Count as many 100 yuan (HK$113) notes as you can in 30 seconds and you can keep all that sum, a Jiangsu property developer brags in an advertisement. Too good to be true? Hundreds of people took up the offer to find out. Most were able to count 3,000 to 5,000 yuan in the half-minute, the Beijing Business Today reported. A bank cashier outperformed others by counting 11,800 yuan. But the developer later announced the money could only be used to pay for an apartment purchase. Such gimmicks, rather than real bargains, are the norm for mainland developers, restaurants and department stores that are trying to lure customers without cutting prices, at least during this initial stage of the economic downturn. 'I thought retailers would give attractive discounts to entice people to spend since the economy has never been so bad,' said Wen Xiao, a shopper in Beijing Junefield Sogo department store. 'But so far, I have not found big price reductions.' Instead of getting straightforward discounts in many stores in Beijing and Shanghai, customers who buy merchandise receive cash coupons for use in their next purchase. The practice - often in the form of smaller discounts than the advertisement suggests - helps boost sales. To better protect consumers and rein in economic overheating, Beijing banned such promotions in 2007 when the economy grew 13 per cent. However, the promotions returned in October last year. 'Now the nation aims to boost demand,' said Lucy Zhao, a department store manager. 'The practice of buying and then getting a coupon is a good way to encourage spending. So the government lets us go ahead.' Dining in restaurants also is not getting much cheaper than at the peak of inflation early last year, except for set menus and selected dishes. United States fast-food chains McDonald's and KFC are promoting packages for two people, a change from their normal single-diner promotions in the past few years. McDonald's 'sharing package' includes two hamburgers, a pie, French fries, two chicken wings and two drinks for 57 yuan. KFC's 'cosy winter meal for two' advertises a discount of as much as 20 per cent. McDonald's Corp, which operates the world's largest restaurant chain, raised prices three times last year at its roughly 1,000 mainland outlets. Rival KFC did so twice as it struggled against higher food, paper, labour and utility costs. 'Boosting sales volume is crucial to ensure income in bad times,' said professor Zhao Xijun at Renmin University in Beijing. 'Price concessions are the last thing sellers would like to make. Not only will they hurt profitability but also foster consumer expectations of further price reductions. 'As long as pessimistic expectations are formed and consolidated, [discounts] will discourage consumption and dampen confidence in investing in industries and asset markets, thus negatively influencing the economy.' The mainland economy slowed to 9 per cent growth year on year last year after five consecutive years of double-digit expansion. The World Bank forecasts that the mainland's gross domestic product will grow 7.5 per cent this year, while Morgan Stanley predicts a 5.5 per cent expansion, the lowest by leading banks. However, some areas, such as the property sector, face uncertainty. Still, while transactions have slowed since the middle of last year, there has been no price plunge. In 70 large mainland cities, property prices rose 6.5 per cent year on year last year, compared with a 7.6 per cent increase in 2007 and 5.5 per cent growth in 2006, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Developers have been waiting for help from local governments to keep them from resorting to price cuts. While the central government has made it clear a healthy property sector is important to the nation's economy, officials in Beijing, Shanghai and several other cities have said current property prices are unreasonably high. Amid the mixed signals and uncertainties that the world's third-largest economy is facing, it will take time before goods and services providers will be desperate enough to promote actual sales.