The Computer Buying Game

Last Sunday I bought a new computer. I’m about to move into my new place, and I suppose I’m still in the throes of consumerist passion. It just seemed like a good time to plunk down a neat stack of cash to buy the system I’ve been wanting for a while. I haven’t had a new computer since 2002, when I bought one in Hangzhou with Wilson. It was time.

Then this week I learn from a blog post that my friend John also bought a new computer. Only he bought it at The Xujiahui Best Buy. Best Buy?! Yes, Best Buy.

He reports it as a very satisfying experience in which he paid a reasonable amount and took home quality merchandise which he can be sure is the real thing.

My first reaction to reading this entry was, “Did I make a mistake?” I could have bought my new computer at Best Buy too. Instead, I bought it at the Metro City (美罗城) computer market in Xujiahui (very close to the Best Buy), from a shop I’ve bought parts from before and had no problems. I can’t be sure that the store is totally honest, but it seems decent. The shop is on the fourth floor, which is good, because the higher you go the fewer customers you get. So on the fourth floor, they’re more willing to cut you deals and to help you find the equipment you really want at other shops if they really don’t stock what you’re looking for.

Still, John seemed so content that he had gotten a good deal, and now I was left with doubt.

But then my mind came round again. How could he abandon the game? Buying a computer in China is not walking into an immaculate store manned by a grinning, competent staff. Buying a computer in China is to play the game, to be full of suspicion, to take risks, to engage in the battle of wits.

You have to carefully select your computer store. Don’t go with one on one of the first floors, and don’t go with one that is too loyal to certain brands. Don’t go with one that is too small or too big.

You have to choose your parts from their list. It’s all in Chinese, but they often know the English names of the brands… if the brands even have English names. The crux is knowing when it’s OK to get Chinese brands (key word: 国产), and when you have to insist on brands you know and trust. If you really have to have something that’s not on their list, you have to push them to go out and get it.

You have to know that there’s always wiggle room in the price, but also that they usually won’t even try to rip you off too much because the competition is right next door. So you can’t cut their price in half, but you can’t pay the initial price either. It helps to be familiar with hardware prices before you go. Shop around.

You have to inspect each and every piece of hardware they install to make sure you’re getting what you pay for, and then you have to keep your eyes on that hardware until it’s actually in the machine. It’s so easy to pull the ol’ switcheroo on the unwary customer, and most are clueless college students who’ll never know the difference anyway. Watching like a hawk keeps them honest. (I didn’t trust my store that much.)

You have to really badger them if you want a copy of English Windows XP. Regardless of what language you get, make sure it’s SP 2 they’re installing, because anything earlier will likely be crawling with viruses the moment it connects to the internet. Also make sure they partition your hard drive how you want it, because sometimes they do ridiculous things.

You have to make sure you’re getting the proper warranties and receipts. Stuff breaks, even when the shop is honest.

You have to get their business card with phone number. Make sure they know they’re going to be hearing from you if you have any problem whatsoever. It’s best to do this before they actually start assembling your new machine.

This is the game. It may seem a little sick, but I kind of like it, and the game might not be around for much longer. I think that megastores like Best Buy are going to destroy these sketchy computer markets in the long run, but until they do, they won’t have my money. I play the game.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. It’s not that the game is intrinsicly bad, and as you say if you play it well it is possible to get a good computer without being cheated, but the best possible result is that you have basically the same customer experience as you do at a megastore, but to acheive that result you have to put in a lot more effort.

  2. The effort is the journey is the fun.

  3. I suppose. After 6.4 years I’d have thought you’d be over the “China is so cool because everything is way more difficult and complicated than it needs to be” thing. There are times when I want to confront the system head on just to see if I can take it, and there are times when I just want to buy a damn computer and go home.

    To each his own…

  4. Now let’s talk about the game of learning the Shanghai bus system >:)

    Like John B said, to each his own.

  5. In terms of buying fruit or fabric or furniture or something, I would agree completely with you about The Game – but computer equipment is so hard to monitor what you are actually getting and its quality that I would almost rather deal with Best Buy – as our economist MBA friends would sya there is such an “information ansymetry” when buying a computer that I always would feel in a weaker position . . . .

  6. John B,

    Your second comment was my point, really. You choose which “challenges” you like in your adopted home, and which you will avoid if at all possible.

    To use Micah’s example, I used to know the Hangzhou bus system very well. After moving to Shanghai, however, I was no longer interested in it. But I use the subway as much as possible. Some foreigners shun both, holding a “taxi only” transportation policy.

    It’s all a part of the adaptation process.

  7. Oh, man, I hate the game. It’s one of the other many nice things about using Macs: Apple retailers here generally charge the right price – things are more expensive in China thanks to tariffs, but you can buy computers that were bought in Hong Kong and then shipped into the Mainland for about the same price as they’d be in the States. And, since Apple themselves don’t operate any of these stores, you can usually get a couple of free DVDs of essential software apps (Office, Photoshop, etc) thrown in along with your new purchase so you don’t miss out on the whole piracy aspect.

    In general, I have to say, I hate haggling. I can do it, and indeed do, but it’s just no fun to have people try to rip me off.

  8. I just bought a Dell laptop last week. It was made in Xiamen but the customer rep was in HK. i ordered it on a Fri night and had it delivered on the following Wed, only 3 business days later. They had told me it could take up to 6-8 days. It cost 1000RMB cheaper than if i bought the same system in mainland China.

    I’ve been using Dell laptops for 4 years and have never had any problems. All of the ‘complaints’ about Dell I had heard from my Chinese friends have never happened to me..

    I’m glad i never stayed long enough to play ‘the game’ of purchasing a computer, especially when thousands of RMB are involved. Fruit, clothing and trinkets are fair game for me..

    Like Brendan said, purchase from HK if at all possible.

  9. dezza,

    Tsk, tsk… that would be cheating.

  10. John tells you how to buy a PC in China….

    This is only one of many tips that John from ‘Sinosplice’ published.


  11. My favorite “game” is getting contractors to fix up my apartment. Just a simple thing like installing a new screen door, or repainting the kitchen is an adventure. Even getting a phone line put in was a lot more interesting than it would have been back home.

  12. I bought a Hasee laptop almost a year and a half ago and it’s ace. It’s a bit tougher game when dealing with laptops as you’re not dealing with risks on individual parts, but rather on one hunk of expensive hardware.

    However, I’ve been lucky enough to play for a few extras … and am seriously considering getting myself a big flat screen monitor… so might be delving into the sport of computer parts shopping soon enough.

    My favorite part about computer markets is buying mice that say Sony on them for 10 RMB. And for all those that say cheap mice break quickly, I think a year and a half is pretty good. And to all those that say I just don’t use it enough… perhaps we’ve not met.

  13. Don’t think that you’re safe buying from an Apple dealer in China either. They may not be able to cheat you on the actual computer, but when I bought what I thought was a MacOS X “Tiger” DVD in Beijing (for full retail price I might add) I was had then. The DVD upgraded my iBook just fine, but when I got back to the UK and wanted to do a reformat and re-install I found that the DVD was actually only upgrade version, and not the full retail version at all. If I hadn’t had the original OS install CDs I’d have been royally screwed… When shopping in China it truly is caveat emptor. For me the result was that I spent far less money while there than I would have done had I thought I could trust the retailers.

  14. My favorite thing to do when I’m playing this game is to get all panicky because of all the Chinese I have to use and all the people staring at me, then buy the first solid thing that somebody throws in my face, and then go back home where nobody trying to cheat me and I can take a nap. Then, sometimes, after I wake up, it’s lots of fun because I find that I didn’t even buy the thing I originally set out for.

  15. Shu Jierui Says: January 18, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    Has anyone had any experience buying from large retailers other than Best Buy, say, Guo Mei (aka, GOME)?

  16. Once bought a Sharp video camera from Guo Mei/Gome (who chose their English name anyway?) before I was about to go on holiday so never actually hooked it up to the PC. 10 days later get back home try and try and try to make it work with the PC – tried several firewire cards but to no avail. Took it back to Guo Mei, they said my two separate firewire cards were no good, hooked it up to one of their PC’s which was apparently no good either. They wouldn’t refund me as it was past the 7 days by law refund thingy, to be fixed under warranty was the only option, it took 6, yes 6 months to fix the faulty firewire module on the camera.

    Once I got it back, I never actually took any video anyway. Wont ever buy anything from Guo Mei ever again, worst hassle ever.

  17. I went to buy some blank CDs in an emergency from Suning, and the salespeople totally blew me off. I went to buy a telephone cord at Guomei and they had to fetch it out of the back room and then find somebody who could cut it for me, and then sold me an overpriced packaged cord on the next visit. The only one that seemed competent was Yongle, but I think buying a cellphone just about anywhere is pretty straightforward nowadays.

  18. The game, it is intoxicating!

  19. The Game is similar to when cops do racial profiling. It’s the same thing, different context.

  20. You keep on playing the game, young fella. I choose to buy a computer that works and spend my spare time doing fun things like living my life.

  21. GAME HINTS – I think you forgot to mention the whole negotiating price drama, the initial price, then the rebuttal, and then the “how much is it without a receipt?”

    I’m pondering whether to play The Game with renewing my China visa, but it’s like the alt-universe version. Last round I found a friend of a friend who went down to the local office with me, stamp, stamp stamp and I had a one-year multiple entry F visa. The officer there though did mention next time around I should get the W visa….

    It’s that time now and I’m thinking, do I go the somewhat official route and submit for a F or W visa with accompanying local registration paperwork, health check paperwork, sponsoring company paperwork, photocopies of my passport, photos and application form or do I play the alt-game…just go to Hong Kong and stamp stamp stamp plus the mark-up?

    It’s like Hong Kong is China’s Best Buy.

  22. I’ve traveled around asia for a while, and a couple years back I asked her why there was barely any stores on the fourth story of this particular mall we were visiting. Her answer was that Chinese people were as superstitious about the number 4 as people in the US are about 13. Over here, you don’t find hotel rooms on the 13th floor, just like you don’t really find good business on the 4th floor of any Chinese building. The sound for the number 4 is similar to how you say the word “die” so it’s not considered lucky. Naturally, a business will not want to be on a floor that sounds like death, so the fourth floor is usually empty because people don’t want to rent the spaces.

  23. drat, I type slower than I think

    correction: “around asia for a while with my mother, and”

  24. […] hard drive was only three months old, so the company I bought from will replace it free of charge, but they can’t do the data […]

  25. This reminds me of the little old ladies selling me fruit. The GAME continues, no matter where one goes.

    Employees, Customers Say Best Buy’s Goal Was to Confuse

    “As Connecticut state investigators continue to look into the Best Buy dual Web site situation, former Best Buy employees and customers are telling stories that question how accidental some of the confusion was.

    The controversy stems from Best Buy giving employees access to two different—but visually identical—sites for them to show customers. One of the sites was the public Web site and the other was a full replica of that site but with in-store (typically higher) pricing.;ylt=AlPkP6onUTuQs9T3c7QcxEbMWM0F

  26. […] new one.   Shopping for reliable technology is a different experience in China.  I refer to :  The Computer Buying Game | Sinosplice.  I’ve been to these Chinese Techno-marts as you can call them. . .  and I prefer to do my […]

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