What it’s like to shop for smartphones in Shenzhen, a tech-lover’s paradise

If you want to buy a smartphone, there are a wealth of choices available both online and offline; but the majority of stores sell the same devices for the same price, and most don’t provide an exciting retail experience. What if you want something different like a used phone, or you want to haggle over the price?

If you’re in the U.S. or the U.K., your choices are limited to online services like eBay, Craigslist, and Swappa. If you’re in Shenzhen, China, it’s a very different story. We took a walk down the main electronic commercial street of Huaqiangbei in central Shenzhen, a street lined with stores selling everything from drones to Bluetooth speakers … and heaps of smartphones.

Gadget fans may have already heard of Shenzhen, as it’s home to most of the major manufacturing plants in which the world’s greatest devices are built. Many big and small-name hardware companies have offices and production facilities there, so it’s no surprise to find a sprawling retail area packed with the fruits of the workers’ labor on sale.

A street lined with stores selling everything from drones to Bluetooth speakers, and heaps of smartphones.

What’s it like? There’s a mixture of official, single-brand stores selling one type of phone, along with labyrinthine marketplaces that disappear deep into buildings. The latter is where you’ll find smaller shops selling all kinds of electronics and gadgets, and even single booths staffed by one person, selling everything from fidget spinners to parts and components for phones. Big-name Chinese smartphone brands have their own stores out on the main street. We passed Huawei’s store, an Honor store, an Oppo store, a Vivo store, and various others.

These shops operate like regular stores elsewhere, such as a carrier retail store, or an Apple Store. While Apple has official retail stores in China, Huaqiangbei is dotted with shops claiming to be official Apple resellers, and the Apple logo itself is a common sight strolling down the street. Samsung was also out in force when we visited, with a pop-up store showing off the latest Galaxy S8.

It seemed fitting to see what Huawei offered to its retail customers, considering Huawei is the third largest smartphone manufacturer in the world — and it’s widely popular in its home country. Perhaps its stores would be reminiscent of an Apple Store? After all, it has a strong retail presence, with a plan to build a network of retail stores in 1,000 Chinese counties. We chose to visit one which opened in 2016, that doubles as both a retail store and a service center. We met one member of staff there, named Seven, who walked us through a typical visit.

“We have about 150 visitors each day,” he said, pointing out that in addition to coming in to buy a new phone or to get one repaired, others visit to have the intricate features explained to them in mini training sessions. There’s even a large seating area where you can relax and play around with Huawei’s phones and tablets.

What’s most impressive about this location is the repair work — a consultant checks in the phone, there are offline computers to back up your data, and a dedicated team of technicians behind a glass wall ready to restore your phone to health. It’s even possible to change a cracked screen, and most of the work is completed within an hour.

Seven said he was proud to work in the store. Huawei phones were way more prevalent around us on the street than they are in the U.S., or even the U.K. We asked him how the brand — which is less well-known internationally — is perceived in China. Roughly translated, he said the Huawei name means Chinese strength, and therefore is one that makes people proud. The store was pleasant, and we admired the methodical way of dealing with people who wanted to get their phone repaired in double-quick time.

There’s a strong chance fakes are on sale too, and you need a good eye to spot them.

Leaving the air conditioned goodness of the Huawei service center, we explored the stores nearby. Despite Xiaomi’s reputation, we didn’t pass any official Xiaomi-only stores, but the company’s devices are available everywhere, and for very competitive prices.

One such device in particular stood out, which we stumbled upon during a tour of one indoor market. A Xiaomi Mi Mix — the great-looking bezel-less phone — could have been ours for around 3,500 yuan, and that’s before we went into bargaining-mode. That’s about $515, at least $150 less than you’ll pay to import one, if you can still find one on sale.

The real gems are found in cabinets throughout these indoor markets. Apple iPhones of all generations are everywhere, along with assorted Samsung phones; but we also spotted a few Nokia phones — check out the yellow Nokia 1520 in one of the photos — and a massive Xperia Z Ultra. There are old phones, new phones, rugged phones, feature phones, phones we’d never seen before, and even a selection of luxury Vertu phones. It’s a phone-spotter’s dream.

But it was the Vertu phones that set alarm bells ringing, and kept our wallets firmly in our pockets. Walking around the indoor markets, we saw many expensive items, from Vertu phones to Beats headphones, to various big-name watches. Not all are boxed, and most are being sold by distinctly unofficial retailers, for lower-than-expected prices. While we’re sure some are genuine, there’s a strong chance fakes are on sale too, and you needed a cool head and a good eye to spot them.

This didn’t put us off, or detract from the experience. It added to it. The Huaqiangbei commercial street is an intoxicating, exciting shoppers paradise for tech-geeks, and it would take at least a day to explore everything it has to offer. We had just a few hours, and barely scratched the surface.

Online shopping is convenient, but shopping in Shenzhen is exhilarating. There are some days when only that will quell our need for some techy retail therapy.

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