Travel Tips for Touring China: Shopping

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What’s a visit to China without a proper shopping trip? A holiday just isn’t a holiday without that obligatory day spent buying souvenirs and presents, and China, as the ‘factory of the world’, is filled with all kinds of goodies just waiting to be snapped up.


That said, even shopping in China can be an altogether very different experience from your average trip to the department store, so here are a few things to think about before you start emptying your wallets!



Nowadays, no matter where you go, you will be able to find something – be it clothes, toys, electricals, you name it – which has the famous ‘Made in China’ label on it. You might think this means prices are significantly lower in China, and you won’t be wrong. BUT this depends largely on where you look.


In most shopping centers, items such as clothes are likely to be just as expensive, if not more expensive than in Europe or the US. Whether international or local, branded clothing are usually no cheaper in China than elsewhere, so bargain hunters may not have as much luck as they would hope for.


However, food is often significantly cheaper in China, and simple services from a haircut to a car wash can cost next to nothing. There are plenty of local restaurants and stalls who sell big bowls of noodles, for example, for as little ¥10 (the equivalent of £1.13 or $1.46), so it’s always worth looking out for those kinds of places for authentic, Chinese food at a very good price.



Speaking of prices, if you’re out on the streets or looking to buy souvenirs in the markets or near popular tourist destinations, try to learn the skill of haggling.


This is especially important in places where prices aren’t clearly displayed. The vendors are particularly adept at targeting tourists and charging them much higher prices because they think they can get away with it. A lot of the times, the prices aren’t too expensive anyway, but if you feel that you’re being cheated, don’t be afraid to haggle! Learning some basic numbers can be very helpful in ensuring clear communication.


However, if it just doesn’t seem to be working out, don’t be afraid to just walk away if you can’t reach an agreement. Chances are, whatever trinket you’ve spotted will be sold at another stall anyway.


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One (rather depressing) discovery my friend and I made on our own shopping trip was that clothes sizes in China were very different from that of the UK or Europe. This meant that we were rapidly upgraded to ‘Large’ and ‘Extra Large’ in China when we would have been no more than a ‘Medium’ or ‘Small’ in the UK!


Whilst it was a bit of a blow to our self-esteem, it didn’t make clothes purchases impossible. A big contributor to the difference was also due to height rather than weight. If you’re wandering through the Chinese crowds and find that you have a pretty good view of the tops of people’s heads, then chances are you’ll be given the ‘Extra Large’ tops too.


Shoes, on the other hand, could potentially be more difficult. The average female shoe size in the US is 7 (EU 39-40), but in China, it’s only 3.5 (EU 36)! It’s the same story with men’s sizes. In the US, the average is 8.5 (EU 41). In the UK, it’s 8 (EU 40). But in China, it’s just size 6 (EU 38-39), the same as the average female shoe size in the UK. My friend and I visited quite a few stores which had no shoes available our size. So before you go out shopping, just bear in mind that what might be an ‘average’ size to you can be very different in China. Make sure to do your research before you set off, and save yourself from disappointment!


Shopping Assistants

Shopping assistants play a big role in your shopping experience in China. One of the biggest differences, which is particularly noticeable if you come from the UK, is that shopping assistants are generally much more eager to approach customers.


Very often, even with polite refusal, shopping assistants will shadow their customers and quickly come to offer assistance without prompt. Whilst this can be generally helpful, it can also be slightly distracting for the casual shopper just looking to peruse. Without prior warning of this behavior, you might find the experience a little startling, but it all comes down to cultural differences in standards of customer service.


It may take a little getting used to, but it’s just something which can happen if you’re spotted as a potential customer.


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If you look at the reception desks of any commercial store, or on the front of any advertising brochure, or even at the end of TV programmes, you will often notice a small QR code provided along with almost every service.  


Mobile payment is a BIG thing in China, and by that I mean cash is rarely used nowadays. The QR codes, when scanned using apps such as WeChat – now linked automatically to bank accounts – a transfer can be made directly via mobile straight to the merchant. This is the easiest, quickest, not to mention the most common way of completing transactions nowadays in China. It also gives companies a chance to promote their Apps and advertisements, roping you into memberships and subscriptions with the promise of discounts and rewards. It’s all very commercialized.


It is, however, very convenient, and something worth remembering if you’re out on a shopping spree. WeChat now supports binding non-Chinese bank accounts to their payment services, saving you from the hassle of conversion fees, meetings with the bank, and all that paperwork just to get your credit or debit card working abroad.


However, there may be some rare occasions where you actually require using mobile payments to access the service you need. One cinema I went to simply did not accept cash, and if you’re a tourist who is reliant on cash rather than card payment when traveling, it could actually be much easier to substitute mobile payments instead.


These are just some of the most important aspects to be aware of when shopping in China. Have you got any other tips to give from your own personal experience? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!


Enjoying learning about China? See what’s next in our next article next week!