How to Buy Gadgets in China And Not Get Screwed

Wallet full of cash and bags at ready, I stood, mouth agape, in front of the five-story electronics bazaar in front of me. It was one of several dozen in Shanghai, magical places where floor after floor are filled to bursting with gadget vendors begging you to stop by and see their wares. Like Circuit Cities on crack, everyone inside is desperate to make a sale and every price is negotiable. Welcome to the way the Chinese—or at least the majority who live in megacities like this one—buy their electronics.

Just minutes earlier, I had directed a taxi driver to take me to one of the bigger tech marts, the Shanghai PC Mall, located in the Pudong area of Shanghai.

"Are you sure you don't want to go to a Best Buy? We have those here now," he said.

It's true—Best Buy opened its largest store ever in Shanghai in 2006. Since then, it's cut the red ribbon on a second outlet and recently received permission from the government to start building four more. But what would be the point of me going there?

One of the more ironic qualities of buying electronics in China is that, despite all components being made here, foreign company goods still count as imports. Suggested retail prices are pumped even higher than they would be in the U.S.... unless you know how to negotiate for a better deal. But Best Buy frowns on bargaining, even in China.

"You aren't a local. The shopkeepers will tear you apart," the taxi driver warned, laughing, as we approached the Shanghai PC Mall.

Well, we'd see about that. I marched resolutely in, and was automatically bombarded by three sales clerks from three different booths, all hawking the latest notebooks from some of the best known corporations—Sony, Toshiba, Dell.

"Come and browse for a minute, maybe you'll see something you like," said one.

"Go this way, we have a special today that you might be interested in," warbled another.

"What do you need? What do you want? Tell me, I'll find you a good deal," the third trilled.

In every cubicle-like row is a representative who'll help fix your PC problems and, if you're not careful, sell you something you don't need.

I have to admit, the intensity startled me. Coming from New York, I was used to aisles of disaffected or otherwise nonexistent employees. The last time I'd seen such fervor was when a kid in an oversized blue shirt confirmed that I was buying something expensive and insisted I needed a longer warranty. I scuttled off quickly and the three salespeople automatically turned around to beset the next person to enter.

This time around, I wasn't hunting big game. Televisions, netbooks and DSLR cameras would have to wait until I'd become more confident in my chaffering... and had more cash.

Debit cards are still pretty rare in this country, and credit cards even more so. Most transactions still rely, ridiculously, on cold hard bills. To buy a decent laptop, I'd have to stuff my pockets with over a thousand 100-yuan notes—Chinese currency's largest denomination.

Every booth sells its own unique mishmash of gadgetry, impervious to categorisation or order.

On this trip, my list was more mundane, consisting mostly of accessories and doodads. I stopped at a booth with at least thirteen brands of webcams crowded around an LCD screen. Some were from established names like Logitech, others were made by local companies I'd never heard of. After waffling a bit over the specifications of each option the shopkeeper presented me, I asked how much for a simple Chinese-branded 3-megapixel number.

"180 yuan," she said. I paused then responded that I'd actually take it for 100 yuan.

"Done!" She packed it up quickly, grinned and stretched out her hand to take my bill. Damn it. I'd done enough bargaining in my life to know that when a deal is resolved this quickly, I'd probably been suckered. Sure $15 U.S. isn't a horrible price to pay for a webcam, but who knows how cheap I could of gotten it for if I'd been a little more ambitious.

I vowed to stick to brand name goods from then on, where at least the obsessive hours I'd spent browsing Consumer Reports and would give me some indication of their true value.

Floor upon glorious shiny floor of stuff!

With that in mind, I next tried my hand at nabbing a wireless router. This time around I went for something I recognised: an 802.11b/g Netgear that would run about $US40 in the US. The starting price this time around was 300 yuan (or about $US45). I countered with 150 and was scoffed at. Employing my best "Well, if you really aren't going to sell it to me for that much, I guess I'll just be on my way" look, I got the clerk to sigh and give it to me for 200 yuan. $US10 off the US price and no sales tax added on at the end of the deal. Not too shabby.

In the next hours, I haggled over everything from speakers to hard drives to extra RAM for my laptop (installed for free, with an extra discount thrown in if I left my old memory sticks with them). I came home that day, arms loaded with new stuff, satisfied with having saved a good 20 to 25% off of US street prices.

Yes, those are iPhones (and real ones, too). No, they're not supported in China yet. Don't tell anyone, okay?

And yet, I had also figured out why Best Buy, despite its inherent inability to ever compete on cost, was doing so well over here.

Negotiating for what you want is a pain. Being accosted by vendors trying to convince you that they're the ones you should buy from is a mess of stress. Worrying about whether everything will work as promised at home is downright draining. And the funny thing was, I approached the experience as an informed consumer. It must be a thousand times more frustrating for someone with less experience, who would undoubtedly realise too late that they paid way more than they should have.

What Best Buy offers in China is a haven for the emotionally fatigued. Their stock comes at a hefty premium, but with none of the uncertainties of the tech bazaars. You'll never turn around and find the next vendor selling what you just bought for 10% less. There is no "if only I were savvier" moment. Oh—and if something is wrong with your purchase, Best Buy won't yell at you for being a doofus when you return it (well, at least not over here. The Consumerist says things might be different States-side).

That kind of psychological assurance has put the company in a peculiarly powerful position. Despite initially dire predictions, Best Buy's Shanghai outlet is now one of the company's top-10 revenue generators worldwide. This is probably why three of its four new China stores will be located in this city.

But would I head there the next time I need a quick gadget fix? Heck no. Somewhere back at the Shanghai PC Mall, there's a netbook with my name on it. And it's waiting for me to win it in a bargaining battle for the ages. Paying retail? That's for sissies.

Who doesn't love bargains (and Jackie Chan)?

[Thanks to Josh Bancroft for several of the images]

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