Lady luck gets a tech makeover

Yang Jingyu
Obtain License Plates With No Worry is one of the very first bidding agencies in Shanghai to help car owners get the highly priced licence plate.
Yang Jingyu

In an Internet cafe, as a Saturday auction for Shanghai license plates ended, the groans told the story. “I failed again for a ninth time,” said Xu Zeyuan, a would-be car owner, shaking his head and punching the table in frustration.

However, at another computer site during the same auction, there was much to cheer about. With the help of a specialized software, the rate of success quintupled.

That site is a computer room rented from Huawei, China’s telecommunications giant. There, the Internet speed is much faster than at Internet cafes.

The software it uses is from technology firm Obtain License Plates With No Worry, or No Worry for short. It was one of the very first bidding agencies in Shanghai, a city where the cost of a car plate is now about equivalent to the sticker price on a new mid-size sedan.

No Worry founder, a 38-year-old man surnamed Xu, who declined to be identified further, developed the software in 2004 and parlayed it into a service helping improve bidders’ chances.

“It is tougher and tougher to get a license plate, which has resulted in a burgeoning market for bidding agents,” says Xu.

Making car plates hard to obtain has long been part of Shanghai’ efforts to control the number of cars on already clogged streets and to reduce the pall of urban pollution caused by combustion engines.

According to the Shanghai Information Office, an average 211,403 people have placed bids for 10,866 plates on offer each month this year. This month, 202,337 bidders competed for 10,395 available plates. The average price was 88,380 yuan (US$13,190).

Imaginechina

To participate in the process, prospective bidders have to pay a 2,000-yuan deposit and a 100-yuan registration fee. In exchange, they receive a disc allowing them to register online and bid three times in the following six months. Auctions usually take place on the third Saturday of every month from 10:30am to 11:30am.

In that hour, bidders enter their prices during the first 30 minutes. At 11am, the first phase of the bidding closes. In the second phase, based on the current lowest winning price, bidders have only one chance to bid within the price ceiling. Half an hour later, the auction closes and the results are announced.

“The trick is to hold a bid as late as possible, but still be able to enter it before the contest closes,” says Xu Chengyan, a part-time scalper. “It demands both skill and luck.”

Tech-savvy bidders use the specialized software to allow themselves to wait until the last minutes before placing final bets. The software can advise on a price and submit the bid automatically, taking into account the number of competitors and their bids.

“We are operating in a gray zone,” admitted No Worry’s Xu.

Supervising bid agents is difficult.

An official from the Industry and Commerce Authority says it is hard to determine if any laws are broken.

“Many of them operate through registered companies, such as car dealership, and offer license plate bidding as a consultancy service,” he tells Shanghai Daily.

No Worry has only eight employees, six of whom work on encoding the software. Apart from the advantage of software, they use higher-speed Internet, such as the computer sites of Tencent and Huawei.

No Worry, like other agents, offers a “no-win, no-fee” guarantee. The fee has risen from 200 yuan to 12,000 yuan.

Ti Gong

Xu's team gets ready for Saturday bidding at the Huawei computer site.

Before 2007, the higher the price of an agent, the more likely the success. But since the implementation of a ceiling final price in April to even the chances, the bidding process has become as unpredictable as a lottery.

The average price of a plate in the first five months of this year was 88,083 yuan, which is more than a typical Shanghai office worker’s earnings in a year. But that doesn’t stop people determined to get behind the wheel.

“I cannot bear squeezing into the Metro to go home after work,” says Chen Yanyan, a customer of No Worry. “Congested as the traffic is during rush hours, at least I could escape in my private space to relax a bit after the fatigue of a day’s work.”

“I reckon the price of license plates will keep rising,” says Xu Zeyuan, who isn’t giving up despite his string of bid failures. “I want to get a plate as soon as possible. I am going to trust my chances to an agency.”

No Worry, which has been receiving around 200 orders a month, now appears to have worries of its own.

Verification codes used in the bidding process now can be reduced from four numbers to three unpredictably, catching bidders off-guard.

The software can submit the final bidding price automatically. But before that, the bidder himself has to enter the correct verification code in very rapid time. Bidders mostly practice with the typical four numeral code. An unexpected reversion to three numbers can catch them on the hop.

Is No Worry about to become no go? Founder Xu, preparing for the worst, says he is developing peripheral businesses, such as the used car market.

“My next goal is to move to the building opposite us,” he says, grinning as he pointed out the window. “The daylight is better there.”

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