This is overdue a rewrite… working on it!

Bali for the Suitcase ImporterThe Suitcase Importer

And I’m not talking about people who import suitcases. For our purposes, a “suitcase importer” is a person who visits Bali and leaves with a suitcase, bag or backpack full of products with the intention of selling them somewhere else.

It’s the fun end of importing.

Suitcase Importers go to exotic destinations like Bali, Thailand, the Philippines and Goa, stay for a while and travel around and then, before flying out, fill up a case with small products that can be easily carried and sold elsewhere.

Years ago, I met people who did only this. They crisscrossed Asia: in Thailand one month, then Tokyo for a week to sell the products and possibly pick up casual work, then off to the Philippines for a month, learning to dive and doing a little travelling then filling a suitcase, then to Hong Kong to sell products and look for work, then to Bali and Java, travelling, exploring, filling a case, then off to Australia and so on and so forth.

Sometimes for a few months. Sometimes for a year. Sometimes never to return. A kind of Endless Summer without the surfboards… unless they were buying surfboards to sell.

In the early 90s, most of the people I met suitcase importing tended to be of a similar type. They were relatively young and carefree, often on a ‘gap year’ between university and real life. They woke up mid-afternoon, smoked, drank, partied, wore flip-flop sandals, very strange trousers and tye-died or batik tops.

They talked about LIFE, the SOUL, the FULL MOON. They stayed at bottom-end guest houses and hostels (hostiles, we used to call them) and did not smell fresh.

A new breed of suitcase importer…

From the end of the 90s and, I started to meet a greater variety of suitcase importer… some were simply on holiday and wanted to bring home some of the products; others were small business people — they would arrive, buy and be gone within a week. In other words, the sole purpose of their trips to Bali or Thailand would be product hunting.

I would assume the new breed of suitcase importer arrived with the proliferation of cheap transatlantic flights and discount airlines that have been filling up the skies for the past few years. In other words, flights to Asian destinations became so cheap that an American could plan a trip to Asia and know they would be spending little more than if they’d stayed home. To put that in perspective, you can stay in Bali or Thailand on fifty to one hundred dollars a day and live like a King or a Queen – that’s including a nice place to stay, excellent food (at nice restaurants) and doing pretty much whatever you want. In New York, Los Angeles or London, you can spend fifty dollars by lunchtime without really having to think about it.

And, even better, you can drop down the level of accommodation in Bali and Thailand, eat more simply and spend even less. Now it may not be literally as cheap as staying home but, even once you’ve counted the money you’ve spent on a flight, it is considerably cheaper than most holiday destinations closer to home.

An example of one suitcase importer in Bali…

I know one guy, a Canadian, who has been doing this for years. He has a permanent stall in a flea market in a Canadian city. Every year, certain points, the sales slow down. I’m not one hundred percent sure as to why the sales slow down – maybe it gets cold or maybe it’s that dip we all experience between the Summer tourism and the Christmas sales and the dip in January or in April.

Whatever the reason and whatever the season, at these times, he grabs a small backpack, throws in some light clothes and a camera and flies out to Thailand.

In Thailand, he visits jewelry suppliers in Bangkok he knows well, orders some stones and crystals that he likes, maybe spends a day or two relaxing up North, in Chang Mai, before returning to Bangkok, picking up his stones and then jumping on a flight to Bali. From the airport in Bali, he grabs a taxi for about three dollars or, sometimes, walks to Kuta (it’s only a few minutes away) and checks into one of the very cheap losmen or cheap traditional style hotels he’s been using for the past few years – the type of place that runs around eight dollars per night. If you’re not familiar with losmen, you might want to check out these images on google before you book one… they’re not for everyone.

First thing the next morning, delivers the stones to one of the jewellery craftspeople he works with in Celuk along with a cash deposit,and pictures of the models of jewellery that he wants.

Start to finish, the order will take ten to fourteen days. Every third or fourth day, while the order is in progress, he’ll hop in a taxi or on a rented motorbike to visit the craftspeople and check on his order. The rest of the time is his – he spends a lot of it at the beach, slowly turning a deep, deep brown. Every evening, he will be at the ocean front, drinking one or two beers and watching the sun go down. Occasionally, he’ll stop into a cybercafé somewhere in Kuta to see how people are doing back in Canada and double check in case there are any new orders for jewellery. At the end of the second week, he goes back to the crafts people, double checks his products, pays the outstanding balance, brings it all back to the losmen, packs it into his empty suitcase, weighs it to make sure he’s within his fifteen or twenty kilo limit and heads back to the airport.

Just to be super clear: fifteen to twenty kilos of silver, gold and otherwise precious jewellery is a lot of jewellery and represents a lot of potential profit. If he spends two to three thousand just on the rings, pendants, bracelets, chains and assorted knick-knacks, he may be able to turn that around for between ten and twenty thousand on the Canadian side at his permanent stall. So, from where he’s sitting, the flights, hotels, trips to the beach and to the spa cost him absolutely nothing. He has, I think you’ll agree, a good system. He gets to travel to warm, fun and exotic places at least twice a year, some years he’ll manage four trips and come home to make profits.

If that’s what you want to do, here are some points you may want to consider:

Finding the products is not that hard…

Really. Well, in Bali that’s true — you’re on your own when it comes to Thailand or anywhere else. You’ll need to check out the travel and expat forums for those countries.

In Bali, however, most of the craft, jewelry and clothing places are within easy reach and clustered together. You also have to bear in mind that you’re not looking for production pieces which makes your life considerably more easy (perhaps a little more expensive) than more mainstream importers but you’re still head and shoulders above anyone buying from wholesalers back in the West.

Your key areas will be the high street in Kuta, Kuta Square and the main road that leads from Kuta towards Legian and Seminyak (Jalan Raya Kuta). You can also check out Sukawati Art Market. You can also look around Ubud and Celuk. These are all main buying and shopping areas. They’re easy to find and easy to reach. Remember, you’re not looking for production or custom design work… really, what you’re doing is a combination of shopping and bargain hunting.


This is pretty easy. You’ll run into a few different types of store but, for our purposes, you only need to concentrate on these two types:

Bali shops and traders who lay out their products with price tags…
…and they may also have a notice somewhere in the store that reads, “fixed prices”. This used to be a big deal in Bali and without being 100% certain, I seem to remember it came into fashion because of Japanese tourists getting stunned into timidity by the whole process of bargaining and feeling that they were being ripped off by unscrupulous vendors.

If you’re not comfortable with haggling and negotiating, these vendors will help you relax. That said, and I know this is common sense, but just because a shop has a notice saying “fixed prices” doesn’t necessarily mean the prices are actually fixed… you can still try to bargain or push for a discount especially if you’re buying a lot of items.

The worst that anyone can say is “no” and, let’s face it: “no” is not the end of the world, is it?

If you’re not in a mad hurry, you’ll shop around a little (hopefully a lot) before you end up buying anything and, for sure, the fixed price shops are great for benchmarking and comparisons.

Let’s say you walk into a nice shop, modern looking, with a good layout and fixed prices and find something you like for ten dollars and you think the price is good. Now, without talking to anyone (the shopkeepers and sales assistants can be painfully and annoyingly overhelpful on the hard sell), you can walk straight back out again and continue up the street looking for the same or similar pieces at half the price. If you’re able to quickly find a similar piece at half the price, it may be worth your while to grab a business card from the half price place, note the price (take a picture if the seller is ok with that) and move on down the road… you may be able to halve that price again.

Sometimes, you’ll find the fixed prices are good or, more importantly, good enough. I’ll come back to the ‘good enough’ concept of pricing a little later.

Bali shops and traders who lay out their products without price tags…

Some of the shops you walk into or trading stalls you stop at won’t have any prices anywhere. You’ll end up finding something you quite like, having to pick it up and bring it over to the shopkeeper to find out how much it is…

…now everyone has a different experience of this situation but for me, it’s always been somewhat comical.

I ask, in English or Bahasa Indonesia (depending on my mood), “How much is this?”
The shopkeeper will sometimes give me a top-to-toe lookover and then answer, “X dollars or X rupiah.” I usually take that as the body language equivalent of, “How much have you got?” And that’s just fine: it’s a starting position for a good, old fashioned haggle. What amuses me most is that the shopkeeper in this instance hasn’t consulted a price sheet or a list. In fact (and don’t tell me this isn’t comical), they have pulled out the price without even looking at the product; they’re only judging me.

Sometimes, if I’m answered in dollars and I’m in a bad mood, I’ll be out of the door and out of the store before the vendor has completely finished answering. Sometimes, for the hell of it, I’ll reply in Indonesian just to mess with them a little. But mostly, I’ll leave quickly. I understand hotels using dollars and I understand big companies using dollars but I cannot understand local stores and restaurants using dollars. It just doesn’t make sense.

Sometimes I’ll ask and the shopkeeper will take a good long look at the product, perhaps consult a price sheet and then give me the price as a question, “X much?” As if to say, “Is that too much?” Or, “Do you think ‘x’ rupiah is too much?”

And sometimes, the shopkeeper or vendor will look at me with a completely blank expression as if I were the first person ever (EVER) to walk into the place and ask the price.

In Bali, you’re never going to get the absolute, best ever price.

Before you begin to negotiate, it’s worth bearing in mind that pricing in Bali is based on a number of factors:

Who are you and where are you from? One price for Balinese people, one price for Javanese and Indonesian citizens from other islands, another price for ethnic Chinese, another price for Australians, another for Japanese and Koreans, another for Americans… now that I come to list them all out, Bali pricing is quite impressively complex. I can’t guess if this seems fair to you or not. I remember feeling surprised and a little indignant in Hawaii when I learned there was different pricing for kama’aina and another price for haole but I was younger then and don’t feel that way any more. Part of it is down to provincialism, some of it is racism, a little more is just stereotyping but when it comes to Westerners, it’s just good sense. By virtue of being a foreigner and being in Bali, you’re richer. Deal with it. You can offset this slightly with a few words of Bahasa Indonesia but that doesn’t help as much as a lot of people think.

How much will the market bear? Same principle as with any Western retail set-up… if the market values a thing at ‘x’ dollars, every vendor will try to sell it at at least ‘x’ dollars and more. Sometimes, a Western vendor will try all sorts of little, usually bullshit, incentives to distinguish their offering… a brand, a logo, a signature, a story, a sale, a mega sale, an incredibly mega, super, can’t miss this, all stock must go, I’m-shooting-myself-in-the-foot-sale, sale but, all-in-all, “what the market will bear” is a fairly global way of arriving at a sell price. You can offset this by haggling and negotiating and, when necessary, walking away. In other words, you need the vendor to know that in your case, the market won’t bear all that much. Being prepared to walk away, in my opinion, is the most important trait or mindset of a good negotiator. And, just so you’re clear on what I mean: when you start haggling and bargaining over prices, if you’re not ready to walk away when you’re not satisfied, you’re not going to get what you want.

How many or how much are you going to buy? The volume price. You’ll pay one price if you’re buying one piece but if you’re buying ten or twenty or fifty pieces, you should be able to work out a decent discount. Don’t forget, however, that the amount of discount diminishes with volume — meaning, buying fifty pieces might get you a ten percent discount but buying a hundred won’t get you a better price at all. So if a particular item works out as a dollar each based on fifty pieces and still a dollar each if you buy one hundred pieces, you can stop at fifty pieces. Also, you might want to bear the following in mind: most of the products you’re looking at in Bali are handmade — that’s part of their charm and part of their perceived value overseas. With handmade products, you don’t get a sliding scale of lower pricing against higher volume. This stuff doesn’t come out of a factory so the cost of making one thousand pieces for one order is exactly the same as making one piece for one thousand separate orders. So, what you’re negotiating or cutting is the profit of the supplier or the maker. I hope that made sense because it’s fairly important to keep in the back of your mind. There is, however, the notion of the ‘business price’ vs the everyday shop price. Most of the time, I ignore this because every vendor says it and it doesn’t seem to be all that much. If I’m in a place that is obviously a shop rather than the front end of a craft place or factory, I will ask the difference between the normal and the business price — I’m often told fifteen percent… at which point I usually make a wisecrack or say something a little rude.

What time of day is it? A lot of people used to talk about the difference between the usual price and the morning price. The thinking seemed to go along the lines of the Balinese dropping their prices at the very start of the day in order to generate luck and get the business day rolling. To most intents and purposes, the morning price is a lot like the business price and I give it about as much weight (which is to say, very little). Maybe there is something to it. I do know that at the Art Market in Sukawati, the market opens up pre-dawn with one type of pricing and then re-opens around 9 or 10 in the morning with tourist pricing but as far as I remember, that had little to do with luck. It was mainly down to most of the suppliers and buyers predawn were business people selling to each other. Like a fruit and vegetable market in any other country.

To sum up: you’re never going to get the absolute best price. There is no such thing as the right price and you’re wasting your time if that’s what you run around trying to find… you may as well go looking for the Holy Grail or El Dorado (typical: the day after I wrote this, the Guardian puts out a story that El Dorado has been found… bloody typical). The only yardstick and the thing you must try to keep in mind at all times is, “what’s the right price for me?” In other words, if you buy at one, can you take it home and sell it for five, six, ten or twenty? If fact, if you follow that one rule-of-thumb, you’ll do pretty well. It will save you time, help you walk away when you need to walk away, help you refine your product choice. I’m not saying it’s the ultimate secret of life, love and happiness. It’s just a damn good thing to keep in mind.

Ok, deep breath. Relax. We’re nearly finished (this ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated). On the next page, I’ll talk a little bit about the products themselves and bring them all home. And then, no doubt to your relief (and certainly mine), I’ll say goodnight.

Balinese Products for the Suitcase Importer

The following should be mostly common-sense — hope you don’t feel patronised, drop me a comment at the end if you do — doesn’t mean I’ll change anything but I’ll certainly read the comment.

You are limited in space and weight. Typically, for checking in, most airlines limit you to one large suitcase with a 15 kilo load limit. However, you need to check that before you fly and you also see if their is anything you can do to increase the number of bags you can bring and the total weight — some airlines offer deals that allow you to apply airmiles towards luggage allowances and upgrades… certainly worth checking out. Also, beware of always taking the cheapest flight — sometimes it’s a false economy insofar as the luggage allowance is significantly less than a flight that only costs another fifty dollars and that’s along with the additional eight hours of red-eyed boredom hanging around a Middle Eastern airport.

One of the great things about being a suitcase importer is that you don’t need me or anyone else to guide you on logistics. There are no wood crates to build or fumigation papers to organise or certificates of origin to issue… you’re just packing your suitcase. I would advise you bring a little luggage scale, however… very handy. I would also suggest you use a small, wheeled suitcase for your carry-on baggage (can easily fit another five to ten kilos of good stuff in there and it’s a good idea to do that with the more valuable items like silver jewelry). Bring your camera. Leave your laptop at home (complete pain when you’re moving around a lot).

I will suggest, however, that you do as much research on products before you leave and make absolutely sure that you’re not going to get into trouble walking through customs at home. Let me make this clear: just because you’re bringing a product home in your suitcase does not mean you’re immune to certain international laws. If you like shell items, for example, make sure you know the difference between the legal and illegal varieties. If you like drums (I don’t think you’ll be able to fit many of these in your suitcase but, hey, whatever floats your boat), make sure your home port doesn’t have any restrictions on leather because all of those drums have leather hide or skin stretched across the top. Now, I’m not going to kill us both by going through every possible variation and permutation of product and corresponding regulation… the point is that you need to be prepared and you need to organise yourself. Be the expert because, throughout most of the West, ignorance of a law or a regulation, is not a defense or mitigating factor. Wow, that came out more complicated than I thought it would… I mean that just because you don’t know a law or regulation exists doesn’t help you… customs will still confiscate, impound or prosecute.

Selecting your products should be fairly easy.

The best items will either be small or pack well (or both) and relatively light.

Silver Pendant from Beads Bali

Silver jewelry is a good bet. Bali is famous for its silverwork. Prices are good. Some people talk about the silver itself being low quality but that’s not strictly true because, as you should already know, you can be cheated everywhere. Things to bear in mind. A lot of places sell jewelry but they don’t actually make it themselves or they only make part of what they sell. It’s pretty easy to work this out as some items will seem very well priced while others will be disproportionately expensive. An example will be a solid silver pendant will only cost five bucks while the matching earrings will be seven bucks… easy.

You can visit Beads Bali (my wife’s catalogue) to see a massive range of what’s available.

Also, be careful of pricing on filgree silver products in Bali because little, possibly none of it is made on the island; it will have been brought in from Yogyakarta. That doesn’t mean you won’t get a good price but it does mean you’re getting a resell price — worth thinking about. Balinese silver jewelry tends to be chunky and arty and very cool. Not quite as shiny as the highly polished, lightweight Chinese stuff but more attractive I think. Make sure you have a .925 stamp and that it looks shiny with a good white tone. If the vendor’s place is dark, it’s worth bringing the piece you like into the doorway so you’ve got a clear idea of the color and that will give you an opportunity for a thorough inspection of the clasps, connectors and all the other little parts.

Wooden Necklace from Beads Bali

Along with silver jewelry, you’ll also find some excellent bead items and wood, stone, glass, shell and resin jewelry. Check the clasps and connections. Make sure you’re actually buying jewelry rather than just strings of beads (I stayed confused about that for a long time).

Stones and gems can be good but do your research before you fly in: some stones and gems are native, others are imported from China, Thailand and other areas.

Sarongs used to be very popular but now, I would say, you either have to be buying for the right season or the right location… they’re never out of fashion in Florida.

Paintings can be a good purchase. My preference would be to see them first box framed and that the motif or color goes all the way around to the very edge of the canvas. Then you want to have them unmounted by the store keeper and rolled. You can fit at least five canvasses into a standard carton (sometimes you’ll find the nice cardboard cartons but more often you’ll have a length of grey, pvc pipe.

Thai Pants, handmade in Bali

Strange trousers worn by suitcase importers

You may be able to increase your space on the cartons by packing jewelry and paintings into one roll. As long as you don’t destroy the painting, why not?

Ikat wall hangers, table runners, dresses, tops and other textile and clothing products. Easy to find, affordable, easy to fold and lightweight.

Along with textile table runners and placemats, there are also woven coasters and table mats — they’re pretty cool.

That’s enough on the products, I think. You can research the rest or just wait until you get here.

Some last-minute thoughts about your trip to Bali:

Feel free to completely ignore this.

Be cool. Don’t walk around acting like you’re a major buyer and start talking about what you’re going to import next year… doesn’t work on a number of levels… the bigger you are, the more money you’ve got and thus the bigger mark you are; works against you. It’s also been done before. Bali’s been trading back and forth for a thousand years… believe me when I tell you that all the big shots — both real and imagined — have been through here one time or another. You’ll make better contact with people by avoiding the bullshit.

Don’t look for sympathy or talk about how hard the economy is. You’re in Bali so you’re rich. End of story. What you consider to be a sob story comes over as the life of Reilly. Leave that frame of mind in the airport before you fly out and deal with the fact that in this country, on this island, at this time, you’re a wealthy, privileged foreigner.

Don’t lose your temper. You’re here to make contact and to network and build up resources and find products. It takes patience. No-one’s going to respect you when you get angry or start raising your voice. If you find that happening, just leave and come back later when you’re in a more positive frame of mind.

Keep your stuff safe. Stuff goes missing in Bali just like it does everywhere else. Keep your valuables close to hand or safely stowed away. If you have a nice camera or phone or whatever, keep an eye on it and don’t leave it behind.

Keep yourself safe. Bali’s a pretty cool place in terms of personal safety (except when people are bombing it, of course). I’ve never felt physically threatened or in danger but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The biggest danger is probably from traffic. If you’re going to rent a motorbike, make sure you know what you’re doing. I know from very personal experience that this can be a quick and easy way to get seriously hurt or killed. And make sure you have medical insurance.

Don’t mistake a smile for friendship. In business and casual meetings in Bali, people often smile. As the song goes, “it don’t mean a thing”. That’s not to say it’s fake; it’s just a smile. Try to find that balance between guarding your own best interests and being open minded. A tough one, I know.

Look out for “ya”. In the dictionary and every day use, it seems to be the equivalent of “yes” in English. In reality, it’s not. It can mean, “um”, “ok”, “sure”, “ah”, “er”, “I hear you” and a million other things that don’t quite mean, “yes”. So, don’t take that for granted… if there’s any possibility whatsoever that someone might have mistaken your meaning, double and triple check and make sure they validate back to ensure you’re all on the same page.

If you’d like to see a huge range of great Balinese products from a fantastic export company (how’s that for a shameless plug?), you can go to our catalogue at: Enjoy.

If you’re interested in more information about importing from Bali, you can take a look at our import page:

If you’re interested in jewelry, you can check out Athina’s website:

Feel free to ask me anything (or shout at me if you disagree with any of the above) by commenting below or sending me an email.

Ok, I’ve said enough (perhaps too much). Goodnight.


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