Shopping, Chinese style

JISHOU, HUNAN — I fulfilled three of my shopping objectives this afternoon, while witnessing the special brand of capitalism of the new China.

Here, stores that sell similar goods are clustered together. If you don’t like the price or selection at one place, you just need to walk next door or across the corridor and try somewhere else.

Thus, Christopher and I visited at least three stores before I bought what I wanted, without having to drive miles in a taxi to do so.

As a consumer, I like the convenience, but cannot see how any store owner could make any money trying to compete with someone right next door.

Our first store did not offer us a price that Christopher (after conferring by phone with his friend) felt was acceptable for a three-speaker system. The young woman working the sales floor was polite and efficient, but did not offer any wiggle room on the price of the Hyundai speaker set I was interested in. Her price was 130 yuan, and I was more amenable to 100. Nevertheless, I was able to leave there with a decent-sounding microphone headset and an optical mouse for 50 yuan (roughly US$7). The mouse says “Sony,” but I wonder … All I know, it works. She let us try them out before I paid for them.

We hopped on over to another couple of stores with the same results on the speakers. Then, Christopher led me upstairs to the shop where he had bought his computer, suggesting they might cut us a deal since he was a returning customer.

In this shop, Hedy, there was a nice selection of Lenovo, Samsung, Dell, Acer and Asus computers and laptops, as well as various accessories and components. There were easily eight employees there. When we arrived, four were sitting around one of the tables in the shop, one was in a back room processing orders or invoices, one worked the cash drawer, and two were walking the floor. One of these, who recognized Christopher, showed us her lower-priced models and allowed me to compare their sound quality on one of the display PCs. The Hyundai set, which this shop had marked for 99 yuan, turned out not to sound as good as the next most expensive, by a company called Nod.

This system comes with a wired remote to control the power and volume, and had a clearer sound than the Hyundai speakers, which sounded too muffled. The sales woman said the price was 130 yuan, but normally the system sold for 180. I tried to get it down to 100, since it was a display unit, but she said 130 was the cheapest she could go. In the interest of good will, since Christopher might actually return to the store someday and since they took the time to set up two speaker systemss to let me test them out, I willingly paid the 130 (US$20). Besides, I doubted I could get a better price within this tiny computer-store zone.

While the sales woman attended to the sales slip, promising me a year’s warranty, I watched mesmerized as three others carefully put each component back into its plastic bag, wound up the wires in twist ties, placed them all in the original box, and created a carry handle with package tape. Cheerfully, I might add. I spent three years working in computer retail stores part time. I cannot honestly say any of us would be as cheerful repacking a display unit (assuming we could find the original box) as these three young women were. If it were a good sale with a nice commission, maybe there’d be some cheer, but for purely mercenary reasons.

Printers, one of the other items I wanted, started at most of the shops around 400 yuan for an inkjet, more than I could pay right now. I reckon a small laser would start about two to three times that, as they do in the States, so if I buy one it’ll need to wait until payday in two weeks.

After this fairly pleasant shopping experience, we walked through downtown Jishou, passing clothing and shoe shops (once again clustered side-by-side) toward a taxi stand. I had mentioned to Christopher that I had received an email this morning from one of the two Americans in the Princeton-in-Asia program, who are teaching at Jishou Teacher’s College. He offered to show me where the school was.

Jishou City is spread out in the valleys between the hills around the Wuling Mountain Range (武陵山脉), and along the Lishui River (澧水), a tributary of the Yangtze. The old downtown area is on the south side of the river. The computer shopping center is on the north side, just over the highway G209 bridge. The Teacher’s College lies somewhat to the northwest of that, past the Number 1 Middle School, a huge affair that rivals if not surpasses some US high schools in size. Jishou University’s new campus, where I am, is two miles south of downtown on the G209, also known as South Renmin Road.

We arrived to witness the same kind of freshman orientation happening in Jishou U, more about which later. Christopher was intent on my finding these Americans there at the College, although I explained that we were planning to meet next week and they were not expecting me. Undaunted, he inquired and found their office-mates, who informed us the P-i-A teachers, Julianne and Stephanie, were teaching. Rather than wait another half hour for them to be free, I left word I had stopped by and we left.

The College’s primary school had just let out, so the streets were packed not only with fruit and vegetable sellers and shoppers, but also small children in green pants and white shirts either walking hand-in-hand together, or with adults. As usual, I got my fair share of curious stares from children and adults, who wonder why this white-haired, bearded waiguoren is strolling around their town.

We passed Number 1 Middle School, crossed over the bridge, and passed through the old downtown area, eventually picking up a cab back to campus. It made me wonder why we took a cab from the computer shops to the College, since the walk was not all that strenuous — and quicker. The streets were jammed with parents collecting their children from primary school, making the taxi trip up more like a bumper-car ride (without any collisions).

So now I sit at my desk, finally listening to my music collection through decent-sounding speakers, just one happy camper. I wonder how I’ll do when I go shoe shopping …

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