales service.
Tang Jiansheng, deputy secretary-general of the Shanghai Consumer Council, called on companies to maintain a 20 percent vacancy rate so that users can return their power banks.