Contrary to stereotype, not all overseas students from China are children of the 1 percent.
Sure, many are the ultra-rich progeny of Chinese billionaires or corrupt officials, flaunting their unimaginable wealth in the form of fast cars and ritzy clothes.
But for others, money will almost always be tight.
That’s why many young Chinese studying abroad have joined China’s growing ranks of haiwai daigou (海外代购), or overseas personal shoppers for mainland Chinese buyers looking to avoid higher prices and hefty import and consumption taxes.
Zhang Yuzhu, for example, is not scrimping to make rent in New York City.
A graduate student from China, Zhang spends her free time in the city’s swankiest department stores buying designer goods for customers back home.
She once blew US$45,000 on the coveted Hermès Birkin that is regarded by some as the “holy grail” of handbags.
“Usually I can earn US$200 to US$300 for a Chanel handbag, but I will get more for a Hermès,” Zhang told CNN.
Jennifer Zhong in Los Angeles makes anywhere from US$3,000 to US$10,000 a month from the 200 or so purchases she makes each month for clients in China.
“This is a business where you can’t really lose money,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s just a matter of how much you want to make.”
Zhong, who came to the United States to study at the University of Southern California, does her shopping online or makes trips to local high-end malls and outlet stores, often saving her customers 30 to 40 percent off what they would have to pay for the same item in mainland China.
For perspective, luxury haiwai daigou purchases in 2015 were estimated at up to US$7.6 billion, or nearly half of China’s overall luxury purchases, by Bain & Co., a consulting firm that tracks consumer trends in China, the LA Times said.
No one knows with certainty how many students in the US serve as shopping agents to make a little extra money, but along with tour guides and anyone with contacts in China, they make millions of transactions each year.
And it’s not a phenomenon confined to the US, as students studying elsewhere and expatriate Chinese increasingly help compatriots back home buy not just luxury goods but everything from baby formula and child car seats to air purifiers and even groceries.
Paris-based Li, who only wanted to give his family name, earns more than US$6,000 a month buying luxury items in French stores on behalf of clients back home, CNN said.
An MBA graduate, he has no plans to pursue a different career despite his educational credentials.
Du Lingxue, 23, a Chinese accounting student in Australia, buys products in Melbourne for consumers in mainland China.
“At first I just bought milk powder for my friends at their request. But I realized it would be an easy part-time job for me to make some pocket money while studying abroad,” she told China Daily.
In Hong Kong, May Liu earns about US$2,500 a month as an office worker, but she spends about 10 to 15 times that amount on goods for her mainland clients and nets out about US$10,000 a month, the Financial Times said.
Like others in the haiwai daigou business, she and her customers use Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, and WeChat, a popular messaging app, to discuss transactions and settle on price.
In Sydney, Sophie He sends up to 60 cans of baby formula and up to 40 bottles of vitamins to China every week, the Sydney Morning Herald said.
She also sends perishable food like cherries, mangoes and peaches.
Lest you think pricing differences between China and anywhere else couldn’t possibly be that big a deal, consider that a Coach Swagger 20 bag costs US$612 in China, but only US$350 in the US, USC Annenberg School research shows.
An iPhone 6s (64G) costs US$933 in China and US$816.41 in the US; a Philips Norelco Shaver 4600, US$399 in China, US$79.99 in the US; Estee Lauder Eye Cream US$75 in China, US$58 in the US.
The savings all add up, and also considering mainland China’s uneven reputation for quality and concern for unsafe products, it’s no wonder many Chinese believe the same product is better made when bought overseas.
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