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Archive for the ‘Travel / Shopping’ Category

For my most recent trip to China, I used a travel agent called WildChina.  WildChina is a high-end travel agent tailored for foreign tourists who prefers the unbeaten path, yet requires a lot of hand holding.  They organizes private customized tours and supplies a 24/7 (almost!) tour guide and driver.  I would recommend them if you’re looking for a hassle-free way to see China – if you’re young and adventurous though, this might be a little too much.

Anyhow, one of the benefits of such a tour is the chance to interact with a local tour guide.  Ours is a 26 yr old college graduate with degree in Chinese History.  As we got acquainted, he shared some stereotypes of foreign tourists from the guide’s perspective:

1) French tourists don’t tip, or tip very little -> the worst
2) Japanese tourists know the prices of everything (from their magical guidebooks).  They will demand compensation from the travel agency if they bought something at the market for a premium -> quite bad as well
3) Israelie tourists like to get the most of their value.  They will make sure the the guides work for their money -> tiring, but not too bad
4) US tourists talk nonstop, wanting to draw conclusion from everything they see on the way.  Also, they look for poverty… or whatever that fits their stereotype -> annoying, but generous tippers
5) British tourists are the best. 
6) Almost forgot about Chinese/Taiwanese tourists.  They never follow instructions so you end up yelling and running around looking for them. 

That’s it folks.

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This seems to be a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Not just to win a free trip to China, but the opportunity to meet a bunch of really interesting folks from both the US and China.  Unfortunately I just came back from Beijing so this won’t be for me… but here’s the chance.

Sponsored by Mashable, you might get the chance of joining the “China 2.0 Tour” led by Christine Lu from the China Business Network (CBN).  I am a big fan of Christine, and have seen her do amazing things at the CBN over the past year or so.  Take look here for details, and apply before Oct 27th!

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Guilin is a city in the province of Guangxi (southern part of China) – it has a population of 1-2mn and is designated by the Government as a tourist destination.  Which means that Guilin’s nature will be preserved and industrialization is prohibited (or slowed down).  All sounds wonderful except for the people who lives in Guilin, apparently.  Because of this designation, Guilin remains a relatively poor city and job opportunities are limited.  

I went on a 3 day tour of Guilin, which is indeed spectacular: rice terraces, river bends with mountains, volcanic caves, and wild countryside.  We had a local guide who taught us a lot about Guilin, and gave us a glimpse of life outside of Beijing/Shanghai.

The theme that emerges for me is contradiction.  There you have the “Miu” clans supposedly living in the mountain tops, farming and singing as they did a thousand years ago.  Next thing you know, you can pay them 20RMB to watch them let their hair down (apparently they only cut their hair 3 times in their lives).  You can ride a bicycle in the countryside, only to be accompanied by cyclists selling tickets for the “river raft”.  You can visit a volcano cave, and watch a light show accompanied by soap bubbles overshadowing the spectacular geographical structure. 

There is a fine line between preserving nature/culture and creating one.  I’m worried that Guilin might start to feel like the latter…  Nevertheless, I had a great time and here are some pictures:

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This has happened to me twice already… once in the notorious Silk Market in Beijing (which was expected), and a second time in New York’s Chinatown (a bit surprising).

So here’s the story.  I went with some friends to buy a few items.  Since the items are all the same in every other store, we decided to walk around, ask for quotes, then buy from the seller with the lowest price.  All seems rational to me (minus the shoe leather costs).  In both cases, however, the seller with the lowest offer increases the quoted price when we went back to buy the items (often within a 10mins timeframe).  We were pissed, and decided to go somewhere else.  For us, the price should have been final, and that was unacceptable business practice. 

I suppose there is a certain logic to it from the seller’s perspective.  If we went back to seller A, seller A now has the information that his quote is the lowest (free competitive research for him).  He then assumes that we will still buy if he raises the price marginally.  Or perhaps he wasn’t thinking that far.  We are trained to believe that customers are always right.  If we can haggle a price and not buy on the spot, why can’t the seller change his price over night?

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Malls in Beijing are escapes from the hustle and bustle of the city.  They are eerily empty.  The problem is pricing.  I was at the Oriental Plaza in BJ, and checked out a few international brands.  Across the board, the pricing is 20-30% above what you’d pay for the exact same item in Hong Kong or New York.  Which seems to make no sense given China is an emerging market.  More shockingly, these malls also have department stores selling “luxury” Chinese brands – and alas, they’re priced at Prada/Gucci level too.

A friend who works in luxury retail once told me that the brand’s strategy in China is to enhance the concept of “luxury”.  Since 99% of the people cannot afford the item anyways, the idea is to nurture the brand’s image of being luxurious, which equates to being outrageously expensive.  Stores in China certainly loses money – but they claim to make it up elsewhere.  Wealthy Chinese travels to HK, Europe, and the US and make big purchases.  Thus, stores in China are viewed as marketing expense, and a loss leader.  In the long run, they’d make it up elsewhere.

Josh Adams wrote an article in Asia Times titled Retail Strategy Rethink.  The thesis is that malls in China are not living up to its earnings potential and that at some point retailers will have to adjust and tailor to middle class consumers.  If we look at HK as a model for how a city develops, we might end up with a handful of super high end malls, and many residential community malls where supermarkets are the anchoring stores. 

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 I visited the Silk Market the first time I was in Beijing 8 years ago.  Then, it was an open market, smack in the middle of the embassy district and around the corner from the St. Regist Hotel where we stayed at.  I remembered walking around with my Chinese colleagues, not finding anything in particular to buy, but ended up negotiating for a sweater nonetheless.  It was a green woolen sweater, branded Gap.  The asking price was rmb 300, we returned price of rmb 40 and didn’t blink.  We got it for rmb 40, and I was told we could have gotten it for 20. 

8 years later, the market moved indoors to a new complex, completed with air con, heat, escalators/elevators, a restaurant…  it must be 10 times the size of what it was before.  10 times in size, and perhaps just 2 times the merchandise.  Which means there’d be 100 stores selling exactly the same items.  Competition is fierce, though not hostile.  At least not hostile between stalls.  I hear business is very tough these days… 

For me, I’d love to see the silk market gone.  Not only because they sell fake pirated goods, but more because of the horrible shopping experience.  The saleswomen there have an incredible command of English, both when wooing you to buy, yelling when negotiating, grabbing your arm, and swearing at you for not purchasing.  Last time I went, I got money thrown at me.  To be fair, my colleagues thought it was entertaining and enjoyed the sport; I felt abused. 

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Booking Air Tickets

Here’s an observation that’s quite interesting… 

Apparently the way Americans and Chinese book air tickets are completely reversed.  In the US, we have the 14-day and 21-day rule – whereby the closer you are to the date of flight, the more expensive tickets become.  I presume this is due to price discrimination; if you are booking late, you must really want to go!  Or, perhaps it’s just simple demand and supply – the less seats available, the more pricey it is.

In China, people book tickets last minute, at most 3 or 4 days in advance.  Tickets also get cheaper as it gets closer to flight date.  The difference, as I can see it, is a result of a competitive intermediary market and inefficient information.  Most transactions are done in person, mostly through the thousands of travel agents spread around town.  If you buy through the online portal, ctrip.com, a messenger will deliver your tix to your door in exchange for cash.  I suspect the lack of real-time transaction capabilities prevent airlines from controlling last minute pricing effectively.  Or, if applying simple supply and demand theory, this indicates that supply way surpass demand for Chinese domestic flights.   

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