Buying

General Comments

Most items can be purchased from a variety of stores. Since prices and quality vary, it is helpful to become acquainted with those stores where you can shop most conveniently and economically. Such information is available from people who have lived in Iowa City, from advertisements in local newspapers, and on the internet. You can ask a store employee whatever questions you wish to ask about a product without being obligated to buy anything.

Prices in stores are fixed. A shopper does not “bargain” for a lower price with the store employee, except in the case of automobiles.

The absence of clerks may lead you to believe that it would be easy to remove merchandise from the store without paying for it. This is called “shoplifting,” and is a criminal offense. There may not be many clerks in the store, but there may be closed-circuit television cameras, one-way mirrors, “store detectives,” or other devices intended to identify shoplifters. Most Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty businesses take all possible legal actions against shoplifters, even if the item stolen is small and inexpensive. Being arrested once for shoplifting can result in a court hearing, a fine, and publicity in the newspapers. Convictions may impact the ability to get U.S. visas in the future.

When you buy something other than food, it is advisable to keep the receipt you get when you pay for the item. You may need the receipt if the item is defective or unsatisfactory and you need to return it to the store where you bought it within the allotted days. However, if the receipt is lost, stores may issue you in-store credit or in-store gift card. With in-store gift card, the credit can ONLY be used or spent in the store that you made the transaction.

If you are considering filing a consumer complaint, please visit: https://www.iowaattorneygeneral.gov/for-consumers.

Sales Taxes

A sales tax is added to the cost of some purchases. Income generated from sales tax is used to support various state-run programs, such as highway maintenance, public education, and law enforcement. The Iowa sales tax rate is six per cent. No sales tax is charged for groceries or prescription medicines. Particular cities or localities may have additional taxes.

Tipping

Many international students are confused about tipping practices in the U.S. as it may not be something practiced at home, or may be done in an entirely different manner. Below is a guide from TripAdvisor.com that gives a very good background for knowing when and how to tip in the U.S.

While tipping is not mandatory in most of the United States, it is customary in many circumstances for service, especially at almost all sit-down restaurants which offer table service. 

Tipping practices can vary depending upon the location in the U.S., and even published guidance can vary greatly depending upon the source.  For example, some Americans don't tip at a buffet restaurant, but it's generally good form to tip $1-2/person for wait staff just clearing several rounds of plates, to as much as 10 percent if the wait staff is refilling drinks and providing other services.  The general rule is to tip in proportion to the service, and the quality of service being delivered.

Tip jars at carry-out restaurants are a recent innovation, and one resisted by many Americans.  While one guide below advises to tip 10 percent at carry-out restaurants, many Americans do not tip for carry-out, even when a tip jar is present, and tipping at most chain restaurants, such as McDonald's, is not common.  Some who do contribute to tip jars, put in change or only $1, depending upon the size of the order.

Keep in mind that those who provide service are often dependent on tip income and generally are grateful for any tips received, especially when prompt and exceptional service has been provided.  Tipping is the means by which to acknowledge good service.

Many visitors to the U.S. feel pressured to tip even when they do not feel it is fair or reasonable to do so. Customers are REQUIRED to pay 'mandatory gratuities (tips)' if these are disclosed (on the menu or elsewhere) prior to being served.  Mandatory gratuities are charged by many restaurants when large groups (6 or more; sometimes, 8 or more) are being served.  Mandatory gratuities also are used by some restaurants with large numbers of foreign customers who may not be familiar with American tipping customs, often in tourist centers such as New York City.

When 'mandatory tipping' is practiced. you may add more to the 'mandatory tip' if there is a desire to additionally reward some exceptional service.  Always examine your bill carefully to see if there is a mandatory gratuity included in the bill so that you don't accidentally add an additional gratuity to your payment.  If you feel your service was deficient, you can request a manager in order to have the mandatory gratuity adjusted downward.

Fast food restaurants do not have tipping as there is no 'table service' (when a server brings your food to your table). 

Some coffee shops, bakeries and other establishments have tip jars on their check-out counters.  These have become more prevalent in recent decades and there is some confusion, even controversy about them.  Generally, those who feel a desire to reward good service will make a contribution to a tip jar.  Others do not.  Both are fine.

Tips are often a major source of compensation for wait staff and other U.S. service providers.  Employers often pay these employees lower wages in anticipation that tip income will provide a significant portion of the employees' income.  Customers should realize that they are not automatically paying 'more' (due to tipping).  In non-tipping countries, the tips are simply built into the price of the food.  An advantage to tipping, therefore, is the ability to tip whatever is appropriate: if the service is poor, a small tip should be left, signaling to the server that their service was subpar.

Many hotel guests who tip housekeeping staff leave tips daily before leaving the hotel, both to reward the person immediately servicing the room and in expectation of good service.  

Suggested tips:

$1-2/bag for skycaps, bellhops, doormen, and parking valets if they handle bags, $1 per coat for coatroom attendants, $1 per diner to 10 percent of the pre-tax bill at buffets, $2-5 per night for housekeeper, $5-10 for concierge (only if they arranged tickets or reservations), $1-3 per bag for grocery loaders (not in all areas of the US).  Doormen who merely open doors are not tipped, unless they call a cab or provide another service.  Parking valets are paid upon pick-up $3-5, depending upon much effort is required to retrieve a vehicle.
For waiters at sit-down restaurants, bartenders, barbers/hairdressers/attendants at beauty salons, taxi drivers, tour guides, and food delivery folks, the tip should be calculated as a percentage of your total bill as follows: 10% usually means you aren't totally happy, 15% usually means all was acceptable, 20% for excellent, over 20% for outstanding.  15-20 percent is considered standard in most communities.  
For ski instructors, tipping 15 percent for adult groups and 10 percent for private clients is pretty standard. 
These percentages are highly subjective! 
Note that tipping percentages will vary in different parts of the country, and even in different parts of a state. Reportedly, tips of 25 percent may be expected at higher-quality restaurants in New York City.  In Colorado a tip of 20% is considered normal.
Ignore sales tax when calculating tips or not, it's not set in stone.
Note that if you have more than one person serving you at these establishments, the percentage represents the total tip and your server will split it between the group.
Tips should only go to people who are helpful. If they don't help you, don't tip them.  If you receive bad service, you should speak to management, not just ignore the tip as the server is unaware of the situation.  Perhaps they think you overlooked the tip or another person picked up the tip and pocketed it themselves.
In some places a clearly displayed "Service Charge" or "Gratuity" might be automatically added to a bill, especially for party sizes of 8 or more. Check your bill for these charges before tipping.  If the word "Gratuity" is used and you're not happy, check with the manager.  A gratuity by definition is an amount you don't have to pay but choose to. 

For further insights, discussions, and recommendations on tipping, see below:

Restaurants with table service: Tip 15% or more of the bill, based on the quality of service. If you receive exceptional service, 20-25% is customary.  In major cities of the U.S. however, 20% is considered to be a "good tip." Note: In most larger restaurants in the USA, the server has to pay back a portion of their tips to the bartender, busser, hostess, and food runners.  A good rule of thumb is if you see people other than your server helping maintain or clean tables, serve wine, or deliver food, those people are being tipped by your server for their work. Even if you do not see additional "support staff, it is very likely that the server is paying a portion of their tips to other staff.

Please note that in *some* states, restaurants are allowed to pay their servers as low as $2.13 per hour. This base wage varies among states, for example, Massachusetts pays $2.63, Connecticut $5, and California $8. Service is almost never included in the bill. If it is, it will say "Gratuity" or "Service Charge" with an amount next to it. If an amount is included as a "Gratuity" or "Service Charge," tipping is not required.

Unlike in most of the rest of the world, the total cost of table service almost always is NOT included in the bill, necessitating the need for tips.

The exception to this general rule occurs at some restaurants for large parties (typically six or more people).  If you're with a large party, be sure to check your bill just in case. 15% - 20% is often automatically charged for a large party (six or more).  If the tip is included, the breakdown of the bill will read "gratuity" or "service charge," which means that a tip is already included.  As always, if you feel you did not receive 15% service, inform the management before paying your bill and have it adjusted to the adequate amount.

A good rule of thumb when calculating a table service restaurant tip is to ignore sales tax, and, for good service, calculate 15% of the entire food, beverage, and wine bill.  (This is the amount listed before the sales tax line.)  Add 20% if the service was outstanding, especially prompt or friendly, or the server fulfilled many special requests.  Note: in most larger restaurants in the USA, the server has to pay back a portion of their tips to the bartender, busser, hostess, and food runners.  A good rule of thumb is: if you see people other than your server helping maintain or clean tables, serve wine, or deliver food, those people are being tipped by your server for their work.  In resort areas like Disney World, it is usually 3% to 5% of the server's total food, beverage and alcohol sales, so the tip should be adjusted accordingly.  At higher end restaurants, there may also be a sommelier or wine steward.  You should tip the sommelier separately, at your discretion.  However, in some restaurants, the server tips the sommelier based on their individual wine sales, so it is advisable to ask your server first.  Individual drinks you are served at a restaurant bar should always earn a $1-2 tip each. 

In most states, sales tax is applied to the bill and is clearly indicated as such on the bill.  In those states where the tax is 5% (Massachusetts as an example) or 6% it is simple to calculate the tip by rounding the tax up or down to the nearest dollar and then multiplying by three. 

It is worth mentioning that New York restaurants have started adding automatic gratuity even though the number of people eating is far less than 6. Even with a group of three, gratuity of 20% may be automatically added both in restaurants and in 'pubs'. The automatic gratuity is also becoming common in areas that are highly tourist-oriented, such as the Grand Canyon.    It is important to always check your bill!

For buffet restaurants, tipping servers who clear multiple dishes and provide drink refills is recommended.  Some persons may tip buffet servers $1 per diner, others as much as 5 to 10 percent of the total pre-tax bill, depending upon the level of service provided.  Buffet servers may not take orders or bring out food, but they do work hard keeping your table clean of the empty plates after multiple trips to the buffet line. In addition to this, they often help to keep the buffet line stocked and clean, and they make coffee, brew tea, etc.  Remember that the minimum tip for any server should be $1 per person. Do not leave only 75 cents for a $5.00 buffet!  As always, if you feel you have not been well-served, adjust the gratuity down.  If a tip has been added to your bill beforehand because your party was 6 or more, but the server was inadequate or rude, inform the manager immediately before you pay your bill that you want the tip adjusted.

For bad or unacceptable service it is customary to  tip as low as 10% or even less for very egregious behavior by a server.  If service is bad enough to deserve only 10%, it is a good idea to let the manager know. Also, placing 2 pennies side by side on top of bills neatly placed on the table lets the server know that it is intentionally low because of bad service. If the server in some way offended you so that you do not wish to leave any tip at all, still leave the 2 pennies, so that they understand that you did not just forget to tip.

Counter service/fast food restaurants often have tip jars out, but you are not required to tip.  If the service is exemplary or unusual requests are made, then tips are appropriate.

Bartenders: $1 per drink, or 15-20% of the total bill. If you tip well and consistently at bars and pubs, you *might* receive a drink on the house, known sometimes as a "buyback" or "comp". This typically occurs after the 3rd drink you buy, however, is usually reserved for regular customers. Some bartenders will still use the "old school" signal of leaving an upside-down shot glass near your spot at the bar, especially if you are engaged in conversation or if the place is very noisy, but it's not that common anymore. Turn the shot glass over when you want the free drink. Even though the drink is free, the labor isn't. Don't forget to tip on the "buyback." Note that some bars do not allow this.

Other optional tipping situations common to travelers include:

Hotel housekeeping/maid service: $2-3 per night up to $5, more in high-end hotels.  Also more if there are more than 3 people in a room or suite. Leave the tip on your pillow or in a similar obvious place with a note that says thank you.  Leave the tip each day when you leave the room, rather than at the end of your stay, because your room might get cleaned by different people each day, depending on staff schedules. If you have additional items delivered to your room, such as extra pillows, hangers, luggage racks, tip the person who brings them $2 or $3.
Concierge: Tipping is never expected, but always appreciated.  The more difficult the request, the higher the tip. $5.00 and up per request is good.
In-suite dining waiter:  Always read the bill, if there is a tip included, it will be on the bill breakdown.  Ask the server.  The policy of having the gratuity included in the bill is not the norm anymore.  A service charge or convenience fee goes to the hotel, not the server.  If there is no gratuity added, tip the server 15% - 20%.
Bellman/Porter: $1-2 per bag. More if the bags are very heavy.
Taxi Driver: 10-15% of fare, based on service.
Hotel limo driver: For a free ride from the airport, $10 - $20
Drink Server in a casino or bar: $1-$2 per drink. Some tip $5 for the first drink to make sure the waitress "remembers" them and returns often...
Valet Parking Attendants: $2 - $5 (when picking up car).
Dealers at Table Games in the Casinos:   5% of bet amount at end of session, or occasional bet for dealer in amount of your normal wager-dealer can show you where to place bet.  You could announce " I have a $xx bet for the dealers, where do you want it?". The bet is usually placed in front of the player's bet. If you're concerned about having your bets rated for comps, place the additional bet on top of your own and tell the dealer that part of your bet is in play for the dealer and as long as your hands keep winning, keep toking the dealer with the winnings from that portion of the bet. The initial bet amount would be $1 - $5.
Slot machines host: $10-20 if they make a hand payout (over $1000).
Spa: For a massage or other treatment, 10% - 20%.  Ask if the tip has been included, some spas will include a gratuity on your final bill.  Most spas will provide you with an envelope to leave at the reception desk for the person who gave you your treatment.  Also, if you wish to leave a small gratuity for the spa attendant who showed you around the Spa and got you situated, it is well appreciated, $2 to $5.
Hairdresser/manicurist: 10% - 20%.
Showroom captains: $1-2 for the person who seats you, more if you asked for "special" seating - $20 for a requested booth or table, more for one up front. Unfortunately this is where the fine line between tipping and bribery meet...
Tour Guides: 15% - 20% + depending on quality (knowledge, friendliness, etc)

Why are you expected to tip in the USA? 

In * some* states in the USA, waitstaff and bartenders in restaurants are paid below the minimum wage, because the employees are expected to make up the difference, so to speak, in tips. (However, please note that the employer is required by law to bring the hourly pay of the employee up to the USA Federal Minimum Wage if the server does not earn an adequate amount of tips.) This means that a server could earn far above minimum wage on a good night ($200 a night is not uncommon), or hardly break even on a slow night. Servers are expected to pay income tax on your tips -- they truly are part of their normal wages for the job they do, not just "extra" money for them.

Always leave tips in cash, handing them directly to the person you are tipping, whenever feasible  This makes certain that the right person is rewarded, and that the establishment itself cannot skim a portion of your tip by assessing the employee a percentage of what you tipped on the credit card.  Many places are legally able to do this now, so, unless you absolutely need to charge the tip for business reasons, a cash tip is almost always better for the tipee.  But the reason that servers prefer tips in cash is the fact that they can avoid declaring the income on their Tax Returns and avoid paying the Income tax and other payroll taxes on the amount. (Some do declare it, some don't). 

All 50 states have different minimum wage laws.  Some allow employers to pay less than the state's minimum wage to tipped staff, others do not. Federal employment compensation law requires that if employers pay less than minimum wage, tips must bring compensation up to the minimum wage or the employer must make up the difference.  Therefore, no server legally makes below the federal minimum wage in the U.S. regardless of the amount of tips received.

Many staff in Las Vegas are unionized, with benefits and high wages as well as getting tips.  These few are at the top of the industry and can make a six figure income.  Tips are expected regardless of what state you are in or what wages the staff are paid.  For better or for worse, tipping has become a part of most hospitality worker's pay.

Tipping in the USA is something you get the hang of after you do it a while. After a couple of days, you'll be able to gauge when you receive stellar service, or whether someone is "phoning it in." If you are mistreated anywhere, you should inform a manager.  Don't tip poor service - let someone know you were unhappy, even if you just leave a note to the server as to why there is no tip added to the bill. 

Some Cautions about Sales Tactics

In Shops

You might encounter salespeople who use various “high pressure tactics” to induce you to buy from them. This may happen in person or on the telephone. Many salespeople work “on commission,” which means their wages grow as the volume of their sales grows. They may be very good at talking people into buying from them. In general, they try to make the customer feel guilty or inadequate for not buying. Or they may try to establish what seems like a very cordial, friendly relationship so that the customer feels compelled to buy in order to maintain the friendliness.

It is wise to remember that you are never obligated to buy anything from salespeople. You ought to buy only those things you genuinely need or want and can afford. Try not to let your personal feelings about the salesperson influence you to make a purchase. Remember that you are entitled to ask a salesperson any question you wish about the product or service, and you are entitled to get a clear and complete answer. You can kindly tell the salesperson you want to think about the matter for a few days, or that you want to other people’s opinions. You can walk away from a salesperson without a cordial end to the conversation. If a salesperson telephones you (as is not unusual – some businesses hire people to telephone potential customers and try to talk them into buying, and this is called soliciting), you do not have to listen to the person’s entire “pitch” and respond to it courteously. You can interrupt the person and state that you are not interested in the product or service. You can simply hang up the telephone without saying anything. If you want to avoid these kinds of soliciting phone calls, you can have them blocked. The phone services provider could help set that up.

Of course, there are many salespeople who are genuinely interested in assisting customers and in offering them reasonable products and prices.

If you are in doubt about the wisdom of a particular purchase, you might want to consult with another person who has had experience with the product or business that interests you. If you receive unsolicited merchandise in the mail, you are not obligated to pay for it.

Avoiding “Consumer Fraud” and Scams

Foreigners anywhere are likely targets of people trying to take financial advantage of other people. Since international students and scholars are sometimes considered uninformed or unsophisticated and therefore easy to deceive, they need to be especially cautious in situations involving their money.

The dictionary defines fraud (pronounced “frod”) as “an act of trickery or deceit; intentional misrepresentation; an act of delusion.” Consumer fraud is the activity of getting people’s money by selling them defective or non-existent goods or services. The slang term is scam. Here is some information intended to help international students and scholars avoid being victims of consumer fraud.

The commonsense guideline is this: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!”

The following guidelines might help you avoid some current scams:

Prizes

You may receive a letter or postcard, or perhaps even a telephone call, telling you about a wonderful “free” prize you have won. “All you have to do” is call a certain phone number to find out more about it! You will likely be required to pay shipping or insurance charges, or find that you must purchase additional merchandise. Or you might be required to go to a specific location and listen to a sales presentation in order to receive your gift. You will probably be disappointed with the “prize.” (You may even be asked to read off all the numbers at the bottom of a check in your checkbook, so that the caller will have your bank account number. You may be told that this information is needed for the “contest.” The telemarketer can access your bank account with those numbers, so DO NOT GIVE YOUR BANK ACCOUNT, CREDIT CARD NUMBER, or SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER over the phone or by email!!).

Door-to-Door Sales

Someone might come to the door of your home or apartment trying to sell you something. If you are not interested, just say so, immediately. You do not have to let anyone into your house. If you are interested in the product, you should ask the salesperson for proper identification, for example, a business card. Take your time deciding about the purchase. Do not be a victim of a “quick sell” or a “sob story,” in which you make a purchase too hastily or as a result of feelings of sympathy for the salesperson. Get everything the sales person promises you in writing, including warranties, guarantees, and a receipt. (The law requires a “three-day cancellation period” for purchase above $25 made form door-to-door salespeople and get a refund, but only in a few circumstances. If you wish to cancel the agreement you must do so by writing directly to the company within three days.) 

Telemarketing

You are likely to receive telephone solicitations from people who are either trying to sell you something or get you to donate money to some organization or cause. If you are not interested, say NO or simply hang up the telephone. You do NOT need to be polite to a salesperson who has telephoned your home, especially if the person will not take “no” for an answer.

Many Americans have become quite annoyed by telephone solicitors (or “telemarketers”), and have sought ways to discourage them. If you receive and unwanted call from a salesperson, you can say to the person, “Do not call me again.” Federal Communication Commission rules require the caller to note your request, and refrain from calling you again. To stop most unwanted telephone solicitations, you may go the website of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, where you register your telephone number on a list, and certain telemarketers cannot legally call you.

If you are interested in the product or service offered over the telephone, ask detailed questions and request more information in writing so that you can find out more about the company. Ask acquaintances about the company. Do NOT give your credit card or bank account numbers over phone unless you have previously done business with the company.

Buying by mail

Mail-order catalogues are common and efficient way of shopping in the United States. But you must be cautious when sending payment to an unfamiliar company for a product you have not seen. It is important, for example, to know about the company’s return policy and to read through the item descriptions carefully. It is also wise to keep notes on what you ordered, the date, the order number, and the company’s name, address, and telephone number.

If you use a credit card to purchase an item through the mail, you are unhappy with the item, you can notify the credit card agency that the cost associated with the item is “in dispute.” Then you will not be required to pay for the item until you have gotten satisfaction from the seller.

Buying airplane tickets by telephone, mail, or through the internet

Low-cost airplane tickets are often advertised in newspapers by travel agencies from other states. If you decide to buy a ticket based on such an advertisement, you are wise to pay with a credit card. If the “good deal” turns out to be a scam, you will have a better chance of getting your money back than you will if you send a check to pay for the ticket.

Buying through the internet

Internet purchases by credit card and money transfer have greatly increased, but both have the potential for fraud. Make sure when purchasing over the internet that the site you are using is secure (has a closed padlock symbol at the bottom of the browser screen) and that it is with a reputable company. Internet auctions have also become quite popular. They allow you to use money orders and checks as well as credit cards and bank transfers to pay for your purchase. (It is possible to send money to anyone who has an-email address using your credit or bank card through various secure internet programs, such as PayPal.)

Craigslist

A lot of students sell and buy things on craigslist. Goods on craigslist are usually second-hand, inexpensive. Although craigslist can be helpful, it has scams as well.

900 telephone numbers

Telephone calls to numbers that begin with 1-900 cost more than normal long distance calls – sometimes as much as $50 for one minute! By dialing “900” numbers you can order products, get financial tips, talk with a willing stranger, and more. Although some legitimate services are provided through 900 numbers, it is vital to be aware that all of them cost money. (Calls to numbers that begin with 1-800 or 1-888 are toll-free, but be aware that some companies are starting to send bills for calls placed to 800 and 888 numbers as well.)

Health fraud

“Lose weight without the work!” “Muscles in Minutes!” Every year, millions of dollars are spent on “medicines” and devices that make false promises and have no real health or beauty benefits. Beware of extravagant promises, “scientific breakthroughs” and “miracle cures.”

Other Scams

Visit this page for additional information on other common scams, including via the telephone, email, and in-person.

How to file a consumer protection complaints

If you believe you have been the victim of a scam, first try to get satisfaction from the individual or business you believe took advantage of you. If that approach is not successful, you can contact either the following:

Better Business Bureau
505 5th Ave., Ste. 950
Des Moines, IA 50309-2375
515-243-8137
Fax: 515-243-8137

Consumer Protection Division
1305 E. Walnut Street
Des Moines, IA 50319
515-281-5926
Fax: 515-281-6771
Email: consumer@uiowa.gov

Furniture

Furniture stores, department stores, discount stores, and second-hand stores all sell furniture. In addition, used furniture is often available from private individuals who have “garage sales” at their homes or who advertise the items they wish to sell in the classified section of the newspaper or on Craigslist. Advertisements about garage sales or items for sale by private individuals are found in four local publications. “Classified advertisements” in the Iowa City Press Citizen and Iowa City Gazette are organized under headings such as “Autos,” “Household Goods,” “Furniture,” and “Miscellaneous.” The Daily Iowan also has a classified advertisement section that can be viewed online. You can also find used furniture information from posters around bus stops, in second-hand stores, or on craigslist.

Health Products

“Drug stores” sell not only medicines and toiletries (soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, deodorant, shampoo, etc.), but also small household goods, stationery, magazines, and many other products.

Books

Please check MyUI to see where you can find your textbook, and what textbooks you need for the class. Used textbooks are sometimes available at those places for reduced prices. Used books that are in better condition tend to sell quickly. You can also buy textbook online if you want to, but you will have to take the shipping time into consideration.