Simon Calder: The Man Who Shops All Day

Shopping that won't break the bank (or the Customs limit)

Wearing only a T-shirt and jeans, I shivered while waiting in line to clear Canadian Immigration and Customs at the frontier post just south of Vancouver. My trip had begun a week earlier at San Diego in southern California, the place with the most perfect climate on earth. As I moved north, I was sartorially unprepared for the autumn chill that began to bite. The other wardrobe problem I faced, when I re-boarded the Greyhound bus into the city, was that I was due to chair an aviation conference for the International Air Transport Association. But the solution was waiting in a windswept suburb of Vancouver: an Aladdin's Cave known as Value Village.

Coleen McLoughlin, the girlfriend of the footballer Wayne Rooney, has been doing the wrong kind of shopping. She displayed a wholesale disregard for the Customs rules on retail purchases; since New York is not (yet) in the European Union, she breached the £145 limit on duty-free purchases by a factor of about 100, and faced a bill of several thousand pounds. She should have aimed for the Value Village.

Take a look along your high street today. The chances are that it has a sprinkling of charity shops. Now imagine one of them genetically modified, and magnified a thousand-fold. That's Value Village - a charity department store. To pinch a slogan from a shop in the US: if you can't find it here, you're better off without it. Every big Canadian city has a branch of Value Village, but my favourite is the original in Vancouver, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

The next morning, I set off to shop like a Lottery winner. Sharp suit, a couple of very smart shirts, silk tie, shiny shoes - you would not have recognised me. Because of the sheer size of the store, the generosity of Vancouver's citizens, and the absurdly low prices, you can kit yourself out for a pittance.

After the essentials, I started shopping for fun. As you will know, some North American electronic goods are incompatible with UK standards. But Value Village has a startling range of books, plus music on vinyl and CD. Just under C$100 (£45) the poorer, but with British Columbia's charities all the richer, I staggered out and found a nearby tailor to downscale the Canadian dimensions of the suit trousers. Next day, when I took to the conference stage in my re-adjusted woollen suit, no one cottoned on.

Value Village, 1820 East Hastings Street, Vancouver (001 604 254 4282; www.valuevillage.com)

Imagine: you are flying from or within the US. The tag on your case gets torn off in the airport baggage system. You have not followed the airline's advice to label the inside of your case. You never see your luggage again. Several months later, the airline or your insurance company compensates you for the loss. To try to track down your belongings, you could spend the cash on a trip to Alabama.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center is tucked away in the sparsely populated north-east of this down-at-heel state. Yet its unique retail offering attracts millions of customers each year.

Here's how. Every day, America's airlines find themselves with dozens of unclaimed cases that they cannot reunite with the rightful owners. To recoup some of the compensation they are obliged to pay out, the carriers sell the terminally lost luggage in bulk. Often, it goes to the Unclaimed Baggage Center. At first glance, this cavernous building looks like an ordinary department store. But closer inspection reveals that no two items are alike; and many of the goods have been, as the Americans say, "pre-owned".

Every day, hundreds of cases are trucked in from across the US. A team of expert sorters descends on them, separating valuable items such as cameras and jewellery from run-of-the-cotton-mill clothing. Less savoury items, such as old socks and underwear, are not put on sale, but most other pieces of clothing are laundered, ironed, priced (typically at around one-quarter of the retail value) and put on the rails or shelves.

They rarely stay for long. Unlike most stores, the stock at the Unclaimed Baggage Center changes constantly. Many customers are regulars, driving across from Georgia or Florida. By around 10am, the coaches have begun to arrive, disgorging 50 shoppers at a time to rummage through the remnants of a vacation or business trip that, for someone, went wrong.

Not everything is secondhand, because some travellers buy new gear for their journeys. After a morning's rummage, I bought a couple of brand-new shirts still in their boxes, at one-third the price on the pristine tags.

Then I took pity on an orphaned, but evidently (from the sparseness of fur) much-loved teddy bear. The child whose soft toy went absent without leave may be in darkest Peru by now, but they might want to know that their bear has been adopted by a caring four-year-old named Daisy.

Unclaimed Baggage Center: 509 West Willow Street, Scottsboro, Alabama (001 256 259 1525; www.unclaimedbaggage.com)

"Chinglish" is the term used to describe the mangling of English by Chinese makers of signs. The language provides constant entertainment for visitors to Beijing. "Please slip your card before enter", instructs the sign outside a bank. The company digging the new metro in advance of the 2008 Olympics is "exerting to construct delication engineering and remarkable new exploit". My favourite, though, is a clothes shop whose name in Mandarin means, presumably, "You are what you wear". By the time the signmaker had finished, the English version barely fitted on the shopfront: "That Person Is According To The Clothing".

Beijing is the bargain basement of the world. You can buy a brand-new bicycle for less than a one-way ride on the Heathrow Express (£14). The Chinese capital is full of stores selling stuff at prices that would put Asda out of business. TPIATTC (as I shall henceforth abbreviate it) is the best bet for travellers because of its handy location, just north of the Forbidden Palace, and because it sells first-class clothes almost as cheap as second-class stamps.

Men's and women's clothing is piled high. A typical garment costs 10 yuan (about 65p). For two or three times as much, you can find some familiar labels, but these are not fakes; a peek in your wardrobe will confirm that much High Street clothing in Britain is made in the People's Republic. Some garments make it no further than TPIATTC.

If you are buying for a partner or friend, don't fret about choosing the right size. Although Chinese people tend to be of a more modest build than Europeans, TPIATTC has a wide range of sizes. Prices are so low that you can afford to buy two or three different sizes and/or colours; the beneficiary keeps what they want, and gives the remainder to the local charity shop.

The final reason for TPIAATC: you will have a hoot. The highly entertaining staff will inveigle you to bust your airline baggage allowance - although to break that £145 Customs limit, you might need to buy the entire shop.

Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders