Well-heeled tourists demonstrate that money can buy you everything...well, almost.
Standing at the counter in an inconspicuous fashion and lingerie boutique located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, three fully-veiled women argue among themselves. Their husband, obviously at wit’s end, does not know how to stop them from bickering.
He shakes his head, points to a lacy red thong-and-bustier set worth RM800 and booms, “Here, I’ll take this. Make it three . . . so my wives can each have one. No need to fight then, eh?”
Just then, a young and nervous-looking Middle Eastern man walks into the store, much to the relief of one of the harried sales attendant. She quickly rushes to his side and asks if she can be of assistance.
“Yes, I wonder if you have any panties that taste like this?” asks the man, holding up a strawberry-flavoured chocolate bar.
The sales attendant stares blankly in return.
Such scenes, it seems, are not uncommon in the boutique at this time of year. It’s mid-July, and the Arab season is in full swing.
This “season”, typically occurring from June to August, is when thousands of Middle Easterners descend upon our cities to escape the stifling summer heat in their own countries. It is a period, not unlike Christmas, when sales skyrocket, products fly off the shelves and gratuities flow freely.
“I never plan my vacations during the Arab season,” remarks Ling C., the boutique owner. “It’s a good time to earn back a year’s worth in rental cost and make a nice sum to offset the slow months.”
According to Tourism Malaysia’s 2008 survey of total tourist expenditure, shopping made up 26.8% and accommodation constituted 31.2%. In 2009, our country made RM53.4bil from 23.6 million tourists. Although Saudi tourists do not make up the bulk of these numbers (in fact, Saudi Arabia takes the number 13 spot on our list of top 20 tourist arrivals), they are the biggest spenders, splurging an average of RM7,992 per person. Hot on their heels are tourists from the United Arab Emirates who spend an average of RM6,315 per person.
For the average Middle Easterner, this means non-stop shopping sprees during the day and retiring to classy, five-star accommodations at night. For retailers and hoteliers, it means money and lots of it.
Paying a high price
“Everyone knows Middle Eastern tourists love outrageous clothes and bags,” says Calvin Y, a former sales person for a luxury Italian brand.
“They can be quite fussy sometimes, too. Sometimes they like the design but they want it in a certain colour. Or they like it in that colour but want the design to be a certain way.”
To get their piece of the pie, local retailers often do their best to appeal to these tourists’ unique tastes, even if it means stocking up on merchandise that would not sell on regular days.
“That’s when I start to amp up my window display with feathers, sequins, gold, silver and all that jazz,” says Ling, who claims that it’s not unusual for a Middle Eastern woman to spend several thousand ringgit in one go.
“But I have to sell each and every one of those items because I don’t want to have it lying around once the Arab season ends. Malaysians won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” she reveals.
But look beyond the promising facts and figures and you’ll notice that nothing is what it seems.
“The period right after 9/11 was very good. Every retailer was laughing all the way to the bank because many rich Middle Easterners who usually went to Europe for their summer holidays came to Malaysia instead (due to widespread Islamophobia),” says Ling.
“But as soon as the situation improved, Malaysia became second option again. We get a lot of penny-pinching Arabs now, and many of them treat my boutique as if it’s a flea market. They go around asking for crazy discounts. I’ve heard from other salesgirls that this happens in their shops too.
“And when you refuse, they steal. I’ve caught a couple of women who tried to walk away with lingerie hidden underneath their burqa,” she exclaims.
Due to the economic boom in Asia, especially in the Far East, a new type of tourist is also emerging — and they are noisy, demanding and not at all embarrassed.
“China, oh China,” quips Calvin. “The way these Chinese tourists dress and behave don’t really reflect how much they spend. A badly dressed, loud-mouthed auntie can come in and spend RM20,000. They pay by cash, too. I once saw a Chinese tourist unwrap a newspaper with bundles of money in it.”
A recent survey of Tourism Malaysia revealed the China market as one of the contributors towards Malaysia’s tourist revenue, after Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei. In one year, they spent a total of RM2.5bil as compared to the RM596mil spent by Saudi tourists.
Bernedetta N, a Korean-and-Mandarin-speaking tour guide, says that shopping is a favourite pastime among China’s nouveau riche.
“The Koreans come here to relax and play golf, but the Chinese love to hit the malls,” she says. “I think it’s because they can get branded items at a much cheaper rate in Malaysia compared to China. The women tend to buy a lot of bags, shoes and cosmetics, while the men go for watches and shirts.”
Unlike the Arabs, they are not fussy customers. Throughout his retail stint, Calvin found their clothing preferences to be predictable.
“They have a weakness for anything that communicates wealth and status. Signature bags and logo-shirts are always a favourite among the Chinese because it’s easily recognisable, and you can instantly tell that it’s this or that brand,” he says.
Being rich doesn’t necessarily mean they will spend without batting an eyelid. Just ask Calvin, who claims that the Chinese like to get more bang for their buck.
“Bargaining is in their blood,” he says. “Every time they buy something, they ask for discounts or freebies. Mind you, these are people who do not think twice about spending more than RM50,000 in one boutique.”
The trick is to always ask nicely.
“We don’t give discounts but we occasionally throw in some old samples from our storeroom if they’re pleasant enough. If we don’t have any extras to spare, we give them paper bags. Even that makes them happy,” he reveals.
Joanne L, a former sales person for a high-end jewellery brand, says that the Chinese tourists she has encountered are much harder to please.
“A lot of them are loud and rude, especially when they come in tour groups,” she says. “They don’t know how to appreciate the item and they don’t understand why it’s so expensive. So they handle it very roughly, to the extent of throwing it on the counter sometimes.”
The brand’s foreign clientele, states Joanne, are primarily Russians, who love bling and have a tendency to spend a whopping six-figures on big, bold jewellery pieces. However, that doesn’t make them any more approachable than the Chinese.
“They’re very intimidating, very cold,” she says. “They don’t like making small talk. They come in, look around, try a couple of items, make their purchases, then leave. They like to get down to business as soon as they enter the boutique.”
Calvin says that many rich families from India take the top prize for being the rudest customer group.
“It’s like you don’t exist at all. They will pretend they’re deaf and totally ignore you, even when you’re standing beside them, offering your assistance. This is despite the fact that they all speak English!
“If and when they finally need help, they’ll order you to ‘Come here’ when you are just a few inches away from them. Then they’ll boss you around as if they own you. We’re not maids, you know!” he exclaims.
As a result, many luxury boutiques train their sales staff to handle such prima donnas.
“We’re told to play it by ear,” says Calvin. “If they get physically abusive, you call security. Thank goodness it hasn’t happened to me, but I hear it has happened to others.”
According to him, Asian shoppers could learn something from their American and European counterparts in terms of courtesy.
“The Caucasians treat us better, and we like them even if they don’t buy anything,” he says. “On the contrary, most Asians feel that boutique sales assistants are not professionals, and therefore we don’t deserve any respect. But they are wrong and that should change.”
Source : STAR
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