Shopping (for the October China group)


7-22-08 I am male, theoretically chromosome-challenged when it comes to shopping. Before starting BET, when I needed a shirt, I went to the store. I found shirt, I bought shirt, I went home. The concept of shopping as a recreational activity was foreign to me. Then I started organizing tours. I famously asked on the first tour: “You want to do what? Go shopping? Why?” Okay, over the past eighteen years, I have adjusted my thinking.

Since China seemingly makes most all of our consumer goods, it is not surprising that you will have many shopping opportunities while we are there. I was a bit surprised by the number of things I bought during the May tour. I’m particularly proud of a cloisonné enamel vase that I picked up. I was totally unaware of this process before the tour and now enjoy the beauty of the vase and admire the skill and technique needed to produce it. I also bought a large landscape painting in Chongqing. Before the Yangtze River cruise, I thought these stylized paintings were surreal. After the cruise, I realized yep, that’s what the Three Gorges area looks like. On the mundane level, I bought some “Polo” shirts that I gave to my son. Undoubtedly they are knock-offs since the label proudly states that they are of “the highest puality” (sic). But David has worn them a number of times since and they have been through the washer and dryer and still maintain their size and color. They were probably produced at the same factory that produces the real deal. Do I feel guilty that I only paid about half-price? Not for a nanosecond.

Now, before I get too much further into this essay, I’d like to make it very clear to my fellow chromosome-challenged brethren: our tour is NOT primarily a shopping expedition. We are going to China to see the sights, eat the food, meet the people, and try to come to some understandings about this ancient country, formerly Marxist and now more capitalist than the US. Shopping is a sidebar. I will not tolerate having most of the group sitting around twiddling thumbs while three or four people are meandering around the aisles dithering about a possible purchase. When we visit an outlet, there will be an approximate time given to be back on the bus. In addition, I will monitor the group. When most people are finished, I will round up any stragglers and ask them either to get in line to pay or go to the bus. This may be before the aforementioned deadline. Or it may be after the deadline if everybody is still having a good time.

Some suggestions:

Bargaining is expected just about everywhere. The whole exercise is a game. Play it. They expect it. Have fun. Trust me, you are not taking food off the table if you only pay a small percentage of the asking price–children will not starve. If they sell it to you, they are still making a profit. If you can’t stand quibbling over a price, check with me or any of the experienced shoppers in the group and I/we will play the game for you. Or ask Sabrina, our English speaking guide, for suggestions on how much you should pay. She is a power shopper par excellence. I watched her walk away from something that she really wanted when she couldn’t get the price down to what she was willing to pay. (I’ll lay you three to one that if it is there after the Olympics, she will get it at her price.) Usually, you will do better if you pay with cash rather than credit card, either dollars or yuan. In every case, make sure you know the exchange rate.

Street salespeople are all over the place, particularly near the principle tourist areas and any time that we get off the boat on the Yangtze River Cruise. Except for the Bund in Shanghai, (and this is the major reason we are not going there), they are not nearly as persistent as those found in Egypt. However, after a week or so it does get a bit tiresome fending them off. Try your best to ignore them and avoid eye contact if possible. If you see something you want, start at 20% of the asking price. Then if the price comes down to where you want, buy it. Don’t start negotiating on anything you don’t want since it’s a bit embarrassing to have to say, oops, nevermind. One of the best ways to get the price down is to start to get on the bus. Often the price will drop like a stone when you walk away. You might want to bring along some $1.00 bills. On the street you will hear “One dollar, one dollar, only one dollar.” A dollar is worth a little less than seven Chinese yuan right now. Sometimes the “one dollar, one dollar, only one dollar” is a real bargain. Other times, stick with the local currency.

In Suzhou, you will have the opportunity to buy silk, double-sided embroidery, and green tea. The silk items are negotiable and can be affordable. The double-sided embroidery is labor intensive and therefore quite expensive. As for green tea, it is not a favorite of mine, but a lot of people are very fond of it. You will be given a price at the tea plantation–take it or leave it. The more you buy, the cheaper the price. (Hint: Pool your buying, then split the cost and the tea.)

After we visit the Giant Pandas at the Chongqing Zoo, we will stop at a nearby art gallery. After they demonstrate the various techniques used in traditional landscape painting, surprise, surprise, you will have an opportunity to shop. This is where I bought the painting that I mentioned earlier. There is a little bit of wiggle room with the asking prices. If you really want something, ask your salesperson to ask the manager what their best price is.

I can’t remember much shopping in Xian except for the gift shop at the Terra Cotta Warriors museum. (No bargains.)

Mercifully, Beijing comes at the end of the tour and you can load up with only the return flight to worry about. At some point we will visit the factory that produces the cloissoné items that I mentioned earlier. I may be in the market for another piece or two. We will also visit a pearl outlet. In May I expected to be bored spitless as jewelry is not exactly high on my shopping list. (Hmmmm, maybe that is why I am divorced and remain single!?) Instead, I enjoyed the presentation and even ended up buying my daughter-in-law a pearl necklace. Prices seemed reasonable, and they do leave a little room for negotiation.

On our final afternoon, Sabrina will take us to a 7-story shoppers paradise. Take a deep breath and plunge in. The entire place is chock-a-block with knockoffs at quite reasonable prices. Do NOT pay the asking price, even if it already seems like a bargain. As a general rule, try for 25% of the asking. For instance, all of the various shops (there were hundreds) that were selling clothing were asking 200 yuan for “Polo” shirts. I was happy to pay 100 until I found that I could get away with 50. $7.00 a pop for a quality knit shirt? Not bad. Leather, silk, sportswear, dress shirts, jewelry, knockoff watches–you name it and it is here–on sale.

In all of this, understand that shopping is not a required activity, and that paying the full asking price is also acceptable. And above all, remember the BET maxim: “You buy it, you carry it.” (back)