iPhone 4 – China’s obsession with status

Long lines form before dawn. Those with a spot close to the front slump against the store’s exterior to catch a few minutes of rest in the freezing cold. An announcement is made. People panic and begin pushing. There are scuffles with security.

It’s a scene all too familiar by now to Americans. A phenomenon that happens once a year the day after Thanksgiving and turns wholesome, mouse-fearing stay-at-home moms into raging, get-to-aisle-6-by-any-means-necessary bargain hunters.

Only in this case, the lines weren’t for the latest Tickle Me Elmo doll or Nintendo gaming system. They weren’t even in America. They were outside Beijing’s Apple store for the launch of the iPhone 4S. Unlike businesses on Black Friday, the Apple store wasn’t offering any bargains. A 16 GB iPhone 4S without a contract costs about $140 more in China ($790) than in the United States ($649), even though the phones are manufactured at a factory on the Chinese mainland.

A crowd gathers outside the Apple Store in Beijing on Jan. 8, a few days before the iPhone 4S was scheduled to go on sale.

The demand for Apple products in China is so high that scalpers hire migrant workers to buy iPhones and iPads, which are then sold at a markup. The scalpers often stand within a few feet of the Apple store, holding iPhone boxes in the air and shouting “iPhone Si!, iPhone Si!” hoping to catch people leaving empty-handed (Si, pronounced “suh,” is the word for 4 in Mandarin).

“Customer response to our products in China has been off the charts,” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, said earlier this month in a press release.

The company’s stores in Beijing and Shanghai are the most heavily trafficked Apple stores in the world, the New York Times reported, and also generate the most revenue.

I don’t understand the obsession, and I’m a loyal Macintosh user. I’m typing this post on my Macbook, and I also own an iPod and an iShuffle. I purchased Apple products because I was trained as a journalist on Macs and found the software easier to use. But until Apple invents a phone that can wash dishes and make the hair I’m losing on my head grow back, you won’t find me standing for hours in subzero temperatures to buy one.

Security guards try to prevent customers from getting closer to the Apple store.

China’s growing middle class is eager to show off their wealth, and having an iPhone is just one way. Luxury clothing designers such as Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen have opened shops in Beijing, and more are scheduled to open this year. Traffic around Beijing has become increasingly congested in recent years due to a surge in new car sales. According to state media, more than 14.5 million cars were sold in China in 2011, making it the world’s top automobile market.

These purchases are an indicator of social status, and in some ways the differences between the wealthy and the poor stand out here more than in the West.

I’m reminded of the contrast every time I see a shiny Mercedes-Benz stop at a traffic light next to a malnourished donkey pulling a wooden wagon filled with oranges.

Back at the Apple store, the iPhones that were supposed to go on sale last Friday never did. The store didn’t open because the crowd outside had become too large, and management feared their employees would be overwhelmed. Police ordered the crowd to leave, and that’s when the pushing began.

By the time it was over, a woman injured in the struggle was carried away on a stretcher, a victim of iPhone fever.

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11 thoughts on “iPhone 4 – China’s obsession with status

  1. I saw quite a few of these migrant workers outside the Apple store at Huaihai road here in Shanghai yesterday. You’re right – owning the newest iPhone is all about showing off here in China. Myself, I have a Macbook an an iPad, but I am also perfectly happy with my SonyEricsson Xperia Mini Pro. Can’t see any reason to buy an expensive iPhone just because it’s an … iPhone.

  2. Good Morning Jimmy! (probably evening for you!)
    I doubt if even Steve Jobs from his current heavenly position can restore hair to your head, so don’t worry…no frozen mornings for you out in the cold…somehow I am still managing with my old Nokia that is 7 years old! blessings! Charlie

  3. Thanks for visiting my blog. I was in Saudi Arabia and the iPhone for is billboard advertised at 2799SR (Saudi real) about 3.50 to the $1. Basically it’s retail comparable to the US. Your post parallels one written in the NY Times recently. Well done.

  4. I have an idea! Let’s buy all of the food and triple the price! Think of the profit, which is after all, what life is all about. …or is the “hokey pokey”?

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