Image: Shanghai shopping spree
Mark Ralston  /  AFP/Getty Images
A foreign tourist tries out a hair extension on sale at Shanghai's historic Yuyuan garden.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 5/15/2007 12:51:02 PM ET 2007-05-15T16:51:02

Nothing can quite prepare you for a daylong shopping spree in China. It starts out small with a knockoff shirt or two, then escalates to things you don't really need or want but the prices are just too good to pass up. Before you know it, you've bought a duffel bag just to lug around all the stuff you've proudly purchased.

Why do people — even grown men — do this? Because it's like Christmas, but at 90 percent off. And that's before you start the haggling. You can dance through the aisles buying high-end watches, shoes, bags and jewelry for the wife. You can buy remote-control toys, electronic gadgets, tailor-made suits and pearls by the truckload. You know half of it's fake and probably won't last very long, but who cares? You are like the proverbial kid in a candy store and you suddenly have a huge sweet tooth. You have been bitten by the shopping bug.

I know this because I recently went to Beijing, and I got caught up in a shopping spree. In fact, I came home with two duffel bags full of goodies. I also came home with some tips to pass on to travelers who are going shopping in China. And here they are.

1. Try it on. Don't believe the label. In China, sizes are often taped inside the garment. Twice when a shop didn't have the size I wanted, the shopkeeper disappeared and returned with the shirt in the correct size. I mean, the exact same shirt but with a different size label pasted on the inside.

2. Caveat emptor. Knockoffs can be great; they can look and feel like the real thing. But remember, they are not the real thing, and they may not last or perform like the real thing. So while you're congratulating yourself for saving hundreds of dollars, don't expect too much.

3. Keep moving. For some reason, "Just looking" doesn't translate into Chinese. In fact, the vendors will hound you to buy all kinds of stuff you don't want. So if you're not interested in anything a shop has to offer, don't bother entering. Besides, there are so many shops and so little time.

4. Think big. When buying clothing, it is smart to buy one or two sizes bigger than usual because shrinkage occurs and the sizes tend to run smaller to fit the local build.

5. Haggle. Bargaining takes on a whole new meaning in China. It's more of a sport than a buying strategy, and it requires three things: preparation, a dispassionate attitude and a clear head. Even if you're talking about only a few bucks, start your bargaining much lower and be prepared to walk out. You may get a better price. Of course, what you save on the price you may pay in the effort.

6. Take a break. A full day of bargaining for crap can be tiring. Every two hours or so, walk away and regroup. The shops and products aren't going anywhere.'

7. Set your max. While most shops take credit cards, you should set aside the amount of money you are prepared to part with each day. This way you can keep track of your daily spending and you won't be too shocked when the Visa bill comes.

8. Just say no. Don't be persuaded to buy something that you don't really want or will have no use for. Sounds easy enough, but quite a few times I walked away with a shirt in a color or style I didn't like. I don't know how it happened but it did — several times.

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9. Explore first. If you walk into a marketplace that has a lot of shops, never buy from the one closest to the front door. It is often the most expensive shop and its vendors are the least willing to haggle.

10. Go with your instinct. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. My computer-geek friend bought a "100-gigabyte flash drive" for $20. We were pretty sure that there was no such thing even though the vendors demonstrated the device on their computer, but my friend bought it anyway. It was a total fake, didn't work and ended up being a $20 piece of ugly keychain jewelry.

11. Know when enough is enough. How many lighters with Mao Zedong's picture does one actually need? Know when to call it quits.

12. Declare it. Customs and immigration agents aren't stupid. They know you have been to Asia, and they can see that stuffed duffel bag. Make a detailed list of your purchases daily, or at least as you are packing, and put it on your customs landing card.

The last purchase on my list was a purse that my wife had specifically requested. I had learned the art of haggling by then and considered myself something of a pro. I approached the vendor with a dispassionate attitude, pointed to the purse and began what seemed like 45 minutes of hardcore haggling. The game was on. When I would pretend to walk away, the vendor would type a new number in her calculator. I would shake my head in disappointment and type in a much lower price. Eventually, I got her down to the bare minimum and we finished the deal with a handshake. With a frown she exclaimed, "Me lose money on this one."

I felt both guilty and proud as I handed over the money — until a local approached and bought the same exact item for approximately half of what I had paid. The vendor's frown turned to a smile and she winked as she said, "You come back tomorrow and I give you a better price."

The so-called pro had been demoted to novice in three seconds flat.

How else can the tourist species be identified? E-mail me and let me know.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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