Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How We Almost Bought A Digital Camera At The Zhongguancun Electronics Market

When friends of ours told us they wanted to go to the Zhongguancun electronics market to look at computers and other products, Z and I jumped at the chance to go along. Actually, our friends (who are Chinese, by the way) drafted Z into their service to take advantage of his now world-renowned bargaining skills.

And bargaining skills are a must when you wander into the apparent chaos that is the Zhongguancun electronics market. Zhongguancun, which is just up the road from where we live, and adjacent to Peking University, is the Chinese equivalent of Silicon Valley, the birthplace of many Chinese electronics companies (including Lenovo, I believe). It is also a massive complex of stalls that sell everything from computers to phones to pretty much any electronics device you can imagine.

Entering into the belly of the beast, we were greeted with a bilingual festival of shouting...Chinese to our friends, English to us.

Sir, DVD player?

Imagine the surprise on the young faces of the stall workers at the moment when they discovered that I, the foreigner, was along for the ride to serve as the quality assurance expert for a group of Chinese buyers. ("Is this a good brand of computer?")

As our friends settled in for an extended stay at a stall selling children's products that are kind of like the "Speak and Spell" I had when I was a kid, Z and I wandered over to an adjacent little corner where digital cameras are sold. We had no intention of buying, but were simply curious about the prices. (Actually, Z is always on the prowl, so I can only speak for myself here!) When I saw a sticker advertising one particular camera for RMB 2380, I uttered a Chinese-style grunt and proclaimed the price ridiculously expensive.

At that moment, a young uniformed guy rushed in, assuring me that I should pay no attention at all to the price that is listed. Going along for the moment, I asked if I could see the camera, a Sony 14-mega pixel job that looked pretty sharp. In the few seconds it took for this process to unfold, the price came down dramatically, to somewhere in the mid-one thousands. And Z was warming to the chase...

With our friends strolling over and a small crowd forming, I began to move on. But before I could get too far, Z dashed over and asked me what my price was. I told him that if he could get the camera for RMB 600 (well under a hundred dollars), then I would buy it on the spot. I thought there was no chance at all, but before I knew what was going on, Z had made the deal and we were being ushered away from the stall.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"To our showroom upstairs."

"Why can't you just give me a new camera in the box right now?"

"The new cameras are all over there. Let's go!"

So there we were, leaving the bright lights of the floor for a dark and (literally) dusty back hallway. This is the part of the story where Desi usually thinks we are all about to be turned into sausage meat.

Up an elevator we went, to the eleventh floor. All along the corridor were rooms on each side, filled with tables, chairs, and couches. We were given seats on one set of sofas and told to wait a few minutes. I had been informed that I would be able to swipe my credit card to make this purchase, but I didn't think that would be such a good idea. In my thinking, that was nothing more than a recipe for theft and fraud. So I dashed off to a nearby ATM machine and grabbed some cash. (I was, in a rare moment, carrying very few Chairman Maos in my wallet.)

The young girl who had escorted us up from the sales stall brought over the camera and told me we could check it out. So Z and I started snapping pictures and taking videos. We were having fun exploring the camera's features, thinking it was cool that we were about to buy an electronic device with a Chinese-language operating system.

"OK," I said, "We'll take this camera, plus a 2-gigabyte memory card."

"Great! Just go over to that window and give them the money. Then we will bring over the new camera in the box."

"Uhh...No...First bring over the new camera in the box so that we can inspect it. Once we are satisfied that everything is in order, we'll pay up."

"No, it doesn't work that way. I can't give you the new camera in the box until you have paid your money."

"Sorry, but if I can't see the merchandise first, then I am out of here. Come on everybody [our Chinese friends had come along for the show], let's go!"

At that point, I fully expected our escort to break down and show us the camera in the box. But, amazingly, she let us walk, preferring to not make the sale than to show us what was in the box. Why do you think that might have been?

Anyways, as we were walking back down the hall to the elevator, we were constantly bombarded by sellers on both sides...Sir, what do you want?

In a moment of mild frustration, I turned around and replied, Pijiu! "I want a beer!"

"A beer!? We have beer! What kind? Yanjing Pijiu? Qingdao?"

Well, that wasn't the reply I was expecting! I quickly turned back around and had a good laugh with the assembled crowd. For my part, it was a funny ending to a truly bizarre almost-commercial exchange. For their part, I think they were actually serious. I believe it was part of the sales pitch. Apparently, there's nothing better than a happy customer than a happy customer who is working on a beer buzz!

And, no, our friends did not buy a computer either...

~Steve

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