A city of commerce, in one mall

Times Staff Writer

After 19 hours on a hard-seat train ride from Beijing, Zhao Taishan stood in the cold drizzle waiting for the mall doors to open.

The boyish-looking 45-year-old had come here, as he does every November, to buy items for his sporting goods business. He walked past corridors of stalls selling plush toys and artificial flowers, then took the escalator up to the second floor.

He wended through halls overflowing with hair ornaments, jewelry, tools, small appliances, office supplies, electric vehicles and recreation equipment. He walked up three ramps. Nearly two miles and 30 minutes later, Zhao phoned for directions to store No. 25,792.


“I’m almost there,” Zhao said, as beads of sweat began to slide down his forehead.

With 30,000 stores crammed on four sprawling floors, International Trade City -- about 200 miles south of Shanghai -- is the largest wholesale mall in the world.

The S-shaped building, painted orange and pale yellow, is 18 million square feet. That’s about the equivalent of 350 football fields and about six times the size of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza, one of the biggest shopping centers in the U.S.

You won’t find any cinemas or food courts here, but Yiwu officials boast that the market sells 400,000 different items. Situated in bustling Zhejiang province, the giant 4-year-old mall illustrates the power of China Inc. today: enormous scale and specialization, driven by ambitious private entrepreneurs.

Here, thousands of vendors, competing side by side, peddle items including housewares, hairpins and hammers, garish statues of Buddha, Harley look-alike bikes and Egyptian water pipes, all at super-low prices. Buyers come from all over the globe, seeking merchandise for small shops as well as big retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and France-based Carrefour.

Your Christmas ornaments may have originated here. On the mall’s third floor is a village of artificial Christmas trees, jingle bells and other holiday baubles. At least 100 merchants sell Santa Claus suits, says Hua Fengcui, who was offering hers for $5 each. Dozens of other shops sell and ship figurines of the Virgin Mary and pictures of Jesus at the Last Supper. A 12-inch blinking replica goes for 50 cents.

“This place will make you crazy.... It’s like rows and rows and rows of the same thing over and over again,” said Glenn Thain, a New York insurance agent who moonlights as a distributor of exotic alcohol drinks in China. The 39-year-old was shopping here for key chains, lighters and other trinkets to give away as promotions to his salespeople and customers.

He was also doing a little Christmas shopping for his niece. He clutched a fistful of sheets of fake tattoos that he bought for pennies each from a merchant who also sells retail. “It’s amazing,” Thain said.

Perhaps more remarkable is that most of the vendors in the market are selling goods that they make at their own factories scattered throughout the country.

At Fangxin Flower, Chen Xiaoqing, 31, and her brother were swamped filling orders for teddy bears, plastic roses and hearts for next year’s Valentine’s Day. Chen says 20 people make the products out of her family’s home factory in the countryside outside Yiwu.

One of her store’s most popular items is a 6-inch teddy bear on a wicker chair. It comes with a glittering plastic ring and is wrapped in cellophane and shipped 160 in a box. The wholesale price per item: 64 cents. A Korean American reseller, she said, ordered 200 boxes.

“The prices are going down because there’s so much competition,” Chen said. Asked about the store’s profit, she huffed. “It’s nothing. Maybe we make a penny or two on each.”

Such cutthroat pricing is what brings Moayad Saad, 45, here twice a year from Jerusalem. Each time, the businessman spends about $50,000.

“Not everything’s here, but almost everything,” he said of the mall, after emerging from a decorations store, where he had made a deal for 500 6-inch rolls of ribbon that he planned to use to adorn wedding cards. It cost him $250, or a tenth of the cost in his hometown, which explains why thousands of people from the Middle East shop -- and live -- here.

Of 8,000 permanent foreign residents in Yiwu, surveys suggest that 3,000 may be Middle Easterners, second only to Koreans. Arabic restaurants dot the city. Some of them are packed at night, with diners passing around hookahs and young Chinese Muslim women wearing head scarves serving hummus and mutton.

Many buyers say the quality of items is spotty. Some vendors wonder how long the mall will last, given the enormous competition and oversupply of goods.

But Chen Jianjun, a public administration professor at Zhejiang University, said this clustering of businesses “is exactly how Yiwu wins. With so many stores gathering in one place, huge amounts of business information are also gathered in Yiwu. And information is the most precious thing in modern business.... It makes sure that every step in the business chain in Yiwu remains at its lowest cost while the quality gets better and better.”

Merchants say most vendors seemed to be doing all right, but nobody knows for sure. Turnover is low. Rents range from $6,000 a year for the typical 10-by-15-foot stall in faraway spots to $60,000 for larger spaces in better locations. The mall’s S layout imitates the shape of a dragon. The stores are arranged by product categories in districts A to H, with some districts separated into a dozen streets.

Red lanterns and gold stars hang from the ceiling. There are free Internet cafes and smoking rooms. On weekends, the shopping center is a magnet for tourists and schoolchildren.

Zhejiang China Commodities City Group, the developer of the market, is planning to invest $600 million to nearly double the size of the mall and add tens of thousands of grocery items and other consumer goods to the center’s “sea of commodities.”

Some shoppers already feel as if they’re drowning.

By midafternoon, Zhao, the Beijing sporting goods buyer, was so tired that he paid 60 cents for a 10-minute ride from District C, where he was looking at toy balls, to District H’s recreation section. His black sweater was soaked, and his feet were aching.

Along the way, he could see that others too were weary, including the mall’s cleaning and servicing crew of 5,000. Despite hundreds of trash cans in the mall, floors were littered with pumpkin seeds, fruit peelings and chewed-up stalks of sugar cane.

At the 5 p.m. closing time, Zhao plopped down inside a store and recounted his day’s purchases: 600 badminton shuttlecocks for $83; 400 pingpong paddles at $3 a pair; and 1,600 black wristbands for about a nickel each.

“I’m dead tired,” he said, taking a deep breath.

“I got lost and kept getting lost looking for the right numbers.... I’ve got a lot more to do tomorrow. But now I just want to go to the hotel, watch a little TV and sleep.”