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;

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;

"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.