Reporters on the Job

When 20 Is Not a Crowd: After correspondent Simon Montlake read about team buying in China, he wanted to see it in action. "My assistant's web searches turned up some Guangzhou websites, and we found a group willing to talk. As so often happens in China, finding the interviewee was a challenge. New streets in Guangzhou are being carved up and developed at a furious clip and taxi drivers aren't up on street names," Simon says.

But finally, Simon found the group. The office was halfway up a semiresidential tower. Inside was classic Web startup - young folks crammed into three rooms, banks of PCs, and a "boardroom" with four chairs around a table. The website founders were in their late 20s and full of ambition.

They were also hesitant about letting Simon not only talk to them but watch them ply their buying skills. "They batted back and forth excuses and qualifiers with my assistant. Perhaps it was too short notice to find one. Or maybe not this weekend. And why did I want to come along?" Simon says. "I persisted, and Mr Liu conceded that there was an expedition planned in a few days."

My assistant explained that the hesitancy was because they hadn't organized a camera-buying trip before and didn't want me to see it go badly, as it would mean bad publicity for the website. "

The next day, there were more excuses. "We learned that not enough people had signed up to buy a camera. 'How many?' I asked. 'Oh, only 20 or so.' Only in China would a crowd of 20 signups be too small to impress! The website team found this an amusing observation, and they agreed to invite me along. So I spent my Sunday morning inside a bustling camera shop talking to buyers and store managers - and being photographed by everyone. But - I didn't buy a camera for myself."

Amelia Newcomb
Deputy world editor

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