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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In China, there's a new shopping craze called team shopping or group buying. As perhaps befits a land of more than one billion consumers, the trend relies on strength in numbers. It's also a sign of how much impact the Internet is having in China. The latest figure shows 137 million Chinese now online.

NPR's Louisa Lim has the story from Shanghai.

LOUISA LIM: More than 1,000 people are crammed into a hall. The atmosphere is feverish with anticipation. Somewhere between a bargain basement sale and a church revival meeting. A skinny man addressing the crowd gets a cheer when he asks, do you have the confidence to fight for a bigger discount? For these true believers, the Holy Grail is saving money.

All the people in this hall are redecorating their apartments, and they're clubbing together to demand discounts straight from the suppliers. This is the world of group shopping. Its high priest is the skinny bargainer-in-chief. Right now, he's working on a sheepish paint salesman, Chander Ching(ph), demanding ever greatest discounts to rounds of applause. But the paint salesman is not budging. He's an old hand, having taking part in group shopping activities for more than two years.

NORRIS: (Through translator) Of course, the bargaining is embarrassing but our prices here are already rock bottom - 20 percent lower than what we charge in shops. Today, we should get more than 200 orders at a conservative estimate.

LIM: For suppliers, then, the lure of group buying is that they can turn a profit even while selling at 20 to 30 percent below shop prices. For shoppers, wary of fakes and shoddy goods, group shopping offers the comfort of buying en masse.

NORRIS: (Chinese Spoken)

LIM: With so many people, at least you can't be cheated, says 28-year-old Kwan Si(ph) - or if you are cheated, at least everyone else is too. His shopping list includes pipes, floorboards, wardrobes, and nails to do up his brand new condo. Today, team shopping seems to be the hobby of choice for China's new middle class.

LIM: (Chinese Spoken)

LIM: I like group shopping because it's cheap and the things they sell are in line with the quality of my life, says 36-year-old Lee Bing(ph), peeping over her sunglasses. Next time, I want to buy a diamond ring. Yet, none of these would have happened without the Internet. Mob shopping Web sites have sprung up in the past few years, helping potential shoppers meet each other and decide what to buy. These Web sites also organize events and secure discounts for their members, even those who don't show up. The Web sites makes their money, not a lot of it yet, from advertising. Chan Hao(ph) is the 24-year-old founder of TG28.com, which has nearly 100,000 registered members in just six months. He sees it as almost warlike in its mission.

NORRIS: (Through translator) Shopping is like war. In war, you need to maximize your interests and in shopping, you need to fight for your interests.

LIM: He attributes team shopping's popularity in China to its Communist past and the emphasis on collective action.

NORRIS: (Through translator) From Chairman Mao's time until now, we've emphasized the belief that unity is strength. So shopping in groups must be better than shopping alone.

LIM: Chairman Mao would probably be spinning in his crystal sarcophagus if he knew his words were being used to justify that most capitalist of activities. It's notable perhaps, that in China, the Internet is being harnessed more to mount large-scale shopping trips than to create social movements of any major impact. As to why, the last word goes to Jo Lang(ph), a slick, fast-talking 30-something, comparing floorboard finishes with his fiancée. It's to do with my own interests, he says. Nowadays, it's all about money.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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