A Canadian in Beijing: “Made In China” Electronics

I am exhausted. I have just spent an afternoon – yes, a whole afternoon – electronics shopping here in Beijing. Now, that does not mean what you think it means. I am not talking about going from store to store and price comparing or from mall to mall to seek out the “right” brands. No, this was in the same place for the entire time and consisted of much chatting, visiting, standing around and generally not shopping. According to my friend Traci, this was shopping “Chinese style.”

For all of my many gear geek friends, the opportunity to be in an electronics market where anything you possibly want is a fraction of the price would have been like being in a giant toy store. I can see their eyes light up at this idea and can picture them running around like children on sugar at a Boxing Day Sale at Toys R Us.

I just wanted a working camera. When my friend asked me what I wanted the camera to do, I said “take pictures!” He looked at me like I was kidding.

I wasn’t.

You see, many things are cheaper here in China. I’ve already talked about the cheaper clothes and food and services (like massage or manicures), but I haven’t yet mentioned anything about electronics. Since much of this equipment is actually “made in China,” it is a fraction of the price here compared to buying it in Canada. As I am heading home in just two weeks, I figured I’d better stock up.

My friend Rui came to the rescue again. He is Chinese and a Beijing resident and he offered to take me a nearby electronics market, which looked like a giant mall without walls. Escalators and huge signs and enormous, shiny, mirrored columns divided the stalls, but the merchandise was generally identical in each. The trick is in the bargaining and herein lies my weak point. I can bargain but I don’t know how much it’s “supposed” to be or what is actually a “good deal” here. For expensive items, I was worried about getting ripped off for simply being non-Chinese. So, as soon as I even mentioned that I needed some items, Rui refused to let me even consider going without him.

It turns out that he loves this stuff.

Like my friend Daisy, Rui is a natural at bargaining. Or, perhaps he’s just experienced for having lived in China is whole life. Whatever the reason, he’s good. What’s more, he has contacts everywhere and this electronics market was no exception. In typical “guanxi” fashion, his friend who works in one of these stalls is someone who he has done “favours” for in the past (I’ve no idea what!) and so calling on this friend now was right in-line with the give and take of this cultural phenomenon.

Rui is a Virgo. Need I say more? He wanted to very thoroughly price shop before he went to his friend for “advice.” We started the shopping marathon upstairs in this market in the slightly more ritzy shopping area by checking the “listed” prices of digital cameras. Since mine broke last week, this was my most expensive purchase and so the most important one to consider. Rui explained that listed prices are about one-third higher than they “need to be.” I was rather lax about it considering they’re still half as much money here than they are back home, but he was determined to be the shopping champion and I now understood that I had signed up for this tournament by seeking his assistance. And, hey, I’m not complaining. It was wonderful of him to help me save some money.

After this price shopping research mission, we went downstairs to where is friend worked, in the belly of this electronics monster store’s warehouse. When we arrived, we were ushered behind the counter and offered stools to sit on. Rui chatted and caught up with his friend while simultaneously playing a video game and passing around cold drinks. As usual, the presence of a strange “Canadian girl” was the subject of much curiosity, but they were all really nice to me and complimented my Chinese in typical polite fashion.

The conversation made its way around to what we were doing there, eventually, but not right away, of course, which would have been rude (he explained later). In fact, it was about fifteen minutes before the topic even arose and I was trying not to look as bored and agitated as I was feeling. (I mean, I’m really not into video games!)

I was weary, to tell you the truth. It was a hot day and this was a crowded market. I’m used to going into a store, buying an item and then leaving. This elaborate exchange was unexpected and I had to talk myself into sitting back and observing this process as part of my cultural learning rather than wanting to just leave and forget all about this mission altogether. I sat back and listened. When shopping here in China, there’s obviously no hurry. I mentally re-arranged my schedule for the day and got on for the ride.

Shopping is not a task; it’s a social process.

Eventually, a woman arrived with some cameras under her arm. I’m not sure where she came from, but she had been called by Rui’s friend. True to his word, the discount was extreme – about two-thirds off of what we’d seen upstairs just as he’d said – and she showed us two models. They weren’t exactly what I was looking for and so she left and returned again, this time with my desired model as well as another brand that she began to try to talk me into buying.

Rui explained to me in English that this was a common ploy: try to talk the buyer into something else because there is a greater profit margin on the other item and the discount is too low on the item the shopper desires. When I still wanted the same one after her sales pitch, she upped her price by fifty kuai saying there’s no way they could sell it to me for the price originally offered.

I was shocked. Usually discounts stay discounts, but now it was going backwards?

In English again, I asked Rui what was going on. He explained that this was her way of trying to block our purchase and that she probably wasn’t going to go down to the original price. I decided to just pay the extra fifty kuai and buy the one I wanted.

[Here in this market, English was the language that we were speaking as it allowed us the privacy to comment on what was happening without being understood by the vendors. I know it’s not safe to make that assumption, but it seemed to be working in our favour.]

Another thing to consider here is the different between “real” items and “knock off” items. Since this is the place where these things are made, it’s also where products are manufactured to “look like” the real thing. Rui’s friend demonstrated the difference between a real USB memory stick and a knock off one. When he held them up the only difference I could see was that the plastic casing was a little thicker on the knock off version. He explained, though, that the 2gig space on the knock off one was really just about 1gig, whereas the real ones had the full amount of space on them.

When it came to the camera, Rui insisted it be in the original box, sealed and dated by the manufacturer. He sent the woman back for a brand new box and I would never have thought of that. In Canada, the stores all carry new items (or so I imagined!) and they always come in their boxes. Had he not been there, I probably would have been sold a knock off.

In the end, this camera cost me the equivalent of $160 Canadian and I’m thrilled to no longer have to borrow a camera (though, thanks Dave for loaning me yours!) I still have no idea which stall this woman worked at or why we never went to her! I also left the market with some USB memory sticks, two USB hubs and all of the appropriate cabling and memory cards that I needed. I probably saved over $100 Canadian on all of my items thanks to Rui’s connections and bargaining. That doesn’t even count the savings that I automatically experience by buying these items here instead of at home. So, no complaints.

It took over four hours.

(I’m just sayin’…)

I was looking for some other items too, but going back again makes my bones tired. Maybe the next time I’m in Beijing.

I suppose if I want to expand my electronics inventory here in China, I’d better learn how to play some video games!