Meet the World-Class Shoppers

| Sunday, 05 Mar. 2000

Meet three World Class Shoppers, ladies who've refined the pursuit-of-the-great-deal into an art, each a proponent of shopping as a primary leisure and travel activity. To them, the world's a giant emporium filled with bargains waiting to be found.

Bobbi Baker, who views shopping as "pure, unadulterated therapy," recently retired after entertaining as a comedienne on cruise ships for over 20 years. I met her on the Royal Odyssey, when she directed me to the best prices in Venice for glass candies and silk-lined leather gloves (stalls at the foot of the Rialto Bridge). Brooklyn-born Bobbi both entertained and led shopping tours on segments of up to five world cruises several seasons.

For fifteen years, self-confessed shopaholic Carole Klein was a hostess and cruise director aboard the Royal Viking fleet, amassing goods from all over the world. She passed her foraging tips along to passengers in her "Shopaholic Talks," frequently teaming up with Bobbi. Carole is now the Director of Public Relations for The Regent Hong Kong, one of the world's finest hotels--and suitably located in her favorite city for shopping.

Suzy Gershman, energetic doyen of acquisition who views shopping for value as an "energetic sport," has made shopping into a career. She's the author of the Frommer's "Born to Shop" series. Suzy spends 12 to 15 weeks traveling close to 100,000 miles each year to update the books, lead shopping tours and give shopping talks.

 

SUZY GERSHMAN'S ADMONITIONS FOR ACQUISITION

  • Suzy's Moscow Rule of Shopping (her abiding trademark, formulated when she was a Moscow-based reporter faced with constant shortages): "If you see something you like, buy it immediately. You might not come back later. The item might be gone when you return."
  • Suzy's Coca-Cola Price Index--or How to Judge How Expensive This Place Is: " If a can of Coke costs more than at home, then all the other prices will probably be higher, too."
  • Avoid "Price Tag Romance." Don't buy something just because it is so cheap that you can't pass it up. If it doesn't work with your wardrobe or in your house, it's not a bargain--it's a waste.
  • Don't talk yourself into something you really don't love.
  • Don't shop when you are in a bad mood to cheer yourself up; you will make a mistake.
  • If you're indecisive, Suzy says to follow your instincts: "Is this an item you can't live without, even if you're overpaying? ‘Yes,' you say? Then buy it now."

    BOBBI BAKER'S GUIDELINES FOR GOOD DEALS

  • Dress code: Always wear black, a lightweight skirt or pants and comfortable shoes. You might need to try things on at stalls and marketplaces. Don't wear jewelry. You need to look poor.
  • "Farthest out of the center of town is the cheapest." Bobbi cites Rome as an example, "The further away from the Spanish Steps, the better the price."
  • When planning to shop the bazaars in Cairo and Istanbul, Bobbi advises, "Don't drink water for a day before you go there--if you catch my drift! In Istanbul, the shops outside the main gates have clean facilities."

    CAROLE KLEIN'S MESSAGE FOR THE MARKETPLACE

  • An adjunct to Suzy's Rule of Moscow Shopping: Buy it. You may not see the same thing again, and the farther you are from that shop, in whatever obscure port or city, the better the unbought item will look.
  • Serious shoppers must carry an empty, lightweight tote bag.
  • Wear a fanny pack for safety, security and easy access to cash.
  • Dress casually, with no outward sign of wealth. Wear comfortable shoes, it your feet hurt you can't concentrate on shopping.
  • If time allows, compare prices at up to three places which have similar items; more comparisons will just thoroughly confuse you.
  • Use caution when shipping items home. The reliability of shipping definitely varies from country to country and from shop to shop. Anticipate additional shipping, handling and custom clearance charges. Your bargain may not turn out to be such a bargain.

    The Fine Art of Bargaining

    Bobbi warns,"The worst thing you can do is go into a shop and say, ‘Oh, I love that!' Never start bargaining for the item you really want; start with something near it, bargain for a while, then point to what you really want."

    Here's Bobbi's bargaining strategy: "Always say ‘discount.' If you can't get a price and the shopkeeper says, ‘how much do you want to pay?' then he's got the upper hand. So you must start ten to 20 percent lower than your final price. Then you work up; the shopkeeper saves face and works down. If you're deadlocked, take out the cash--shopkeepers usually bend when they see the money. You must learn to walk; I've had people run down the street after me."

    Carole adds a couple of sly tricks to Bobbi's strategy. She tells ladies to "work in pairs." "Have your husbands act antsy and tell you that you can't buy it. Have them insist that you do not have the time or the money. Walk away. Hopefully, the shopkeeper will call you back." Carole starts her bargaining at half the asked price.

    Suzy emphasizes that "bargaining is not a simple science." Her method of haggling is asking "Can you do better?"

    PRE-TRIP RESEARCH

    Carole, Suzy and Bobbi's shopping forays are more intricately plotted than a James Joyce novel.

    Suzy says, "You can't expect to walk out of your hotel or off your ship and instantly find ‘the cute part of town.' It takes lots of research. And only the educated consumers get the best bargains." Suzy reads various guidebooks and local magazines. She strongly advises trips to museums, "Bargain hunting begins in museums to accustom your eye to seeing the very finest."

    Suzy's "Born to Shop" books are one of Bobbi's favorite research tools. The comedienne advises, "Plan ahead, do your research on a map, start with the furthest out shop and work back."

    Carole makes a prioritized shopping list then plots her route on a map to maximize shopping time. "Find all the shops in one area, the shortest routes between shops. When traveling, your time is limited. You need to know what is available and the lay of the land. Then you can map out your day with a plan of attack."

    Whether shopping for French perfumes, English china or electronic items, Bobbi, Carole and Suzy come armed with a list of U.S. prices for comparison.

    THE PROS FAVORITE SHOPPING GROUNDS

    Hong Kong, with its incredible selection of merchandise and shops tops the list for all. Carole sums it up, "Hong Kong may not be the bargain basement Mecca that it once was, but it is still a shopper's heaven. Shopping in Hong Kong still makes a world-class shopper's adrenaline flow!"

    Suzy says, "Hong Kong shopping is at its best for fine workmanship-- tailoring, jewelry--or junk for laughs, from bins on the street. There's not much in the moderate price range."

    Carole and Bobbi recommend Hong Kong's Asneil Bags, in the Ambassador Arcade, for designer look-alikes, China Arts and Crafts Stores and China Arts Centre for embroidered linens, "Pan Am" pearls (faux pearls), silks and gift items.

    Bobbi cites Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia as the up and coming countries for good shopping. "They are all looking for a piece of the action."

    Bobbi's list of "bargain countries" includes Mexico, Portugal, Turkey, India, China, Thailand and Indonesia. She heads to Lisbon's Rossio neighborhood for shoes, bags, leather goods and jewelry. Her best buys in Bombay have been in the arcades of the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Hotels and at Kala Nikatan (95 Queen's Road) for "great, unbelievable fabrics." In Bangkok's Chinatown, Bobbi buys 24- karat gold baht chain, priced according to length, weight and the current price of gold. Bobbi thinks she may be one of the few who have had the stamina to do the full two miles of Legion Street in Bali--"fabulous clothing, young designers, batik fabrics."

    Carole's list of greatest value for the U.S. dollar includes: Turkey, for stylish leather goods, carpets, gold jewelry; Greece, for gold jewelry and ladies' shoes; Thailand for silks, gem stones, handicrafts; Vietnam for lacquerware, ceramics and antiques; India for handicrafts, brass, and, in Bombay, fabulous silk and embroidered fabrics; Macau for furniture and antiques; China for oriental art and antiques, jade, silk, cashmere; Spain and Portugal for beautiful handpainted ceramics. And this resident of Hong Kong feels that the best deals on electronics, cameras, computers and cellular telephones are in the United States.

    Suzy's shopping forte is humorous, fun gifts. She scouts dime stores (Monoprix in France, UPIM in Italy), grocery stores and gourmet stores for $3 to $5 gifts that say "I'm thinking of you." She finds jam in pretty jars, fancy soaps, sugar- covered almonds in attractive tins, noting that "the packaging can often be a delight in itself." She showed me little plastic fishes, filled with shampoo, perfect for Christmas stocking stuffers, that she'd found in Rouen's Monoprix for $1 each.

    She also scouts for fancy buttons, vintage clothing, old suitcases and teapots at England's flea markets, car boot sales and jumble sales.

    Suzy also has a penchant for discovering used designer clothes, "like the one-year-old suit of Dutchess So-and-So who doesn't want to be seen in last year's colors." Most of these shops are in the middle of the main shopping area, such as Contrepatrie, in Cannes, "just a sneeze from the new Chanel." Other favorites are Reciproque in Paris, Pandora in London and Encore in New York.

    PARTING WORDS OF WISDOM

    Suzy: "Buy what you love and enjoy it. Don't stay awake nights tormenting yourself over how much you paid, what you bought--or didn't buy. Just go on shopping."

    Bobbi: "Optimism is most important. Today, around any corner, you are going to find a great thing that you love (that you don't need), for practically nothing."

    Carole: "Rarely do you regret what you buy, just what you leave behind."

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