In my previous privileged life as a UN expat, I was able to shop in many renowned consumerist Meccas—Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Seoul, Tokyo, New York, New Jersey, San Francisco, Paris, Rome, and Geneva. At that time, the Philippines was a shopping backwater with a narrow range of consumer goods that were being sold at prohibitive prices.

Since globalization happened, our shopping situation has turned around completely. Shopping places of all kinds have sprouted like mushrooms—from gigantic SM and Ayala malls to permanent and sporadic tiangges to labyrinthine ukay-ukay complexes. We have opened up our market to a dizzying array of the latest fashions, accessories, appliances, vehicles, and sundry gadgets. The cutthroat competition to sell so many goodies to mostly poor consumers has stretched Filipino ingenuity in inventing promos and bargain sales and in sourcing the cheapest possible goods.

Our country is now known as a shopping paradise and is touted as such by travel agents to tourists. Locals are in the grip of a consumerist frenzy that seems to be guided by Krip Yuson’s immortal phrase, “I mall, therefore I am.” The validation of our existence in this way is enabled by the ceaseless marketing of credit cards, never mind if the subscribers may not have the wherewithal to pay the piper when he eventually appears.

One of our most resourceful methods of sourcing cheap goods is the ukay-ukay, which may very well be an original Filipino retailing invention. This started in Baguio City many years ago and has since spread to all our cities. They may now be found in numerous streets in Metro Manila, provincial cities, and even the malls have their own variations of “surplus” shops.

Some say that ukay-ukay clothing and accessories are donations from rich countries for our destitute and this explains why they are so cheap. But I have seen the scale of the bundles of ukay-ukay goods at the bagsakan in Baguio City and I can’t believe that the goodwill of rich nations can provide so much clothing and accessories over so many years. The goods are so abundant that they can’t be displayed individually in the multi-storied labyrinths in Baguio, buyers literally have to dig into piles of clothing to find what they want, hence the monicker ukay-ukay, from the Filipino words hukay and halukay.

Others surmise that drug syndicates smuggle illegal drugs in the bundles of ukay-ukay clothing and sell the bundles of clothing dirt-cheap after retrieving the drugs. But I have yet to hear of an investigation of this allegation.

Though many of the clothes and accessories in the ukay-ukay shops are, indeed, used, there is also a lot of brand-new stuff, mostly cheap local and imported knock-offs of well-known brands and the occasional genuine branded article. It is the last item that attracts moneyed locals and foreign tourists to the ukay-ukay in Baguio, for they are really prized catches. They are priced exactly like the used clothing and the knock-offs, for the retailers buy in such bulk that they simply set average prices for the items in each bundle. This makes it possible for a lucky buyer to get a new, genuine leather jacket that is made in Europe or the US for a thousand pesos, when it sells for at least twenty times that amount in its country of origin.

Some years ago, I chanced upon an outlet of Bally shoes in a tiny and decrepit shopping mall in Katipunan Ave. in front of Ateneo University. I was surprised that it was selling hundreds of pairs of genuine Bally shoes at a negotiable four or five thousand pesos each, less than a sixth of the price at the Rustan’s outlets. I talked to the Filipina owner, who happened to be there, and found out that she lives in Zurich, where she buys the Swiss shoes at factory sales. Based on her prices and the unlikely location of her shop, I deduced that she had smuggled in the shoes. Escaping taxes in this way allowed her to sell at low prices, but the absence of papers precluded her from setting up in the malls, where she would be tax-mapped.

A year later, her shop had a streamer announcing a closing-out sale. Apparently, Bally shoes are a fetish only for older Filipinos and the student crowd in Katipunan found them too stodgy. There were still over a hundred pairs left and they were being sold at only two thousand pesos each. I asked the salesman what they were going to do with the shoes that couldn’t be sold. “Boil them to eat,” he jokingly replied.

My house is near the Greenhills Shopping Complex. I have seen the tiangge there grow enormously over the years so that now it sells not only clothes and shoes but also cell phones, costume and real jewelry, handicrafts, local foods, etc. It has also been air-conditioned and has added a second floor. The copies of branded T-shirts like Lacoste, Burberry, and Polo have improved a lot in quality so that some of them are now virtually indistinguishable from the originals, though they sell at only a few hundred pesos each.

The Polo T-shirts intrigue me. About a year ago, I saw a shop at the Greenhills Theater Mall that specialized in these and sold them at a couple of thousand pesos each, compared with the 4-8 thousand pesos at the Rustan’s outlets. The T-shirts were identical in quality to those at Rustan’s and the shop had a wider and better selection of designs than Rustan’s. The salesgirl assured me that the shirts were originals that were brought in from the US.

A few months later, other shops in Shoppesville carried the same Polo T-shirts at eight hundred pesos. Now, the tiangge stalls sell them at four hundred pesos. In some cases, they are exactly the same T-shirts that are being sold by Rustan’s, which is the exclusive distributor of Polo. Curious, I asked at some of the stores where the shirts come from. All of them said they come from China, from the same factory that makes the original Polo T-shirts. I have no way of verifying if this is true, but the high quality of the T-shirts makes the story credible.

The Polo story doesn’t end there. In the SM Department Store, I saw similar Polo T-shirts for sale at 700 to 800 hundred. I asked where they are made and the salesman said they are locally produced. I thought that they are licensed by Ralph Lauren, but, in the course of the conversation, the salesman informed me that Rustan’s had sued them in court for using the Polo brand name. He said Rustan’s lost the case because their company had registered the Polo name in the Philippines ahead of everybody else. In that case, I maliciously asked him, “Why doesn’t your company file a case to prohibit Rustan’s and Ralph Lauren from selling Polo clothes in the Philippines?” He just smiled knowingly at me.

The situation is crazy. Identical Polo T-shirts are being sold from a low of 400 to a high of 8,000 pesos by different outlets. And the outlets are all surviving. It is an apocryphal story about the confusion engendered by globalization.

Extraordinary bargains can be had at the seasonal sales of large chain retailers like Zara, Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole, et al and at the periodic midnight madness sales of malls. Even foreign tourists now flock to these sales.

But here the buyer should beware, for the sales of retailers are in stages—they begin with a 20-25 percent discount and end with an 80-90 percent discount for the same items. Discounts are similarly steeper on the last day of mall sales. Smart buyers also know that Rustan’s real discount house is Tutto Moda, where all the unsold branded clothing and accessories of this chain are tagged with bargain prices, again, in ascending stages of price reductions.

The current madness of Philippine shopping rewards the smart and persevering shopper. Like in hunting, only the best bargain-hunters get the choicest goodies at the lowest prices.

(The University of the Philippines Forum, November-December, 2008)

Posted on December 30, 2008