As I walked into the store, I could almost smell the bargains. I was sure they were waiting for me inside. I was a couple of weeks into a posting as The National's correspondent in China, and there were plenty of things I needed for the flat I had just moved into. And where better, surely, than China to find bargains? This is the country that has shown the world how to make everything from cars to CDs at lower prices than everyone else can manage.
But after a few minutes inside the store my hopes were dashed. While the UAE branches of this major international chain were filled with ultra-low-cost Chinese brands, here in China they were nowhere to be seen. Certainly, the CD players and irons filling up the shelves were made in China, but they nearly all seemed to come from Japanese brands that charged a hefty amount more. Where were the cheapies?
In the end, I did manage to find a few bargains. My ironing board was just 30 yuan (Dh16), and the small desk I bought for my translator and news assistant was a fairly reasonable 129 yuan (Dh69). But I balked when I saw the cost of the clothes racks: 200 yuan (Dh108), which is about three times as much as I paid for the same item in Abu Dhabi. I just dry my clothes on chairs instead. And I haven't replaced the CD player I had to leave behind in the UAE.
This pattern has been repeated time and again when I have been shopping here in Beijing. The overall cost of living could not be described as high - the rent on my flat is 3,500 yuan (Dh1,829) per month, or about a third of my rent in the UAE capital. But when it comes to many other things, the prices are as high or even a little bit higher than they are in the Emirates. Add to that the fact that you have to pay tax here, and it brings home what an unusually profitable place the UAE can be to live in.
Just as the hypermarket did not offer an abundance of low prices, neither did the computer stores I visited. I had waited until arriving in China to buy myself a laptop, thinking they would be almost free in the country that makes pretty much all of them. Nothing of the sort. For some reason - people said the machines were first exported then imported back - prices were, I would guess, maybe a third higher than in the Emirates. And on all of the machines the operating system was in Chinese, which meant I had to go through the considerable hassle of finding a place that would replace the original software with its English equivalent.
For sure, there are pirated DVDs and even books openly on sale for next to nothing in China, but the high street stores themselves are far from the penny pinchers' delight you would expect them to be. I have concluded that this is because the average Chinese consumer can be much more brand conscious than the typical shopper in many other nations. But their brand awareness is not the vanity of the fashion-obsessed who will only be seen wearing Dolce & Gabbana or Yves Saint Laurent. No, I suspect this preoccupation with brand names is born of bitter experience.
Here in China, I think people realise that if a price is too good to be true, then there really must be something amiss. There have been many consumer scare stories in a host of industries, and many tales of fakery and piracy, so what people want most is a name they can trust when they hand over their hard-earned cash. They would rather pay a little more and go with a tried-and-tested household name than take their chances with the music centre, the DVD player or the laptop with the lowest price.
When shopping for a computer, I was all for selecting the cheapest machine on offer. But my translator knew every single brand name, where they were from and what their reputation was like, and he told me to avoid the cheapies. The fact that many of the big stores had decided not to stock the cheapest irons, the cheapest CD players and the cheapest televisions seemed to indicate that countless other discerning Chinese consumers felt the same way.
So, here is a piece of advice to any of you contemplating a move to the Middle Kingdom: buy your cheap Chinese goods before you leave the UAE, because you may struggle to find them when you get here. firstname.lastname@example.org