Chinese Treat Shopping as an Olympic Event

A boy looks at one of the Five Friendlies, the mascots of the Beijing Games, at the Olympic Superstore. A manager says 35,000 people a day shop there.
A boy looks at one of the Five Friendlies, the mascots of the Beijing Games, at the Olympic Superstore. A manager says 35,000 people a day shop there. (By Elizabeth Dalziel -- Associated Press)
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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 19 -- There is souvenir shopping, and then there is souvenir shopping in China.

One could outfit an entire family in Olympic gear festooned with the Five Friendlies, as the Olympic mascots are known, and accessorize half a house with what's on sale in the Olympic Superstore in the Olympic Green this week.

On Tuesday, thousands of shoppers formed a snaking line to enter the store, beginning on a street known as Corporate Pavilion Row, just beyond the Volkswagen showcase but before you get to the McDonald's.

Every four years, enthusiastic crowds battle over Olympic merchandise. Many wait for the T-shirts, mugs, baseball caps, sunglasses, pins, umbrellas, knapsacks and stuffed animals to go on sale at a discount.

But here in Beijing, shoppers don't wait, and they don't just browse. In a robust display of consumerism and Olympic enthusiasm, families -- most of them Chinese, from both the mainland and overseas -- carry two or three baskets of goods at a time. Cashiers say shoppers routinely ring up tabs of nearly $300; some spend more than a grand.

Even though many Olympic ticket holders are members of China's rapidly expanding middle class, that's a lot of money in a country where average per capita incomes in the biggest cities barely surpass $2,000 a year.

A manager at the Olympic Superstore who identified himself only by his surname, Wang, said last week that 35,000 people pass through the store each day. At any given time, he added, about 4,000 people are inside. Often, as many as 800 are waiting to get in.

Because the Beijing Games are the largest and most expensive Olympics ever, organizers have dreamed up souvenirs commensurate with the occasion. There are more than 10,000 items to choose from.

"There's only one Olympics, and I want to have each of the five mascots, plus I want a souvenir of each venue, because they're all different," said Zhao Yunshan, 10, who was having no luck at all trying to winnow down her pile of stickers as her mother watched.

"All of this is for my family," said Zhang Jingxin, 26, a doctor from Taiwan who is studying in Bonn, Germany, and came to Beijing just for the Olympics. "I planned to buy only one souvenir, but as soon as I came in, I saw so many designs."

Huan-huan, the red mascot resembling the Olympic flame, was the most popular of the Five Friendlies, store volunteers said.

It is difficult to imagine that anything in the store is not made in China.

Shoppers fill their baskets with toenail clippers, ponytail holders, magnifying glasses, commemorative plates, bobble-headed dashboard toys, silk scarves, key chains, playing cards, earrings, notebooks, puzzles, pearl necklaces, pillows, towels, shot glasses, scented ornaments, dolls and opera glasses.

Customers can also find four-gigabyte jump drives decorated like the Olympic torch for a gobsmacking $140.

Then there are the items specifically targeting the Chinese market: for example, the gold-plated, rhinestone-encrusted Temple of Heaven model, with the Five Friendlies dancing in front, for $2,400.

Want more?

Try the large shell, with the Olympic logo carved into its pearly interior and large pearls set around it. Encased in gold leaf, it's priced at $1,427.

Or for those on a budget, if there are any left, a limited-edition, gold-plated replica of the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, for $214.

"People do buy these," said Yu Xiaohui, a college student and store volunteer. "The first gold-plated Temple of Heaven was collected by the Capital Museum. People buy them because they're valuable collectibles and in the future the price may rise."

The volunteers, in their ubiquitous blue uniforms, were constantly smiling, even as they firmly instructed visitors not to exit through the main entrance.

"It's a very controlled environment, which has helped these Games be so much smoother than other Games, and that control could only happen in China," said Brent Nichols, 38, a marketing executive from Vancouver, buying cards, pens, T-shirts and water bottles for his family. "But that's a good thing."

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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