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Electronics Shopping in Beijing

I’ve been in Beijing for about a week. I’ve had plenty of adventures so far, and I’m sure there are many more to come. The trip here wasn’t too bad; it was a nice to relax after the stress of packing and moving. My flight left JFK at 6AM on May 18 with a short layover in SFO. I slept a good portion of the trip, and managed to avoid jet lag. A somewhat positive side effect of the time change is that I’ve been waking up without an alarm between 6:00 and 8:00 AM every day.

I’m going to get the negatives out of the way early so that I can focus on the overwhelmingly awesome experiences I’ve had so far. The first downer of the trip was that my one and only checked bag didn’t make it to Beijing (although it was delivered to me a few days after arrival). The second, and only other negative experience I’ve had is that I’ve been a bit sick. I’m not sure if it was something I ate, the flight, the smog, or just bad luck. I was very sick for a few days, but now I’m feeling much better.

I don’t know much Chinese, although I’ve been learning the essentials. I expected that many people would speak English, but the truth is the only English speakers I’ve found have been university students. People in the service industry generally don’t speak English, those who do only know a few phrases. I’ve managed to get by using body language and about 15 Chinese words. Miming my needs and desires has become the norm.

Last Friday I discovered how crazy and difficult buying a digital camera is. Bartering is par when shopping in China, or so I’m told. Electronics shopping is no exception and is drastically different from in the US. I’d compare it to buying a car because of the way the salespeople act and the negotiable prices. On Friday we visited e-world, one of the many multi-storied consumer electronics stores in Beijing’s Hai Dian District. I was looking around to get a general idea of prices for a digital video camera and Pete was looking to buy a digital still camera. Being a smart consumer, Pete looked up reasonable prices for the camera he set out to buy before we started shopping.

At first we were in a group of eight, but quickly became overwhelmed by groupthink and shouting salespeople. Pete and I broke off from the group and started visiting the many sales booths in the building. At each booth, we showed the salespeople the model number he wanted, and they hurried us to the sales room a few floors above. Even during the walk to the sales room, other vendors shouted and tugged on our arms to try and get us to buy from them instead. The sales rooms were lined with display cases, and in the center of each there were a number of negotiation tables. In the middle of each table was a large screened calculator to be used for bargaining. We had starting prices offered as high as 3,200RMB (~$460USD) but never lower than 2,000RMB (~$290USD). As we bargained and walked out on a number of different stores there were a few funny things that happened. Once we accidentally went back to a store we had already visited. When we arrived in the upstairs sales office the workers laughed at us (we ended up buying from them on a third or fourth visit). Another vendor assured us that they had the camera Pete wanted, but when we got to their sales office they told us it was a bad camera and that we should buy a different one (they didn’t have the model we asked for). Finally, when we asked about international warranty coverage (which we knew didn’t exist) one vendor told us that for an additional 100RMB (~$15USD) we could purchase international coverage. He also claimed that he wasn’t allowed to sell us the camera without any coverage so we humored him. After bargaining him down to 1,500RMB + 100RMB (~$230USD) for the international warranty Pete decided to purchase the camera. We opened up the box and tested it out, everything worked and we were happy. Upon inspection of the so called “international warranty card” I spotted a clause that said it was only valid in China, and immediately demanded a refund for the warranty fee. The vendor refused to refund the warranty fee, but instead refunded the whole price of the camera. The refund was more on principle than anything else, he had blatantly lied to us about the warranty. After about 6 hours of bartering Pete finally purchased the camera for 1,575RMB ($227USD).

The whole experience was quite fun, we had tons of laughs and enjoyed the crazy atmosphere of the electronics mall. There were some opportunities to learn new Chinese phrases and we also learned what to watch out for when shopping.