BEIJING — Ding Can is obsessed with bargains. Her purse is crammed with more than 30 shopper discount cards and dozens of coupons. Her apartment is packed with freebies, from cosmetic samples to key chains. She often lines up before dawn for tickets to discounted movies.
Her yen for savings isn't out of necessity. The 32-year-old software testing engineer is relatively well off. She says, simply, "I've never come across a good deal I didn't like."
More than a craze, discount shopping is becoming a way of life for young Chinese. Known as the "coupon generation," they are changing the way business is done in the world's second largest economy.
Companies as global as Nike and as local as the Yonghe fast food chain are courting the bargain hunters. The eagerness for deals has spawned discount clubs, online group buying and sidewalk kiosks that dispense coupons.
A planned three-week campaign by Mercedes-Benz for its two-seat Smart car ended in a day when the more than 200 cars were snapped up in less than four hours at about 135,000 yuan ($20,000) each, a 20 percent discount, on China's most popular online retailer.
It's a relatively new and youth-oriented phenomenon in China, where consumerism has taken off only as the country has shifted from central planning to capitalism and started to grow.
Americans, of course, have been clipping coupons for years — Coca-Cola Co. began offering discounts around the turn of the last century. But in China, the trend has implications for the global economy.
The spending habits of 350 million Chinese aged 18 to 35 are seen as crucial to boosting the world's recovery from recession and to one day vaulting China past the U.S. as the world's largest consumer market. That could come as early as 2020, according to Goldman Sachs, the investment banking giant.
"This isn't your grandma or a housewife cutting out Sunday coupons in her kitchen, because they are the future," said Leeon Zhu, a senior planner at the advertising firm Young and Rubicam's Shanghai office. "And they're at the forefront of retail consumption growth in this country."
Ding and other members of "Discounts for Singles," an online forum, traded war stories at a spicy Chinese restaurant on a recent evening.
Ding showed off a free sports watch she earned by taking photos of herself in front of a Lenovo computer store during a promotional event. A dining partner regaled the others with her latest steal: two dozen half-priced cartons of fruit juice at 4 yuan (60 cents) a carton.
"How are you going to drink all the juice?" one asked.
"I'll give it away to friends and family as gifts," said Shan Yunfei, who makes about $500 a month as an administrative assistant at an architecture firm. "They love it when I bring home new products."
Even the dinner is free. New eateries looking for publicity offer meals to people such as Ding and Shan, who are frequent reviewers on Dianping.com, China's most popular restaurant listing site.
Frugality is highly valued in China, a legacy of generations of poverty that only ended with the free-market reforms of the past 30 years. Savvy consumers are applauded by friends and family. TV shows such as Beijing's popular "Managing Money" air interviews with Chinese who saved big through group-buying events and promotional deals.
The biggest target is the 18-35 age bracket, born after the chaos of radical Maoism. They have largely only known steadily rising incomes.
"Young Chinese consumers love to spend and rarely save because they are optimistic that they'll always have money," said Fu Guoqun, a marketing professor at Beijing University.
Shan, 23, concedes that discounts get her to consume more than she would otherwise. Her bag is stuffed with McDonald's coupons and other discount cards.
"I'm obsessed," she said. "Whether it's at work or home, I'm dreaming of the next deal."
There are coupon kiosks in subways, malls and supermarkets, and almost every major brand offers a discount card. Eyeball China, a Beijing-based company, prints 170,000 coupons every day for restaurants, car rentals and other goods and services and places them in about 200 kiosks across the capital.
"The market is so saturated with brand names that a small discount makes a huge difference helping the brand stand out with their target consumers," said Xie Dehui, Eyeball China's vice general manager.
Amy Yu, a skinny real estate agent, stopped to collect more than a dozen coupons for Yonghe restaurant's fast food noodles and McDonald's chicken burgers at a kiosk outside French hypermarket Carrefour in southern Beijing.
Yu looked like a pro: She pecked furiously at the kiosk's touch screen, scanning for the best deals for her daily lunches. The machine, which is in front of a Yonghe shop, spews out coupon after coupon for up to 25 cents off meals priced at the equivalent of $1.50 to $4.
"I work and eat around here, so I usually print a lot of coupons that look good regardless of whether or not I use them," Yu said. "It's also thoughtful to give them out to colleagues and friends, too."
China's biggest online shopping site, Taobao.com, has more than 150 million registered users. The website connects buyers and sellers who offer everything from cars to English lessons and often have direct connections to Chinese manufacturers offering steep discounts.
"We looked to online promotions since many of our customers are part of the post-'80s and '90s generation," said Cai Gongming, a Mercedes vice president. "It's a big trend right now. ... They are familiar with online group buying."
Nuomi.com, previously little-known, became an overnight sensation in June by offering a $25 package of two movie tickets, two sodas, ice cream and popcorn for only $6. It sold about 150,000 packages, generating nearly $900,000 in sales over a 24-hour period.
Some websites promoting new products offer "grabbing" events. Players must win an online game or click on a promotional button at just the right time to claim prizes, which could be anything from a cell phone to clothes.
Beijing native Zhang Xu calls the event "death to the second" and chooses his prizes carefully. Among his recent favorites was half-price driving lessons: $6 for two hours.
"Usually, women will go after anything. My friend just won some socks," said 25-year-old Zhang, who works as an assistant manager at a digital video company. "But I don't like to waste my time so I go after good stuff that's not too sought after, like theater tickets, which are not as popular as electronics."
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.