People planning to visit Hong Kong often e-mail me to ask whether buying camera equipment is less expensive than where they live.
My answer is always: it depends.
That's not what they want to hear, but it's the truth. I have one simple caveat for buying camera gear in Hong Kong: do your homework.
Before I delve into a cautionary tale, let me give you a few basic ground rules for shopping in Hong Kong:
Rule #1: know what you want to buy before you arrive. Trying to decide on a model with limited shopping time opens you up to being sold what looks good rather than what you need. This in turn opens you up to getting bent.
Rule #2: know the prices in your hometown. Knowing what you want is great, but if you don't have a clue what the gear goes for in your hometown, it's impossible to know whether you're getting a good deal in Hong Kong.
Rule #3: don't buy at the first shop you visit. As with, oh, every other city on the planet, it pays to compare prices at several stores to get a feel for the average. Just because the bozo behind the counter says his shop has the best prices, don't you believe it. Remember, most Hong Kong stores don't offer refunds.
Rule #4: don't buy bundled packages. Unless you're certain the combined items are priced lower than buying individual units, steer clear of packages.
Rule #5: stay away from camera stores on Nathan Road.
This one I broke on a whim, for which I paid the price. Let the cautionary tale begin.
I'd been out with my camera, wandering the city streets and shooting whatever snagged my attention. Out of frustration borne of a lack of a super wide angle lens, while passing through Tsim Sha Tsui I popped into ABC Photo & Audio.
Once inside, I enquired about the price of the Canon 10-22mm lens. My eyebrows went way up when Sang, the salesman, quoted an amount HK$600 lower than the best price I'd seen anywhere else. I wasn't quite ready to buy, but the price was so attractive I thought it would be worth a return visit when the time was right.
I told him I lived in Hong Kong, but preferred that the lens carried the US warranty, which gave international coverage, as opposed to just the local one, which was good only in China, Hong Kong and Macau. He confirmed it had the US warranty and that ABC had several lenses in stock.
Armed with the quote written on the back of Sang's card, I left feeling as though I might just score a great deal.
More the fool, I.
A short while later I decided to pick up the lens. The day before I planned to go back to the shop, I called to confirm that the quoted price would be honoured.
"So the lens is $4,380, correct?"
"Yes, that is our price."
"And do you have the lens in stock?"
"All right, then I will come to see you tomorrow afternoon."
Things unravelled fast the next day, beginning when I entered the store. Sang behaved as though he had no idea who I was. I couldn't tell if his indifference was an act or if he really was that clueless. I knew he got a lot of Caucasians in the shop, but how many have his business card in hand with the price on the back in his own handwriting?
I reminded Sang of our telephone conversation and that I'd come to buy the lens. He asked me to sit while another staff member left the store to fetch one. That struck me as odd, but it wouldn't be the first time a Hong Kong shop kept additional stock off premises. While I waited, I asked about the price of the lens hood and UV filter. He said he needed to check the stock first, despite that I could see filters on the shelf behind the counter.
It was as though he was deliberately avoiding telling me the price.
I was starting to get a bad vibe, so I thought it best to double-check things.
"So the lens comes with the US warranty, right?"
"No, this one has only the Hong Kong warranty."
That's how it starts ... "The last time I was here, you told me it had the international warranty."
"If the lens has US warranty it costs more. This price is for Hong Kong warranty."
So you lied to me, and why am I not surprised? The warranty wasn't a big sticking point, given that I live in Hong Kong, but that I'd caught him in a lie was.
My trust in Sang and in ABC was eroding fast. After waiting a little longer I realised nothing was happening. In fact, it seemed as though I was being ignored.
There's no way it should take this long. "You know what? I'll just get the lens now and pick up the filter and lens hood later." Somewhere else.
"Sorry, the lens is out of stock."
Lie #2, you shifty little punk. I almost blew a gasket.
"What do you mean it's out of stock? I called you yesterday and you told me of course you had it in stock."
"We have to bring in the lens from another shop. Can you come back at 6pm?"
Unbelievable! "No, I can't. I've been waiting half an hour already, and now it's 4pm. I have things to do; I'm not going to wait around for another two hours!"
"Are you staying in Tsim Sha Tsui?"
"No, I'm not a tourist; I live way up in the New Territories!"
"Oh, you live in Hong Kong? You can come back."
The unmitigated gall of that statement pissed me off more than being jerked around.
Cram it. Cram it sideways, if it'll fit, I thought as I picked up my camera bag and stormed out of the shop, leaving Sang with his mouth hanging open. I wasn't willing to wait around to see how they'd try to screw me over next; for all I knew, the lens might not even be genuine. Even if it was, no bargain was worth the flimflam. My blood was up, and so were my suspicions.
The truth is I'd brought it on myself. "If it sounds too good to be true ..." applies in spades to most shops along Nathan Road, and I knew that going in. I'd hoped that identifying myself as a resident would spare me the shell game, and perhaps even give ABC the opportunity to change my opinion of businesses in general along the Golden Mile.
But they stayed true to form, thereby not only reinforcing Rule #5, but damaging their own reputation in the process.
So do yourself a favour: if you're shopping for camera equipment in Hong Kong, stick to comparing prices from shops along Stanley Street in Central, or from those in Mong Kok, such as Wing Shing Photo Supplies.
By the way, there is one decent shop (Tin Cheung Camera) in Tsim Sha Tsui, but as it's on Carnarvon Road, Rule #5 doesn't apply. I'm not saying you should throw caution to the wind, but so far they've treated me well.
Now if you're among the small minority of visitors who've received wonderful bargains while shopping on Nathan Road, hey, good for you, but I don't want to hear about it. Those who've been ripped off or bamboozled are legion when compared with your miniscule numbers.
And please don't tell your friends to ignore Rule #5; they'd do so at their peril.
November 13, 2006
Next Tale: The Serpent and the Soup Bowl