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.