China shopping guide: what to buy and where

Shopping Heaven

Just a few decades ago, China had shortages of just about everything (not that many people had money to buy anything). Of course, this has all changed. As the World’s Factory, China has a glut of goods and shopping is the new favorite pastime of the nation’s growing middle class. Eager to make up for lost time, millions of Chinese consumers have enthusiastically joined the rest of the world on the never-ending Global Consumer Treadmill. Welcome!

Everywhere you go, you can find shiny new department stores and malls, high-end boutique stores, and bustling night markets.

Friendship stores:

“Friendship Stores” (友谊商店) are Chinese state-run stores, which were originally set up to only sell to foreign tourists, diplomats, and government officials, but are now open to the public. They carry “export quality” goods…but are certainly not the best value around town.

But for the serious shopper, it might be worth a trip to take notes on the prices of various things to get a baseline price before you get down to real negotiations. They also often have a good selection of English books and magazines.

Prices are fixed so are a good option for people terrified of haggling (and okay with not getting the best deal). They also do a good job shipping purchases back home.

Department stores:

Some big department stores are state-run but most these days are privately owned smaller stores. In bigger and more developed cities —like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou—there’s a growing number of luxury shopping malls. For example, the Oriental Plaza in Beijing is a new, shiny mall with huge selection of goods.

But don’t expect to find bargains at the Gucci store. On the contrary, you’ll find that imported luxury goods are actually considerably more expensive than back home (because of high tariffs and Value-Added Taxes reflected in prices). The target market is China’s nouveau riche who have an insatiable appetite for luxury brands (especially European).

Prices are fixed in larger department stores. Discounted items are marked with a number (1-9) next to a Chinese character (折 = “zhe”), which indicates the % of the original price you have to pay. For example: You see shoes originally priced at Y100 but on sale with a “8 折 ” sign next to it— this means a 20% discount off the original price (i.e. the sale price is Y80).

Buyer beware: Unlike US stores, even the biggest department stores in China have very stingy return policies. At best you’ll be able to only exchange it within a week of purchase….and that’s assuming it’s in perfect condition and you still have the receipt.

Random note: Apparently some Department stores don’t trust employees to handle money. Or maybe they just can’t break the habit of bureaucracy because many make customers jump through hoops for even the smallest purchase. For example, you’ll sometimes have to go to another floor to pay, then take your receipt to another floor to pick it up. So much for optimizing the customer experience!

Toiletries & other every day needs:

An American store...selling all Chinese products.

In addition to Chinese supermarkets and drugstores, you’ll also find the popular drug store chain, Watsons (Hong Kong-based) in most of the larger cities in China. They have a good selection of Asian and Western toiletries, cosmetics, and over-the-counter medicine.

Many larger cities also have the hugely popular mega-foreign stores like Wal-Mart and Carrefour. Selling a mix of imported and local items, you can buy anything from diapers to electronics to clothes.


  • Clothes— though difficult to tell whether real or fake (probably fake), name brand clothing is considerably cheaper here and a good value. An exception: I’d avoid any type of “performance” goods (such as supposedly Gore-tex jackets, shoes or backpacks)— it’s too easy to copy or steal labels and save money by skimping on quality.
  • Art: Scroll paintings, calligraphy, carvings, etc —of course, for high-end collectible art, you’ll need to know your stuff but for items for your house or gifts, you can find a lot of cool stuff (haggle, haggle, haggle!)
  • Jade and porcelain in Mainland China has a reputation for being cheaper and better quality than in Hong Kong.
  • Silks, fabrics, embroidery
  • Lacquerware
  • Ethnic jewelry and handicrafts

  • Bootleg CDs, DVDs—usually around $1 per DVD. If possible, test if they have a DVD player on site. Or buy one to test out first before buying larger quantities. I’ve haven’t had any problems getting past US Customs or viewing DVDs back home.
  • Mementos from Mao & Cultural Revolution (e.g. Little Red Book, lighters, etc)
  • Stone seals—called “chops”—with your name engraved in characters. Used in China as proof of signature.
  • Reproduction antiques
  • Real antiques—seek out specialist stores or markets. For real antiques over 100 years old, you’ll need an export certificate with an official wax seal from the seller to take out of the country (otherwise can be taken without compensation). I’m told the antiques in the Shanghai Friendship Store are worth checking out. Antiques that date way back (before 1795) cannot legally be taken out of the country at all.
  • RANDOM: Clay figurines, paper-cutting patterns, kites, snuff bottles with intricate drawings inside (a popular art from the Qing Dynasty which make excellent small gifts). Bone products (from oxen and camel bones) made into things such as knives, forks, spoons, bracelets, and necklaces.



Beijing’s Friendship Store: (No. 17 Jianguomenwai Dajie. Open daily 9am-9pm). Good place to start your comparison shopping….or for last minute gift shoppers.

Wangfujing Street/Oriental Plaza: Beijing’s massive retail mecca, this the shopping, dining and entertainment center is where China’s nouveau riche (and window shoppers) flock in search of shopping nirvana. On the southeast corner of Wangfujing Dajie, you’ll find the ritzy Oriental Plaza complex offering the world’s top luxury and name brands.

Panjiayuan Weekend Market: (Southeast Beijing, off Dongsanhuan Nanlu. Morning until afternoon): A sprawling open-air flea market with over 3,000 stalls, it’s a tourist destination in and of itself. It’s perhaps the largest antiques market (both real & reproductions) of its kind both in China and Asia. A bit of a hike from central Beijing, but you’ll find some unique items and generally lower prices for everything from silk screens to Buddha statues and Cultural Revolution-era memorabilia.

Chaowai Market: (about half a kilometer north of Panjiayuan Market. Every day, morning until early evening). Four floors of random stuff, ranging from furniture to antiques.

Hongqiao “Pearl” Market: (Hongqiao Lu. Open daily). Located in Beijing’s Chongwen district, it’s the place to go for pearls, featuring three stories of pearls (freshwater, seawater, cultured, black, pink, and ivory pearls). Also has good collection of antique clocks, mixed in with knock-off watches, handbags, etc.

The Silk Alley Market: (Xiushuidong Jie near the US Embassy) Until 2005 an open-air market, it’s now a 5-story shopping complex offering a big selection of name brand clothing and accessories, shoes, sunglasses, luggage, house wares, toys, handicrafts, and even CDs/DVDs. Though it’s sometimes hard to tell (don’t trust any labels), you can safely assume that pretty much everything here is a knock-off (e.g. Nike, Banana Republic, NorthFace, etc).

Yaxiu Market: (Near the nightlife district of Sanlitun, Chaoyang District, near the northeast embassy area). A four-story mini-mall, this market has offerings similar to the Silk Alley Market (at slightly lower prices). In addition to fake name-brand clothing, you’ll also find gifts and souvenirs and even army surplus gear and paintings. You can find good, cheap tailors on the third floor as well.


Shanghai’s Friendship Store: (1188 Changshou Road: tel: 6252 5252)

Nanjing Road: Shanghai’s main shopping and commercial drag, Nanjing Road’s upscale shops, department stores, and restaurants stretch from East to West Nanjing Road. Worth checking out in the area: Shanghai No. 1 Department Store (800-830 E. Nanjing—state-run store specializing in domestic goods), Plaza 66 (1266 W. Nanjing—top brand names), Westgate Mall (1038 W. Nanjing). Avoid scam artists who want to “practice English” or take you to a tea shop (see “Scams”).

Huaihai Road: Sometimes compared to Tokyo’s Harajuku fashion district, Huaihai Road is also an upscale shopping area, with huge malls and department stores that features a good range of designer labels.

SuperBrand Mall: Across from the Oriental Pearl Tower in Pudong, this four-story department store everything else you’d expect to find in a huge mall (clothing, jewelry, dining, etc), in addition to a Bank of China ATM and a good supermarket.

Xujiahui: A newer shopping and entertainment district located above the Xujiahui Metro subway station, Xujiahui has a number of shops, supermarkets and shopping malls. The Grand Gateway is the best of shopping malls with a lot of stuff and tons of restaurants.

Dongtai Road Antique Market: (near Hua Hai Park) An interesting long-running street bazaar of outdoor stalls lining the street. You’ll find a large collection of antiques (best to assume that anything you’re buying is a fake)—ranging from paintings and Mao memorabilia to porcelain and jewelry.

Yu Yuan Gardens: Another good place for bargain hunting for antiques, jewelry, jade, art, trinkets, etc—located along Fangbang Zhong Lu, Old City. Also check out Fuyou Lu, where the long-running Fuyou Antiques Market moved and is now a four-floor indoor flea market.

Cybermart: (Huai Hai Middle Road at the Xizang Road) This is three floors of geek paradise, with all things computer, audio-video and electronics-related. You’ll find everything from real name brand Apple iPods and MacBooks to mobile phones to camera batteries.

Hong Kong:

Click here for China Mike’s Hong Kong Shopping Guide: The Best HK markets, malls, and stores.

Return from China Shopping Guide to Tips & Resources

Return to China Mike’s travel guide Home Page