8 Strange Things About Shopping in China

Hannah Webb
Career China Digital Marketing Manager
Jan 5, 2018

Shopping seems like it's pretty much the same all over the world.  However, there are some differences that you should be aware of in China so that you aren't surprised.  As a former teacher in China, I learned the hard way so you don't have to. 

Pack A Medicine Kit Before You Leave

I cannot stress enough the importance of this. Upon arrival in China, I came down with a nasty sickness, which knocked me off my feet for about two weeks. Not knowing where to turn, I eventually had to make a hasty hospital visit and ended up with a nice, fat bill. 

Simple painkillers like Alka-Seltza, acetaminophen and ibuprofen can actually be quite tricky to get your hands on. While living in China, I was able easily able to find tylenol and that’s about it! If you’re anything like me, the absolute last thing you want to worry about when you have a headache is how and where you can find what you need to make it stop. 

Chinese pharmacies are well stocked but you won’t find much in there that you recognize from back home. If you need to pick up something specific, I recommend using a translation tool to translate the name of the condition you’re suffering from and show the pharmacist. When given the medicine, use your smart phone to scan-translate the list of ingredients and description on the package so you can check its what you need before you buy. 

One thing worth knowing beforehand is that your pharmacist will likely yell across to their colleague on the other side of the store to check they are giving you the right medicine. This can be a very humbling experience if its a busy day at the shop and you have an awkward problem that you’re trying to medicate! 

A lot of pharmacies are open until very late, or even 24 hrs, so you should always be able to get what you need. Just be aware that you’ll need to go to the hospital for a doctor's visit if you require very strong painkillers as these are not widely used in the country. 

If you’re bringing prescription medicine into the country, make sure it is sealed and you have a doctors note with the prescription clearly written on it in case you’re checked at customs. In fact, make sure all medicine you’re bringing into the country is sealed in its original packaging to avoid it being confiscated 


Making A Purchase In A Chinese Department Store

This system confused the hell out of me the first week I arrived in China and needed to buy essentials. If you go to a department store, you are rarely able to pick up your item and take it to the till. 

Instead, you’ll need to show the shop assistant in that area what you’re looking to buy. Then, they will write out a receipt and give you part of it. After that, you need to go to the till and pay. Once the transaction has taken place, you’ll be given a sales receipt. Finally, you’ll return to the first shop assistant who should be ready with your item. Your sales receipt will be checked and you’ll receive your product. 

Try to remember to actually pick up your purchase before leaving the store, on a number of times I’ve just waltzed home after paying completely forgetting my purchase. Most neighorhood stores (including supermarkets) you can just pick up what you want off the shelves and go to the registaer; however, even if you’re buying simple things like make up from Watsons (a store similar to a drugstore back home) the same rules will apply.

Chinese Stores And Their Overly Helpful Assistants

Back home, we’re used to going about our business and shopping in peace. However, in a lot of Chinese stores, you’ll find a shop assistant shadowing your every move. If you pick out a shirt to look at, they’ll pick out another to show you that you probably don’t want. They will be right there behind you every step of the way even if you somewhat helplessly inform them that you’re just looking…they’ll help you look! 

If you’re with a group and each go your separate ways to search for different things, other shop assistants will magically appear to make sure every person in your party is being carefully hovered over. 

Nothing makes me hightail it out of a shop faster as this can be seriously annoying. Try to bear in mind that they really are just trying to help and don’t feel pressured into buying something you don’t want. Also, don’t walk quickly around in circles trying to shake them off, trust me, it doesn’t work!

Unbelievable Discounts

When I first arrived in China, I saw so many signs on certain clothing racks that say “95% something-in-Chinese-you-can’t read-yet”! I used to think this meant the product was on sale at 5% of the original price. It doesn’t. It actually means the product now costs 95% of the original cost price. 

For example, if a pair of jeans costs 100RMB and you see a sign saying 75%, the jeans are likely to now cost 75RMB NOT 25RMB. The best thing to do is to ask for clarification from a sales assistant to avoid a nasty shock at the till. You’ll usually only encounter this in clothing stores but some shops like H&M, Bershka and Zara discount products in the way that you’re used to seeing back home.

Copy Cats

If something looks to good to be true…it probably is. When shopping in the markets, you may stumble across a stall selling electronics. Shiny new iPhones, tablets et al gleam tantalizingly at you from underneath glass topped display cabinets while a smiling sales assistant informs you sagely of their authenticity. Stop right there! 

These products may look 100% genuine, they may even be genuine when they are turned on for you to check but that’s not what you could end up taking home. The product could be a good looking fake or even a real product switched out for a fake while your purchase is being packed. 

To avoid going home and being disappointed with a dud, it is best to only buy expensive electronics somewhere you are sure is an authorized seller. The electronics markets are great for small things and quick fixes but do be aware that you could easily be taken advantage of and end up with something that doesn’t work like you thought it would. If in doubt, take a savvy local friend along with you who knows what they’re talking about because the chances of you ever getting your money back are slim at best. 

On a similar theme, if you are buying something like a smart phone from an authorized seller in mainland China, you will not be able to use it in the same way as an unblocked phone from your home country. You will not be able to access Google Play and may only be able to download Chinese apps, which is a pain if your character recognition isn’t up to par. 

Do not buy any phone from anyone on the street ever. Some hawkers hang outside the Apple store trying to flog fakes or stolen phones and I even had a man once shyly approach me at a subway station and try to sell me a pocketful of stolen iPhones. If you buy from these people, you are funding crime and you’ll probably end up with a trashy phone that doesn’t work anyway. 

The same thing goes for bottles of liquor. If you’re buying a large bottle of brandname whiskey, for example, and it is about the same price you’d pay back home or less, its probably a fake. It might still taste alright, but bear in mind that you don’t know what is in it, how it will affect you, where it has been made and how strong it really is. A friend of mine used to go so far as smashing his empty bottles after he’d finished so they couldn’t be repurposed and used for selling fake alcohol.

A Good Old Cup Of Tea

This is for all the Brits out there, bring your PG Tips to China with you! It might sound weird considering China is tea capital of the world; however, you can’t get a decent brew for love nor money. Sure you can satiate your tea-thirst by trying all the beautifully flavored, rich Chinese teas at your disposal…but sometimes, you need a reliable cup of English Breakfast to get you started on your day. 

You can buy Liptons Black Tea (and I’m truly sorry to all you wonderful people out there who enjoy Liptons for what I’m about to say) but it tastes like hot pond water and I’d rather drink my own boiled spit. When moving out, make sure you bring tea in its original, unopened packaging to avoid it being confiscated at customs. Also, enlist the help of friends and family back home to send out care packages to feed your tea addiction. 

You’re going to want to get used to drinking it with no milk or UHT milk as well. About 70% of all fresh milk I bought in my first unwitting months in China was already spoiled on the day I purchased it. When preparing water for your tea, don’t assume that just because you boiled the tap water its safe to drink. Yes you have have killed off bacteria but any chemicals, bleach or unidentifiable-stuff-from-your-pipes are still going to be floating around in there. 

Use bottled water or a water filter just to be sure. This will also save your kettle from being quickly covered in the most solid and disgusting scale you’ve ever seen in your life! 

Come On! Haggle!

If you’re buying things like clothes and shoes at a market, it would be wise to take given the price of all your purchases with an artery blocking sized pinch of salt. It can be maddening not knowing how much you should be paying for an item, especially when you’re in a new place and you’re not sure of the rules. 

Keep in mind how much you actually want the item and how much you’re willing to pay for it regardless of how much you actually think it is worth. If you’ve been told its an extravagant amount and you combat by making a fair offer, ignore the seller’s laments that your offer is below cost price and that they’ll lose money. If they are serious, they’ll never sell it to you and you’ll probably be able to find it elsewhere at the price you want sooner or later. If they’re not serious, they’ll call you back after you’ve walked away for round 2 of haggling! 

Some sellers will point blank refuse to bargain with you but its always worth a try. As with electronics, just because something has a brand name stitched convincingly onto it, or a sign saying “100% genuine”, you’re buying it from a market so its definitely a fake or has some minor fault, which makes it unsellable in a regular store.


Haggling can be an emotional experience for first-timers! It feels strange quibbling with a sales person over the price of something if you’re not used to it. Persevere, this will thicken up your skin for future dealings with wily tuktuk drivers and and anyone looking to exploit your inexperience to make a quick buck.

Always Wash the Fruit and Veg You Buy

Yeah, yeah, who actually ever does this. In China, you’ll want to, especially if you pick up your produce from sellers on the street, from Chinese supermarkets or in the local markets. I won’t get into all the nasty stuff that your potatoes have been growing in because I’m about to have my dinner, but let me tell you right now, even if it looks clean, it is most definitely throbbing with bacteria. 

Chuck your fruits and veggies in a big bowl, fill it up with bottled or filtered water and add a healthy splash of vinegar. While soaking, the vinegar will help clean off anything disgusting, it will wash off easily and you won’t be ingesting any soapy chemicals with your food. After a quick rinse with bottled or filtered water, your food will be good to eat. 

You might never do this and you might never get sick…until you do and it will be the worst digestive experience of your life. Also, when buying any food product in China, it is good to look out for this little symbol on the packaging: 

This is a QS mark, which is a quality and safety mark for food, beverages and other products. You should really only buy products showing this symbol as it means your purchase has been tested and managed by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) in China. 


Happy shopping!


Check out more tips for living and traveling in China! Read The Ultimate Guide for Moving to China

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