Adi Asulin lives in a fabulous apartment on the top floor of a seven-story building in the Israeli town of Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv. The entry hall is long and light. Windows open onto an enormous balcony, which wraps around three sides of her home. The decor is fresh and white.
“It’s all made in China,” Asulin says.
Not just made in China. Nearly everything — the floors, the lighting, the furniture — she bought in China on a 10-day shopping spree.
The day after Asulin and her husband got keys to the place, she got on a plane to Guangzhou, in southern China.
“An adventure!” she says.
The big appeal was the price.
“Forty, sometimes 50 percent off the prices in Israel,” Asulin says.
The savings add up the bigger the job. Her new apartment had been a rental and needed a lot of fixing. But buying plus remodeling seemed beyond the family budget.
From a friend, Asulin heard about Israeli companies that arrange trips for individuals to buy directly from Chinese factories. She signed up, getting tickets and booking hotel rooms for herself, an architect and her dad for advice.
Once on the ground in Guangzhou, the trio were guided by the owner of the Israeli company and local staff. Their first stop was a flooring factory bigger than Asulin had ever seen — half the size of her city, she says.
“And I can choose whatever I want,” she says. “Different colors, different materials, different prices.”
The factory was organized by style: marble in one area, dark wood in another, colored linoleum somewhere else. For Asulin, it helped to have done a lot of planning and measuring before she arrived.
She loved having the time to focus exclusively on shopping — and finish most of it in a short time. She says this made the remodel much easier for her, a 37-year-old working mother of three.
“If I was buying everything in Israel, it was after work, with kids, afternoons and every weekend,” she says.
Flying to China instead of letting Chinese products come to you is not the approach for everyone. Nurit Gefen, an Israeli interior designer, went on one China shopping trip with a client. She will not go again.
Gefen says it is the entirely wrong way to create a home.
“When you build a house, it’s like pregnancy. You have to think about it, you have to dream about it,” she says.
Plus, there are significant financial risks, she says.
“When you go to China, you have to buy everything in advance. Before you know the colors, before you know exactly what you want,” Gefen says. “And you can make mistakes when you buy things in advance. And you can’t exchange it afterwards.”
Partial payment in cash is often required upfront. Israeli newspapers have run horror stories of people who were ripped off on China shopping trips.
Still, they go. And Israelis are not the only ones doing their shopping directly in China. Israelis in the business say it’s popular among people from a number of places, including Russia, India and the Gulf states.
Economics professor Daniel Levy of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University says this service began because of structural problems in the Israeli economy. Israel started out socialist, and he says many practices of centralized control still affect the economy today.
“We don’t have what you are used to in the U.S.,” he says, “everybody trying to offer the best deal, which brings about greater efficiency and lower prices and happy customers. That’s not what we have here at all.”
This shows up most dramatically in grocery bills in Israel. Protests over the cost of food shook up Israel’s elections last year. A 2011 parliamentary report showed that just two companies controlled more than 80 percent of the domestic cheese and yogurt production.
But weak competition also affects imports, including nonfood items like flooring and furniture.
Shai Safran heads Basini, an Israeli company that takes about 10 customers a month to China to buy everything they need for home remodels or building. He doesn’t have a big showroom in Israel. He just treats factories in China as his own.
“Like my stores are the factories in China,” Safran says. “I don’t need 50 workers, I don’t need inventory. I can save the cost of the business in Israel.”
Even with his fee — for his contacts, logistics and know-how — Safran says he still beats the prices offered in Israel.
But that could change over time. Israel is building two new private ports, and is hoping to reduce import costs in part by banning labor unions. A contract for the first port was signed last month — with a construction firm based in Beijing.
Emily Harris is NPR’s Jerusalem correspondent. Follow her @emilygharris.