Friday, October 26, 2007

Adventures in Chinese Shopping, Vol. 1: Beijing's Silk Alley

Any trip inevitably involves massive amounts of shopping, but China offered an extraordinarily complete and diverse array of shopping experiences. Our first big trip was to Beijing's infamous Silk Alley, a department store of trademark infringement. An indoor market filling about 8 floors of a large building, the complex is actually cleanly organized by product category (outerwear, menswear, shoes, etc.). Rather amusingly, the building is situated in a Little Moscow district (Russia being another Wild West of intellectual property infringement), and quite near the American embassy (the United States being at constant diplomatic war with China over IP protection).

The market itself is incredibly crowded, with a combination of local shoppers and tourists, several whom are actually bused in to do their fake shopping by their organized tour groups. Within each product section, every stand basically sells the same merchandise, and if you need something in a size they don't have in stock, they'll just run to a friend's stand to bring it for you. Because the stands are all so interchangeable, though, they are desperate to attract and maintain your attention. The Chinese failure to grasp the notion of personal space is most egregious in the market environment, where not only will they make physical contact to get your attention, they will latch onto you to try to stop you from walking away. The key is to make sure your eyes are roaming at all times. If you focus on an item for more than 1 second, they will see it, and they will pounce. One stand operator who caught me looking for no more than 1.5 seconds actually latched onto my jacket so solidly, I had to writhe my way out of her grasp.

This is something I genuinely don't understand. I will never purchase something from someone who breaks that physical barrier. A touch on the shoulder or pat on the back, mid-conversation, is one thing. But grabbing hold and not letting go is not the way to make a sale with me, or with most westerns, I would imagine. Most of the money earned by these shopkeepers is from western a pure matter of business, I would expect them to recognize the cultural difference on personal space and adapt to it, not out of respect for our preferences, but simply because it would help them avoid alienating customers. Then again, maybe I'm misreading the situation, and the grabbing does help? Well, I doubt it, anyhow.

The basic rule of Chinese markets is to take their offer and assume that it is 6 times the buy price. From there, there are two schools of thought. Some people who don't like bargaining will simply say their buy price and announce that they refuse to bargain, and if the other person doesn't meet their price, they're walking away. Inevitably, the salesperson lowers the price by a vastly lower factor, the buyer starts leaving, and the shopkeeper calls them back (sometimes, physically leads them back). Some back-and-forth ensues, and the buyer gets the price they called for all along.

I'm not a fan of this strategy. The locals seem to expect a certain back-and-forth, and I've seen them get visibly frustrated when, in a negotiation, I stick to a price and try to force them to lower theirs twice in a row (similarly, I never raise my offer twice in a row without them dropping theirs). So my strategy is to make a first bid at 1/10 their initial offer, and not let myself go over the 1/6 reserve.

Britt and I were there on a specific mission, though. The cool Beijing weather had rendered his packing strategy inadequate, requiring him to seek a jacket, and both of us needed hiking shoes for our trip the next day to the rough patch of Great Wall at Simatai. Shopping when you need something is always disastrous, and Britt doesn't quite share my killer instinct in bargaining situations. He ended up paying 800 yuan (just over $100) for a pretty nice "North Face" jacket we know he could have gotten for as little as 450 yuan. And when we moved on to shoes, the fact that we weren't planning on leaving empty-handed was apparent enough that vendors took hard stances with us and made us work twice as hard to lower the price.

When we got to the shoes section, it proved to b e the most hectic area we'd seen. As we passed a stand that specialized solely in children's and toddlers' shoes, a vendor called to me, "Sir, you buy shoes for kids!" Without breaking stride, I called back, "I don't have any kids!" Determined to take the parting shot, she retorted, "I know you have kids. You look so old!" Britt and I stopped in the middle of the aisle and laughed so hard we actually crouched down. Sensing an opportunity to get our attention and possibly attract our business, every other vendor in the area jumped onto the bandwagon. "Yeah, you so old!" one chimed in. "I bet you have 5 kids!" wagered another.

The experience took on new humor later that night, when we visited a (legitimate) massage parlor. I was doing reflexology while Britt got a Chinese massage in the same room, and Britt's masseuse - who, to be fair, had spent most of their time together staring at the back of his head while he lied face-down on the massage bench - pointed at me and asked him, "So, is he your son?" Either mainland Chinese are completely incapable of assessing the age of white people, or they just have a weird sense of humor.

It took us a while to find suitable shoes, and we ultimately settled on a top-shelf pair of "North Face" boots, whose placement suggested to me that they generally carried lower profit margins for the salespeople. From an asking price of 1280 yuan, we engaged in a half-hour marathon session that ended in us buying two pairs for 200 yuan each (US $26.50), i.e., just under 1/6 of the asking price. It seems like a lot to spend on knock-offs, but these actually had incredibly good treads and comfortable soles (very rare in that market), and they vastly improved our comfort situation for the rest of the walking-intensive trip. By the end, both we and the girl with whom we had been negotiating were so tired and relieved, Britt hugged her goodbye. On some level, they like playing the game, and I think they do respect westerners who can actually play it competently. We, on the other hand, were so over the market atmosphere afterwards that we headed straight for the exit. I can't imagining going through that for 10 or 12 hours a day, every day. I'd have a stroke.

As we left, we asked if she would reveal her cost price, and she claimed it was 180 yuan (she said that another pair I had negotiated elsewhere down to 60 yuan cost her 45). At first, I was inclined to believe her, but in hindsight, there's little chance she was telling the truth. More likely her cost price was like $3, but 180 yuan was the lowest she'd be willing to go. In any event, I felt I did honor to my dad, who is the most ruthless and successful bargainer I've ever had the honor and privilege of watching in action (the man hears an asking price of $20 and will offer $1 without blinking).

Silk Alley is a carnival atmosphere, but it's most interesting for how incredibly open and conspicuous it is, something that does not characterize the fake markets in Shanghai (more on that later). Unlike many marketplaces I've seen selling counterfeit goods, they don't even maintain the fiction that they're selling something real or that their cost prices are super high. It's organized like a proper business enterprise, and the stack of tour buses in front almost lends it an air of legitimacy...almost. The duplicative stock and free exchange between stands suggests an economically unified operation, a sort of marketplace equivalent to the Portuguese Man o' War, a colony of specialized, symbiotic polyps that functions like a single giant jellyfish. It's an essential part of a visit to Beijing, but about as exhausting as anything you can do in the city.

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