Luxury is in the wallet of the beholder

Updated: 2015-10-31 11:51

(Lin Jinghua)

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Luxury is in the wallet of the beholder

[Picture by Ma Xuejing/China Daily]

China goes on holiday, and the retailers of the world rejoice.

They call Paris the City of Light, but when my friend returned from there recently, you could have been forgiven for thinking she had in fact visited the City of Handbags, wherever that might be.

"There's a small purse for me, and the rest are for my relatives and friends," she said, talking of the grand haul of 13 swish handbags she had toted back to China.

She and her mother had been among 4 million Chinese mainlanders who traveled abroad during the seven-day National Day holiday, commonly known as Golden Week, from Oct 1 to 7. Weeks after the event, her enjoyment of that trip-particularly her shopping expedition-is still palpable, even if it seems to be larded with one or two pangs of guilt.

"I felt really sorry for the shop assistant. My mother and I almost drove her crazy with all our requests."

Perhaps predictably, France is a magnet for China's Golden Week holidaymakers, and to avoid them in the more popular shopping areas of Paris my friend and her mother headed to rue Saint-Honore on the Left Bank, where, a friend had told her, she would find a boutique of the luxury leather goods brand Longchamp.

No sooner was she in the shop than, through the magic of WeChat, she was acting as official buyer for relatives and friends half a world away. As it approached 6pm in Paris and midnight in Beijing, pictures of handbags and purses winged their way through the ether to China, interwoven with earnest discussions between the buyers and their representative about colors, sizes and styles. The shop assistant then joined this grand bazaar, being shown pictures of bags my friend's relatives and friends had seen on

My friend's mother, too, needed to consider the styles and colors other relatives would like.

"The shop assistant must have been exhausted," my friend said, "because I know I was."

The more than 4,000 euros ($4,400) that crossed the counter in my friend's one-hour spending spree, which ended when the store closed, may have alleviated any exhaustion the shop assistant felt.

Of course, there is nothing like securing a bargain to make Chinese happy, particularly if it involves luxury goods, so the buyers in China no doubt trooped off to bed with broad grins on their faces.

"We love Longchamp, even if it is not quite as well known as some other big brands," my friend said. "And with a tax refund and no import duties they were much cheaper than they would have been in China."

Shopping is one of the main activities of mainland Chinese when they go overseas. During Golden Week more than 400,000 Chinese mainland tourists who visited Japan spent nearly 100 billion yen ($830 million) shopping, Xinhua News Agency reported.

So why are Chinese people so taken with shopping when they are overseas, and what do they buy?

"What I look for is quality and good prices," a cousin said. In recent years she has traveled abroad twice a year, the destinations including Paris, London and Rome.

In Japan the goods that Chinese mainlanders often buy are said to include toilet seats, medicines, and home appliances such as rice cookers, thermoses and shavers.

In Europe it is handbags that top the shopping list, the main destinations being France, Britain, Italy and Spain, where the nouveaux riches go after luxury goods brands such as Burberry, Hugo Boss, Hermes and LVMH.

Unlike the nouveaux riches with their penchant for fancy names, my cousin, who likes to go shopping with a couple of girlfriends when she is abroad, looks for fine goods rather than expensive ones. Brand names that figure on her watch list will be the likes of Chloe, Dolce & Gabbana, Givenchy, Miu Miu and Valentino.

I recall visiting France for the first time 12 years ago, when I bought nothing more than perfume and chocolates. As I walked along the Champs-Elysees, my eyes ached just looking in the windows seeing names like Louis Vuitton. The only shop I went into was that of Lancome to buy some perfume. It's not that I don't have the money to splash out on these luxuries; it's just that I see no need for a Louis Vuitton handbag or a Fendi purse.

People of my generation tend to be more pragmatic than younger people when shopping, I think, and for us it's not the brand name that counts but whether what we are buying looks good or works. A luxury item exudes standing, and if the buyer lacks corresponding standing, it is going to seem like a fake.

However, there is no stopping some people. "Life is as dull as the sky, and it is buying luxury goods that gets my dopamine going," one friend told me. "It makes me happy."

It obviously makes the luxury goods companies happy, too. The British government says the number of visitor visas granted to Chinese almost trebled over five years to the end of 2014, from 115,000 to 336,000 last year, and their spending rose 326 percent. Chinese spend an average of 2,688 pounds ($4,100) when they visit the country, it says.

No wonder, then, that after President Xi Jinping visited Britain last week the British government said it would introduce a two-year multiple entry visa to encourage more high spending Chinese mainland tourists to visit the country.

Just as Xi's visit showed once again that diplomacy doesn't generate just goodwill but good business, too, the recent National Day holiday proved that what for one country is a Golden Week is for others a week of pure gold.

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