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Where Brazilians Love to Shop (Hint: Not in Brazil)

Anyone who’s ever gone on vacation in a country with cheap prices has heard some variation of the following advice: Go with your suitcases empty. Buy everything there and then bring it all back. Favorable exchange rates and developing economies can make everything cheap, much cheaper than you’d find back home.

It’s a fascinating trend in travel and always makes me picture excited tourists hauling their suitcases out of the closet, setting them on the bed, and then packing them with nothing but air. (Then I wonder, why not just buy new suitcases on vacation, too?)

But there’s a strange way it’s playing out in Brazil. Rather than heading to Cambodia, China, or Bangladesh where many low-cost consumer goods are made, young Brazilians are heading to the United States. It’s not because it’s the cheapest place on Earth. It’s not. But comparably, the U.S. is much less expensive than Brazil, where something as simple as a cheese pizza can run you more than the equivalent of $30 U.S. dollars. One of the symptoms of Brazil’s rapidly growing economy has been a policy toward economic protectionism, which sets taxes high and limits the import of cheaper goods.

The reason for the Brazilian wave is something the U.S. has always been good at: choice. Foreigners are often attracted by plentiful American options and speedy lines of distribution. Stores like Target and Wal-Mart offer a one-stop experience for thousands of products that can be hard to find in smaller Brazilian towns. And then there’s Amazon.com, which can deliver millions more products to your door, many in two days or less.

One can begin to understand why two million Brazilians come to the U.S. each year, up about 15 percent from even a year ago. The demand for U.S. visas in Brazil is so strong that the State Department had to hire new employees at the consulate last year. In some ways, the expense paid for itself. Collectively, Brazilian tourists spend about $9 billion, mostly in cities like Miami and New York—which, mind you, aren’t exactly the lowest-cost places to stay.

The trends have become so strong, in fact, that Target stores in south Florida now sell clothing items counter-seasonal, displaying winter coats and ski outfits in the middle the summer to coincide with winter in the southern hemisphere.

It makes sense, but one enduring question is whether it’s really worth it. After a Brazilian buys an $800+ airline ticket, pays for several nights in a Miami hotel, eats in Miami restaurants and drives a rental car with a foreign license (which often comes with added fees), is a $2 box of Band-Aids or a $400 designer purse really such a steal? Apparently it is. On flights from the U.S. back to Brazil, the country’s top airline TAM has begun filling its jets with more fuel. The reason? The planes need to accommodate increasingly overweight suitcases.

Comments

  1. Atila
    Fortaleza, Brazil
    October 23, 2013, 6:50 pm

    In fact, US’s most expensive cities are way out cheaper than ours cheap ones. There’s no reason, according to logic itself, for us not to do this “piracy”. If you doubt it, for instance, we’ll sell ps4 for, only, U$: 1950. Great, right?

  2. Aaron Chapadao
    RN Brasil
    September 23, 2013, 3:30 pm

    You never travel to US with ”empty” suitcases because those suitcases are packed with other suitcases to bring back the booty / pirate treasure.

  3. William
    Sao Paulo
    August 21, 2013, 7:44 pm

    In Brazil is very common you find people trying cheat you selling low qualities products for high prices. Adding to low quality of services of public transport and the roads as soft as a rally ride. Next year we will have World Cup and we can’t offer services or products with good qualities, but you will charged with prices more expensive than in your own country.

  4. Howard
    Seattle, WA
    August 19, 2013, 2:23 am

    One thing we need to keep in mind, is that the US is one of the cheapest places on earth to buy brand name products. A pair of Levi jeans maybe made in China or Vietnam, but they cannot be sold any cheaper there. Sure, there maybe some renegade factory workers that steal them off the line and sell them on the side, or some defective products also sold on the side. The side being a street vendor.

    And counterfeits products can be sold cheaply in developing countries by street vendors.

    But in terms of an official retail store selling brand name products through legal channels, the US is one of the cheapest places on earth. So, its understandable that Brazilians would come to the US for brand name products even if a plane ticket to China were to cost the same.

  5. Tery
    Sao Paulo
    August 17, 2013, 6:27 am

    This is very true. I live/work in Sao Paulo and it is really expensive here. I just saw an ad yesterday for a U$4,50 tub of butter!! Five bucks for butter? And it was the small 200g version!

    I do the same thing when I go home. Load up my suitcases with clothes, shoes, beauty products and even FOOD. It’s sad since I love living here, but not sure for how much longer.

  6. Solange
    Teixeira de Freitas - Bahia - Brasil
    August 16, 2013, 3:54 pm

    É verdade. Ja fiz algumas viagens e sempre levei a mala vazia para traze-la abarrotada de objetos. Valeu a pena…

  7. Solange
    Tx de Freitas - BA
    August 16, 2013, 3:52 pm

    Ja fiz isso em algumas viagens e constatei que realmente vale a pena. Ir de malas vazias para traze-las abarrotas, é um bom negocio…

  8. jamesNiumata
    August 16, 2013, 3:18 pm

    cool ………….

  9. Paul
    SP, Brazil, from New Zealand
    August 15, 2013, 12:48 pm

    This is completely true. I’ve spoken to more than a few people here who do or want to do this. The taxes are so high in Brazil that it forces the prices up to beyond almost any country I’ve been except for Switzerland. The other place they shop is across the border in Paraguay and Argentina where prices on even simple household objects can easily be 1/2 they are in the cheapest stores of Brazil’s biggest city.

  10. Brazilian Jack
    Rio - Amarildo's city
    August 15, 2013, 6:57 am

    This is nucking futs

  11. Israel
    Salvador-Bahia-Brasil
    August 15, 2013, 4:37 am

    Well said. Everything is pure true. I’m going for the very first time to US (Miami/Orlando-Disney/New York) and my family said like “Israel, when you traveling to there, take with you just a simple super-market plastic bag, and then buy suitcases in there and bring everything you want”. LOL