Shopping is a favourite pastime in China.

When you go out on the weekends, you'll find groups of teenagers giggling their way from one shop to the other with bags in hand.

This is a big change from the past, when shopping for pleasure was not even possible.

Shopping for some items in China can be a challenge, and you may find yourself making mistakes along the way.

But don’t despair – China is a fun country to shop in and shopkeepers are generally friendly and helpful. They might even try to practice their English with you!

With this in mind, here’s a general guide to shopping in China.

Grocery shopping

When you do your grocery shopping in China it probably won’t seem that much different than shopping at home.

You’ll find the big brand grocery shops such as Walmart as well as other chains such as Carrefour and Lotus Supermarkets. You can even find exotic Swedish groceries at Ikea!

Big grocery stores in China basically have everything. You will be able to buy towels, toys, stationary, food, fruit and meat all from the one place.

You can find things like chocolate in grocery stores in China

You can find chocolate in grocery stores in China - even chilli flavored Snickers bars!

Be careful when you buy cleaning products or toiletries. Everything will be in Chinese, so it can be hard to tell what you’re buying.

If you’re trying to save money or time, there are a few other options you can try including neighborhood markets, fruit carts and convenience stores.

Neighborhood markets

These can spring up anywhere, without warning or advertisements, and they’re very popular.

In fact, if you live in a ‘local’ neighborhood rather than one that mostly caters to expats, there will probably be a market near you.

They’re usually held on Saturday or Sunday morning and they close up early, so make sure you get there before 10 am.

Nobody will speak much English in these markets, so be prepared to work out prices on a calculator (they will usually have one). Or use it as an opportunity to practice your Mandarin!

It’s usually alright to haggle in these places, just watch the other shoppers to make sure it’s the same in your neighborhood.

Fruit carts

You can buy your fruit in the big supermarkets, but it usually isn’t the best.

Opt for a fruit shop, or better still, buy fruit off the back of someone's truck! This is far more popular in China, and it tastes better as well.

Fruit for sale in China

Fruit for sale in China.

Local farmers often drive into the cities, and set up in the same place each week to sell their produce.

Just make sure you keep an eye out for them and make note of where they set up.

Convenience stores

You’ll probably only shop at convenience stores when you’ve run out of water or you’re starving and want a quick meal.

They’re a little more expensive than other types of stores, but they usually carry a wide range of food and snacks.

Sometimes the convenience is worth the extra expense!

Convenience store in China

A small convenience store in Qingdao, north-east China.

Souvenir shopping

Half the fun of being in a foreign country is shopping for souvenirs and sending some cool stuff home.

When you shop for souvenirs in China, you should try haggling with the shopkeeper before you decide on a price. This is customary in China.

Although this doesn’t work in the bigger shops and department stores, if you’re in a small shop and the shop owner is friendly, it might be a good chance to give your haggling skills a workout.

Hand-painted souvenir bottles are worth shopping for in China

Hand-patined bottles make for a good souvenir in China.

Clothes shopping

If you’re living in China you’ll probably have to buy clothes while you’re there.

Either you’ll lose weight or gain it, depending on how you react to Chinese food, or you’ll just want something new.

Luckily, Chinese cities have a mix of big international brands, designer brands and local brands. You will have lots of choice.

However, that doesn’t mean that clothes shopping is necessarily easy.

You may encounter issues with sizes, shoes and the kind of fashion available.

Small sizes

Most of the clothes in China are in smaller sizes.

So if you need a larger size you might struggle. This will also be difficult if you’re tall.

Shopping in China is easy with countless clothing stores to choose from

There are countless clothing stores in China, but finding something that fits can be difficult.

The smaller sizes may be the right size around, but the sleeves will probably be at your elbow and the trouser legs at your shin!

The small sizing doesn’t just apply to the width of the clothes, but to the length as well.

Narrow shoes

If you have wide feet, you may be out of luck.

Although Chinese shoes come in similar sizes to back home (they’re biased towards the smaller sizes), they’re quite narrow. This is the look that’s popular there at the moment.

If you have feet that are big or wide, you’ll have trouble finding shoes that fit you comfortably.

Unusual fashions

You will see some unusual fashion while you’re shopping in China.

For instance, women should bring their own bathing suits. The suits in fashion at the moment have the little frilly skirts.

This can be a shock for Westerners who are used to seeing only children and older women wearing this style.

You'll also see a great deal of Chinglish. It's usually emblazoned on t-shirts, but there are really no boundaries to where you will see it.

Chinese people rarely wear clothes with Chinese characters on them. If you're looking for a souvenir t-shirt with Chinese characters on it, hunt around in the really touristy places.

Unusual fashion is common in China

A typical Chinglish t-shirt you will see in China.

Clothing with Chinese characters on it

It's rare to find clothing in China with Chinese characters on it.

Toiletries

Shopping for toiletries can be a challenge in China, particularly if you’re a woman.

You’ll be able to find lots of familiar brands and products in supermarkets, department stores and in Watsons, a personal care chain store.

However, that doesn’t mean it will be easy finding products that suit your needs.

Some of the issues you might encounter include:

Whitening skin products

Most moisturisers and face cleansers in China contain whitening chemicals, even the familiar brands, so be careful what you buy.

Hair products for thick hair

Asian hair is often thicker than Western hair and most of the products are designed to care for thick, dry hair.

Two Chinese girls

Chinese women have different kind of hair to Western women and this can make shopping for hair products challenging.

If you have very fine hair and wash with these products, your hair will end up greasy and wet looking all day.

Very few products are organic or animal cruelty-free

In all likelihood, you won’t find any products that match this description at all. In China, all cosmetics must be tested on animals by law.

If this is a problem for you, you might have to bring products with you or get them sent from home.

Malls and department stores

There are malls and department stores all over China. They range in size and quality from small and tired-looking right through to enormous and ritzy.

In the really nice places, prices won't be much different to home. In fact, luxury items may be even more expensive than back home.

When shopping in China you will find many luxury stores

You will find many luxury stores while shopping in China.

As a TEFL teacher in China, you will probably be steering clear of these kinds of places anyway.

Note that prices are fixed in malls and department stores. You will need to save your haggling for the markets.

Wanda Plaza (万达广场)

Wanda Plaza is one of China's nicer malls.

They are scattered all over China. In fact, there are over 260 of them!

Sometimes you will feel like eating Western food and going for a shop. Wanda is perfect for that as it caters well to Western needs.

You'll usually find a cinema in a Wanda Plaza as well.

Friendship Store (友谊商店)

This kind of store is a Chinese state-run department store. In the past, you had to be a foreigner or government official to shop there. 

Although prices are steep, it's worth meandering through a Friendship Store just to see what shopping was like before China opened up to the outside world.

You may find a Friendship Store while shopping in China

Friendship Store in China.

You can find a Friendship Store in China's biggest cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Discounted items

Discounted items are marked with a number from 1 to 9. The number appears next to a Chinese character (折) pronounced 'zhe'.

While this may seem confusing at first, it simply indicates the percentage of the original price that you have to pay.

For example, if you see something originally priced at RMB 100 with an '8 折' sign next to it, it means you only have to pay 80% of the original price (i.e. you get 20% off). So in this case, you would pay RMB 80.

Therefore, the lower number you see, the higher the discount you receive.

Happy shopping in China!