Shopping in Asia

How to Shop in Asia Without Getting Ripped Off

Shopping in Asia
Photo by Greg Rodgers

Shopping in Asia can be a bargain, but only if you know what to expect and how to play the game. Use these tips for finding deals and enjoying a better shopping experience in Asia.

Watch Out for Cheap Fakes

From perfume to purses and cigarettes -- chances are that someone in Asia has figured out a way to make a cheap copy, and is probably trying to pass it off as the "real deal." Common sense dictates that the Rolex watch you just purchased for $25 will probably not keep ticking for long.

While spotting obvious fakes such as DVD copies is easy, some replications -- like name-brand clothing -- are much more difficult to detect.

Keep these in mind while shopping in Asia:

  • You can safely assume that a majority of the Western-branded items you encounter in markets and shops around Asia are possible imitations.
  • Fakes aren't only found in street markets; even nice stores in shopping malls carry their fair share of cheap knock-offs.

Always Shop Around

Buying that nifty souvenir in the first store you visit nearly always leads to frustration later when you see the same thing on offer for half the price. Shops in places such as China tend to carry many of the same items -- sometimes arranged identically to the shop next door!

If you cannot get the price you want on something, keep walking; chances are that you will see the same item in the neighboring shops!

Negotiation Is Not Optional

Although uncomfortable for many Westerners, negotiating prices in Asia is a way of life; the merchants love the thrill and you should learn to enjoy it. Paying the asking price on any item not only hurts your bank account, but travelers who follow behind you face inflated prices thanks to those who do not negotiate. Remember, prices are bumped up already because vendors expect some good-natured haggling.

Approach haggling prices in Asia as a game; smile a lot and have fun while driving a hard bargain. Despite their claims, no merchant is going to lose money or go hungry when selling you something!

Be Courteous While Shopping in Asia

Traveling in poor countries can sometimes make you feel like a walking dollar sign as people -- some more persistent than others -- constantly try to pull you into their shops or sell you something.

Remember that most are only trying to feed their families or improve their quality of life. Be courteous and don't treat locals as vending machines for purchasing cheap goods to show off at home. Saying a polite "hello" and "thank you" in the local language goes a long way, and will inevitably help you score better deals.

Be a Responsible Shopper

Some of those souvenirs found in Asian markets come from nefarious sources. Seashells, animal products, and items produced with child labor should be avoided so that harmful practices are not perpetuated.

Don't assume that the trinket or wooden elephant purchased in Thailand was made locally; many souvenirs found throughout Southeast Asia are produced in China. Buy from fair trade shops and directly from artisans and local craftsmen whenever possible.

Tip: Just because someone sits with a knife and spreads wood chips around on the ground does not mean that they carved that wooden trinket!

Other Tips for a Better Experience

Watch Your Pockets

Crowded tourist markets tend to attract pickpockets who prey on foreigners walking around with lots of cash. Keep your money hidden, tie or close shopping bags, and separate your funds so that you do not have to pull out a wad of cash when making a transaction.

Don't Believe Everything You Hear

Unless you are an expert, be wary of claims on the age and authenticity of antiques or one-of-a-kind items found in Asia. Buying gems -- a very common scam in Southeast Asia -- as well as silver and gold jewelry comes with risk. Taking antiques home is actually illegal in many Asian countries.

Try on Clothes When Possible

Although a lot of expensive, Western-branded clothing is made in Asia, tags and logos on clothing do not always ensure quality. Sometimes rejects from factories are purchased and sold in department stores.

Clothing defects are tricky to spot unless you try on an item. The size listed on a tag may simply be wrong, or shirt sleeves may be different lengths. Rejects from factories often end up on the black market and eventually into tourists shops.