As China has been thrust headlong into capital C capitalism, and for some, shopping is a way of life. But others just need basic necessities, a perfect balance between form, function and price. Beijing's widely varied population has shopping spots to meet any shopper's needs, but many are off the radar for first time visitors. CRI looks at where Beijingers go to lighten their wallets.
by William Wang
Zhongguancun is China's version of Silicon Valley, its locus of information technology. The PC and Tech Authority named Zhongguancun Number 6 of the world's top IT locations. And though doubtless many of China's best and brilliant minds are creating complex and revolutionary mechanics here, most Beijingers simply identify Zhongguancun as the place to get deals on electronics.
Many first time visitors find that the Zhongguancun experience borders on overwhelming. Multiple huge buildings are filled with floor after floor after floor of computers, cell phones, cameras and knickknacks. Even before entering the rotating doors, the front runners of an army of sales people jump on potential customers. "Hey, handsome guy! You like Samsung smart phones? HTC? Other brands? I can help you!" "Pretty girl! You need an iPad?" The more aggressive sales reps have been known to seize customers by the elbow and drag them to view the latest Dell laptops.
North of the city center in Haidian district, Zhongguancun is in close quarters with the university crowd. Dinghao Market, Hailong Market, Kemao Market and E-Plaza are the major players in its central hub. "All these markets all pretty much the same," confirmed Mr Gao, a computer salesperson who was lingering at an entrance himself, ready to snag the next visitor. Dinghao is generally accepted as the biggest market, the most bustling with people, but all of the markets offer similar goods at similar prices.
Some floors are brighter and shinier than others. Some stores are very official, and others are less so. Generally, it is obvious which sellers are going by the book, and which aren't. Well-lit fronts with uniformed workers: legit. A booth overflowing with clip-on digital cameras and computer brands you've never heard of: not legit.
Of course, there are also many booths selling perfectly authentic computers or phones that can be bargained down to prices that insult the profit margin, but buyers need to keep their wits about them.
Mr Yang, who works at Zhongguancun, admits it can be risky to buy things there. "The prices here fluctuate, so sometimes it can be better to go to a proper store where things are guaranteed." But it was clear that Yang also took pride in his workplace. "Last time Bill Gates came here, he saw that there's a lot of fake products or black market products," smiled Yang. "He joked that in Zhongguancun he couldn't win."
One shopper, Gao Shan, said he was very happy with the iPod he'd bought here before, which was 300 yuan less than the Apple Store's price. "It's cheaper because the way they get the Apple products isn't official," he explained. "There's ways they can get around the taxes." He was clearly pleased with himself. "Yes, there are fake products here. [Before buying anything] you should first look online to learn how you can check a product's authenticity. And you should check a product over very carefully. Try it before you buy it."
Gao the salesperson unsurprisingly plays down the issue of fakes. "People come here because they trust us," he said, boldly. "If they didn't trust us, they wouldn't come." Though his logic isn't bulletproof, it's evident that suspicions of fakery haven't kept the masses away.
Particularly on weekends, the entire hub of Zhongguancun gets filled with consumers. Salespeople use walkie talkies to discuss who needs what where. Vendors and consumers haggle over gigabytes and accessories. People lug multiple boxes of computers through tight aisles.
Although China's not well-known for its post-purchase services, teams of Zhongguancun technicians busily dismantle and reassemble computers and other gizmos. The upper floor of one market is filled with booths selling hermetically sealed packs of computer innards whose purposes are beyond laypeople. A man hunches over a circuit board, and the smell of burning solder wafts into an aisle littered with plastic wrap.
From budget computer fixes to high end photography gear, bargains are to be had, but it won't always be easy. Foreigners in particular will have to work to get prices down, so visitors are advised to do their research in advance.
Getting to Zhuangguancun (中关村):
From Zhuangguancun subway station (Line 4), take exit D.