Shopping Hell

Posted by on February 25, 2011

Relocating yourself halfway around the world with a limited amount of space to bring your lives along and attempting to settle into an unfurnished furnished apartment means that you need to buy a crap load of stuff. As we left Issaquah, divesting ourselves of all our worldly possessions (car, house, etc) and packed away the rest of our lives into storage I became a bit disenchanted by all that we possess and the consumerism in our society. And yet here in Beijing we end up buying all over again.

This particular buying experience though does feel a bit different. First of all we are spending an allowance given us by our landlord to outfit our house with furniture. The basic kind of furniture you need to outfit a house with : sofa, shelves, tables, chairs, beds etc. These are not extravagant or lavish, but practical and “necessary”. Secondly we are buying all the outfitting things that are required for living that we didn’t have room to bring : towels, knives, forks, plates, spoons, cups, bowls, paper towels, garbage bags, dishwasher soap, detergent, hand soap, colander, spatula, pots, pans, skillet etc.

Buying all this stuff takes a lot of time. It requires a lot of work. And it pretty much sucks. So far we’ve made three big purchasing trips and two of the three have been at Ikea. The one not at Ikea was at Carrefour, which is a French – Chinese-ified Target/grocery store. There is a Carrefour one near our house and the basement floor is all non-food stuff and the main floor is a full on grocery store. Miles, Sofi and I spent a couple of hours this week pushing and filling two carts full of household sundries this week before both of them had lack-of-food-meltdowns and we left. We bought :

  • wireless router (I had to pay someone 100 rmb to set it up as all the config screens were in Chinese)
  • toaster
  • rice cooker
  • pot
  • pan
  • bowls
  • few spoons
  • few knives
  • few forks
  • toilet paper
  • garbage sacks
  • electric water boiler
  • two cutting boards
  • spatula
  • ladel
  • colander
  • wooding cooking spoon
  • etc, etc, etc
  • Two big shopping carts full and it cost me around $300 US. Then there is Ikea.

    First off let me comment on variable costs.  Over the course of my employment at Amazon I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the way a business is run.  Fixed costs are those expenditures that don’t vary over time (duh), like the cost of building a new building, or say the cost of Ikea building a huge warehouse.  Variable costs are those expenditures that vary (duh) over the course of time, often due to seasonality or other factors, the prime example of this is labor.  So the variable cost to run say for example an Ikea are the costs of the employees.  Ikea saves a crap load of variable costs because they have somehow convinced you and I to “pay” for the labor of walking around and picking out all the furniture and furnishings from the shelves in their warehouse and they have convinced us that we should also “pay” to put it together.  This is for example why the online grocery business is hard because the same thing applies to grocery shopping; the grocery store doesn’t have to pay someone to pick all the items off the shelf for you, you do it yourself. But if you purchase groceries on line they now have to pay someone to do this for you.

    Anyway all of this goes to say that a trip to Ikea can be long and tiring because they construct the building in a maze like fashion where to get from the beginning to where you purchase you have to walk past everything so that you’ll have a chance to see everything you need to buy. And then after you have picked it out you have to push big carts around lugging it off the shelves to the check out stand.  Take this typical Ikea experience and quadruple the size of the building and place this in a city of 25 million people where you get literally 1000s of people all shopping at the same time and the maze can turn into a slow agonizing game of dodge-the-1000s-of-slow-people-in-my-way.   And it really is huge. The Beijing Ikea is three stories, each one massive with a really long circuitous route that winds around back and forth like a snake.

    You park underground, which itself is three levels deep.  You ascend on an angled moving walkway to the main level and then ascend three stories on a series of escalators to the top floor.  Now your trapped in the maze. The only way down and out is to make your way through the maze on each floor.  The top floor you can only use those little stupid cart things with the bags you hang on them, which seem to really be a strange device to wheel your tired kids around. You basically make one big circle.  This top floor doesn’t really have anything you can carry anyway, its all large furniture display with a few accessories sprinkled here and there.  You pick out the furniture and the color you want (if there are covers) and then get those cryptic location codes : aisle 7, location 21, item 801.732.94.  At the end of the maze is a set of stairs, where you can’t take the little carts down, and you have to carry your bag.  The 2nd floor has “real” shopping carts and is full of all those things you can actually put in a shopping cart, like kitchen ware, bedding etc.  Then you take your shopping cart and you make your way down two huge long angled moving walkways that take you to the main level where the warehouse aisles and items are stored and you can pay and check out.

    One note about the carts over here and these angled moving walkways.  The carts have all four wheels free. Usually in the States the rear wheels are fixed and the two front wheels can freely turn, but in China all four wheels can turn in any direction.  This makes it very difficult to maneuver them with in a straight line let alone a predictable fashion; get going too fast in one direction and it requires a lot of inertia to turn the cart as the thing spins out of control. There are no rear wheels to help you steer and control the direction.  This doesn’t sound too bad until you put one of these carts in the hands of 100s of people all trying to maneuver around on another; or you put the cart in the hands of a 7 year old boy who has to drive and has no concept of velocity.  When you wheel these carts onto the moving walkways their wheels lock into grooves and they are held stationary on the walkway as you ascend or descend.  This free-wheeled aspect gets really difficult when you arrive on the main floor and are picking out your heavy items and you end up with an unwieldy cart that weighs several hundred pounds. Its like pushing an elephant around the ice rink.

    We made one recon trip to Ikea, before we had any money.  (The landlord had yet to pay us the furniture allowance, work had yet to pay me because I didn’t have a bank account and it wasn’t payday, and we had a foreign credit card which most places don’t take with a daily maximum $400 withdrawal limit.)  This involved two hours of wandering through the maze, taking lots of photos of furniture displays and writing down codes and prices.  We made another trip back the following Saturday for actual purchase. When we arrived at the checkout we were four carts deep. Two shopping carts piled high with beddings and kitchen furnishings and two large flat carts with furniture good piled high.   After our purchase we made our way to home delivery where they arranged to deliver all the big stuff for 100 rmb and offered me the option to have everything assembled for another 350 rmb.  Yes! I wouldn’t have to through the no-words-pictographic-assembly-pain!

    We still had a bunch more furniture to purchase and ton of bathroom and kitchen supplies. So I steeled myself for yet another Ikea trip.  This last week the kids had homework and Stac wasn’t feeling like going out so we divided and conquered. She stayed home and took care of them and I agreed to go shopping at Ikea by myself.  Thus began the 4 hours of shopping hell.

    I arrived at 5:30pm on a Thursday.  Should be a quiet night at Ikea right? Not really there were just as many people as the two other Saturdays we’d gone. I first headed to the top floor and before beginning the maze I went to the cafeteria for a plate of Swedish meatballs, some gravy and potatoes.  Then I began. I bought another chair for the front room and an entertainment stand. Then I bought a kitchen table and chairs and a desk and chair for Sofi. And finally two mattress pads for our and Miles bed.  (Chinese beds tend to run on the rock solid hard side of things). Then down to level two where I grabbed a cart and started filling it with all kids of kitchen supplies and towels.  One of the purchases was a set of kitchen knives. There was a girls standing near the knives with a black book.  When I’d made my selection she grabbed me and had me fill in my mobile number and print my name. Apparently any blades over 15 cms requires you to register your purchase of deadly implements with the police. I was also instructed to not carry these on public transportation.  I guess I was now armed and dangerous.

    Then the long descent down the walkway to the main level. The only problem was I had one cart piled high with everything. There was no way I could manage this cart and what I feared with be two more big flat carts of heavy furniture.  So I called Robert, our”translator” guy who comes with our driver to have our driver, Mr. Wang come meet me and help me.  (We get a driver for the first 2 months to help us get settled in. While he drives me crazy cause he drives sooooo slow, I couldn’t imagine doing all of this without him).  I had told Robert to have Mr. Wang meet me at the ice cream. No cell service in the basement meant Robert had to call Mr. Wang on the loud speaker. I nervously paced back and forth between the ice cream area outside the checkstands and my full cart back behind them.  After 20 minutes Mr. Wang finally got the message and showed up.

    We convinced some Ikea workers to keep an eye on my full cart and we headed out to the aisle/location/numbers to pick out the furniture.  We piled one cart so high with furniture that it got heavy enough to engage the breaking mechanisms on the wheels and we had to get a second large flat cart to carry everything.  Finally done we pushed everything into line, 3 carts deep to check out.  The Chinese respect for lines is more than some I’ve seen but at the same time not very strict either.  We had one lady try to but in line in between the clerk checking all the items in cart one and carts two and three.  Mr. Wang straightened her out.  Checking all the furniture out is tedious because the clerk has to find the scannable bar codes on each box and check them off. Finally complete, Mr. Wang and I attempted to push three heavy free wheeling carts through the milling crowds of ice cream and hot dog eaters to the home delivery line.

    We dutifully queued in a line that was two abreast at one of the home delivery stations.  We were the 5th person in line.  After a while the first person was finished and then number 2 got started.  This guy was crazy angry about something; him and the delivery clerk went on and on and on yelling at each other for forever.  Finally after 10 minutes the guy just ahead of me (#4) went up and complained.  They got a manager guy from the back to carry on the yelling with the angry #2 guy. Then the number 3 started getting processed and Mr. #4 switched over to the adjacent lane.  While we waited for our turn I ended up having to defend and deflect at least 3-4 other people who tried to cut in line.  Finally 45 minutes later we were up and the delivery clerk started processing my order.  Sadly it was now I noticed that the entertainment stand, which  had two book shelves on either sides were not the same color. This involved a 15 minute delay while the delivery guy called on the phone and Mr. Wang and an Ikea employee went and switched out the box for the right color.  FINALLY an hour after checking out and 4 hours after arriving at Ikea we loaded the rest of the stuff up in the car and we headed for “home”. Usually I would have dropped everything off at our new permanent apartment, but I was too tired and had Mr. Wang drop me off at our temporary hotel/apartment.   What a long tortuous evening. And what made it all that much bitter was I imagine we will have to go to Ikea at least twice more to keep on buying that stuff we need to live.

    7 Responses to Shopping Hell

    1. btezra

      “You park underground, which itself is three levels deep. You ascend on an angled moving walkway to the main level and then ascend three stories on a series of escalators to the top floor. ”
      is that typical in China, the sheer volume of people condensed, I’d always figured that parking in Beijing was sorta like Manhattan
      I gotta admit, I appreciate the convenience that shopping online provides me, you can always score free shipping at a lot of online merchants, delivery, easy, in a snap. Is e-commerce in Beijing smooth/easy experience? Any worries about security over the networks as there is here, to a degree that is.

      • mbg

        Things definitely seem to go down (parking) and up (levels) in a effort to fit more people in. Another crazy thing is that the entrances to the underground parking garages seem like twice as steeps as you’d normally build them in the US, the lack of rain and snow probably account for that. You can actually get most everything delivered in Beijing (like Manhattan). This includes E-commerce. In fact I had headphones delivered today from to my work at Amazon 🙂 And a laser printer is getting delivered on Monday. And Amazon in China is not the biggest E-commerce player (as we are in the US), TaoBao is much much bigger.

        Online payments in China are not quite as mature as in the US. There seems to be very little standardized online payment gateways. For you can’t even pay on Amazon with a credit card. Amazon has to redirect you to a separate page to pay. I failed at paying on that gateway page due to an active-x control that they wanted to install that required me to input a captcha. To even login to my online bank I have to plug in a USB fob for an extra password. So its a weird mix of immature payments and super crazy about security. Consequently many people still pay by cash. Some of this is the inherent distrust of the goods you are getting and a desire to examine them first before paying (and refusing the delivery if you don’t like what you get).

    2. btezra

      right on, I can definitely see the ease factor and the wow factor of e-commerce, technology in general, growing up no computers or the Tandy model, then Apple, PC, it’s so ingenious what people have done w/ code & business plans, amazon is a great example, they’ve become a household word in a short amt. of time, so much so there are others
      I kinda like the security, wish it was more stringent somehow everywhere

    3. Jane

      Mark, 2 things crossed my mind as I read of your 4 hour ordeal.

      1. I’m glad he’s young.

      2. I’m glad he recovered from his illness.

      Best wishes to you.

    4. Stacey

      Thank you Mark for going that night. The kids would not have made it, nor would I. It was a long day and night for you and I appreciate it. If we would’ve gone, the kids would’ve fought, Miles probably would have rammed into another person heels(and then started crying) and Sofi would have had a breakdown(myself included).

    5. Robyn

      Wow! Well, thank goodness for Ikea though, imagine if you had to get everything at different places! At the same time, I feel the hating to shop part!

    6. Jen H-S

      Wow…I got a headache just reading this.

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