Seek value, not status, when shopping

Updated: 2011-07-15 09:06

By Patrick Mattimore (

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I was in the States recently wearing my Armani suit that I bought in Beijing. Friends commented how great I looked and a stranger or two even stopped me to pay a compliment.

Now I'm pretty sure Armani suits cost more than the $50 or so I paid and that probably holds true for my $75 prescription designer glasses, my $5 Polo shirts, and the $30 Adidas running shoes that have a Nike Swoosh on the front end.

Or maybe I just got great deals.

When I pointed out the apparent Adidas/Nike contradiction, the salesperson suggested that maybe it was the original shoe's brother. My daughter labeled my suit a Charmani (Chinese Armani).

A 2010 study, "The Counterfeit Self: The Deceptive costs of Faking It," published in the journal, "Psychological Science," suggests that my fascination with all things faux and cheap could have a surprising drawback. My moral values may be taking a hit.

The authors of the study found that when people wore what they believed to be counterfeit products, they were more apt to cheat on some math problems which had a corresponding payoff for correct answers.

I'll wait until the study is replicated before I trade in my suit, but there is an interesting contrast between my value-seeking buying habits and the recent Da Vinci furniture flap. The Shanghai-based retailer has been accused of selling Chinese-made furniture and labeling it Italian. Unsuspecting status-conscious Chinese have been willing to pay top dollar for inferior products.

Which really begs two questions: Why do so many Chinese have an unhealthy obsession with buying foreign brands and is there a cure?

Unfortunately, "made in China" has replaced "made in Japan" or "made in Taiwan" in the public's lexicon as symbolic of cheap, inferior quality goods. Maybe it's somewhat true of the knockoffs - my Charmani suit jacket could use a little tighter stitch on the buttons, but the running shoes are comparable to what I would get in the States for $100 bucks or so. Still, Chinese products are generally well-made, so why would buyers pay top dollar to own foreign goods?

The obsession that drives the purchase of foreign brands in China may have something to do with buying better quality products, but that alone doesn't explain why people of average means are willing to spend a lot more to get products that may be only slightly better.

Even if it turns out that wearing knockoffs may be bad for our moral health, it doesn't necessarily follow that people should be mortgaging the farm to wear or own a perceived foreign status symbol. The answer is for Chinese manufacturers to develop their own status labels or, better yet, create a paradigm shift in the public's consciousness emphasizing value rather than status.

Chinese work hard for their money. It seems a shame to get caught up in a largely negative spiral that dictates one's worth by the label on one's clothes.

The author is a freelance journalist living in Beijing. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.