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;

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: International Project Coordinator / Account Coordinator

    Circa £26,500 DOE: Guru Careers: An International Project Coordinator / Accoun...

    Guru Careers: Plumber / Maintenance Operator

    £25k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Plumber / Mainten...

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen