Now that I've been in the U.S. for four months – on a journalism fellowship for USA TODAY – one thing has become very clear.
Shopping may be the No 1. reason Chinese visitors like myself love America.
Sure, there's the culture, the sightseeing and, in my case, the work I'm doing. But deep down, we also relish the opportunity to get great deals on products that would be unavailable, too expensive or less reliable in China. Coming to the Washington, D.C., area – and to New York City for 10 days – from Tianjin has been like entering a shopper's paradise.
Here's a sampling of what I've bought:
• Vitamin supplements. Buy one and get a 50% discount for the second at CVS, half the price of comparable products in China.
• The latest electric toothbrush. The price is 80% of the old model in China.
• Starbucks ground coffee. My daily sustenance is 60% cheaper than in China.
• Roller and cling film. Although it's made in China, I've never found such good quality there.
• Toys for my tiny Yorkie puppy. Ditto. They're made in China but, I never found such cute ones in my home country.
That doesn't scratch the surface. When you travel to America from China, you have to be prepared to take orders from friends. Here's what mine asked me to bring back: baby food and milk powder from Whole Foods; dry fruit and nuts from Trader Joe's; reading glasses from Dollorama; foot balm from Costco; cold medicine and paper diapers from CVS; calculators from Staples; lip balm and shower gel from Burt's Bees; a Nike's Dynamo Free sneaker; a Zippo lighter; and a Philips electric shaver.
We do buy a lot. A friend who traveled with me bought tampons for the next 12 months.
“The U.S. is the biggest retail market in the world, offering Chinese tourists an unlimited selection of things to buy and places to shop,” says Michael Zakkour, author of “New Retail: Born in China, Going Global” and vice president of Asia strategy and digital commerce at Tompkins International, a supply chain consulting firm.
Three million Chinese tourists visited the U.S. last year, ranking the country fifth, well behind Canada’s 21.2 million. But Chinese visitors spent the most, $36.4 billion, far outpacing Canada’s $22.1 billion, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.
Chinese spenders have shifted their focus from the luxury goods they used to buy to high-quality but inexpensive everyday consumer products, according to China Daily, a Chinese state-run media outlet.
“Health and wellness products, food and beverage, consumer electronics, baby and child products fill up their suitcases as well,” Zakkour says.
Here's the irony: We Chinese visitors often pay around $2,000 for an airline ticket and $300 a night for a hotel at least partly so we can fill our suitcases with commodities that each cost under $20 on average.
Why do we go to such lengths?
After numerous product and food safety scandals in China in recent years, many Chinese people do not trust domestic products or sales channels. More than 30% of Chinese consumers expect to buy more foreign products, according to a survey by China’s Commerce Ministry in 2018.
Safety and quality are the main concerns, the survey shows. For example, the country’s demand for safe baby food has grown rapidly since Chinese infant formula killed six babies and made 300,000 sick.
“Even now, when Chinese producers have improved, the damaged reputation remains,” ModusLink said in its research. The fear is deep-rooted in China, and we believe the U.S. is a trusted source.
On Chinese social media, there are many must-buy lists to guide young parents on how to shop for baby food in American supermarkets. The Baby’s Only Organic is at the top. “Other best sellers:Enfamil, Similac, Gerber and Earth’s Best.
International brands and products cost more in China because of taxes and duties. China has high import tariffs that range from 6.4% to 25%. Then there's a consumption tax, a sales tax and a value-added tax. As a result, most American brands cost more in China even if they're made there.
I treat an American shopping center like a discount mall even if nothing is on sale. I buy a lot and save lots of money.
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The Great Firewall
China established “The Great Firewall” more than a decade ago, limiting access to many foreign information sources. We can’t visit Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Wikipedia and most American news websites from mainland China. Yes, we can buy goods from Amazon or other e-commerce sites, but the taxes make it prohibitive. Traveling abroad is a significant way for us to get a real connection with the outside world, and shopping is part of that.
Owning international brands and products is not only a matter of prestige – it confirms we are still global citizens.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shopping in the U.S.: Here's what Chinese tourists buy and why