Shopping in China - Things to Buy and How to Buy Them
Most travelers want to take home some bargains or mementos. With so many options available, shopping can be time consuming, confusing, and exhausting. The following tips may make it easier for you.
Don't buy everything in the first day or two. Each city has its own specialty. Some of the best buys are:
- Beijing: cloisonné; fresh water pearls
- Shanghai: silk carpets, qipaos
- Hangzhou: Longjing tea, silk
- Suzhou: silk
- Guilin: scroll paintings, South China Sea pearls
- Tibet: thangka (tanka: sheep skin wall hangings)
- Xi'an: replicas of the Terracotta Warriors, Tang Dynasty hand painted china, antique furniture
- Yunnan: mounted butterflies, Pu'er tea; Dali batik (tie-dyed fabric)
- Xinjiang: carpets, jade articles (for which please see our warnings below), dried fruit
- Guangzhou: wholesale markets for clothes, shoes, toys, electronic products and more.
Not all souvenirs can be bought all over China, e.g. panda goods are mainly only available in Chengdu where most of the pandas are. So don't get caught out, if you like it, buy it when you first see it.
(If you miss your chance, we can help our customers to purchase souvenirs and have them shipped home to your address. See China Post - How to Mail Your Big Buys Home.)
What Is Worth Buying in China (Instead of Back Home)
The Top 10 Souvenirs for a First-Time Traveler to China
- 1. Art - papercuttings, paintings, photos, postcards. scrolls, finger/knuckle paintings
- 2. Rice writing - your name on a grain of rice
- 3. Painted snuff bottles
- 4. Fans
- 5. Pretty umbrellas for rain or sun.
- 6. Mahjong tile set
- 7. Panda paraphernalia
- 8. Silk - nighties, material/embroidery
- 9. Anything from 10 Yuan Land or 33 Yuan Land in Beijing or Shanghai, i.e. Chinese games or other bargains
- 10. Teas
See our article for a more detailed top 10 souvenirs list.
Glasses and Contacts
Glasses and contacts are much cheaper in China, so it can be worth stocking up while here, especially if you like to have a bunch of different stylish glasses designs. Glasses at opticians throughout the city tend to be of decent quality, but do not expect the brands to be real. A pair of (non-branded) glasses will set you back between 200 and 400 yuan depending on quality, lens strength, and your bargaining skills. In Beijing, there is a special glasses market near Panjiayuan antiques market. The biggest one in Shanghai is located near the railway station.
- Beijing Glasses City, 43 Huawei Beili, Panjiayuan, Dongsanhuan Nanlu, Chaoyang District, Beijing
- Shanghai 3 Ye Optical Glasses Market, Shanghai Train Plaza South Square, 4-5F, 360 Meiyuan Lu, Zhabei District, Shanghai
Accessories and Jewellery
China is the perfect place to pick up accessories and jewellery, and there is absolutely no shortage of places to do so. Most markets and tourist attractions will have shops selling everything from bracelets and necklaces to rings and jade accessories and jewellery. It is very important to remember that most trinkets picked up in tourist markets or at tourist sights will not be real silver or jade, and the quality will not be incredibly high. However, if you bargain hard it'll be worth it.
Tailoring and Clothes
Tailors and clothes are extremely cheap in China, but make sure you know what you are getting yourself into.
Only get clothes made if you know what fabric you want, and have either an example of what you want copied, or have a solid idea in your head that you can draw out. If you want silk clothes, check out this article first on how to tell if silk is good quality. Many people choose to have their prom dress, or a ball gown, made while in China because it is so much cheaper than having a dress tailor-made at home. This is an especially good souvenir if you go for a Chinese-style qipao dress. Let us know if you want to have something tailored and we can help arrange this for you.
- Buying traditional clothes in China - All You Need to Know
- Where to Buy or Tailor Make a Elegant Qipao in Shanghai
- Top Places to Buy or Tailor Make Your Qipao in Beijing
- China's Underground Fashion Markets
Leather goods can also be good value in China. Many of the markets sell leather bags and belts at prices much cheaper than back home. For leather hand bags, bought at a market stall, expect to pay between 200-500 yuan, and belts go for between 100 and 200. To check whether or not the leather is real, many vendors will instantly use a lighter to demonstrate how their bags,wallets, and belts do not melt when exposed to the flame. Make sure that you get that specific bag, and not a new one pre-packaged that may be of a different quality. Also check all zippers to make sure they work. In Beijing and Shanghai, the big markets will have plenty of products to choose from. In Guangzhou, try Sanyuanli Leather market,
- Beijing Silk Street Market
- Shanghai's Shopping
- Guangzhou 78 Sanyuanli Dadao, Baiyun District, Guangzhou
Shopping Is Not Obligatory
Don't feel obligated to shop. Our guides offer shopping opportunities as a courtesy (if you opt out of our NO SHOPS policy), but if you're not interested, you will not get any pressure at all from us.
Other tour guides and sellers may be quite enthusiastic, thinking this is what you want, so don't be embarrassed to tell them directly and immediately that you don't want to go shopping. You'll often find several attendants trying to help you make a purchase. This doesn't mean you have to buy; it's OK to say no, or just to look around.
Outside tourist spots or on the road, there might be some vendors who follow you and try to sell you something. If you are not interested, just ignore them and keep going.
Be Cautious of Fake Items
Shopping is great in China and you can expect to be able to buy many things at a much better price that at home. Please however be warned that if a bargain price for a world famous brand seems too good to be true... it probably is!
At the same time, beware of famous brand items which are selling at a more reasonable price. Needless to say, sellers have caught on to the fact that a price set too low is suspicious, so some have taken to upping their prices accordingly.
Given that genuine designer goods tend to be more expensive in China than elsewhere, it is best to leave such purchases for your return home.
Antiques and Jade, etc.
Antique buyers should know that many experts have been disappointed to find that their find of a lifetime is beautiful but fake. Antiques should be officially certified to be exported legally. The penalties are severe. Keep all receipts, certificates and official documents that are received when you purchase any antiques. Antiques are those items over 120 years of age.
When buying jade, also be wary. Unless you are something of an expert, it is best not to trust high-ticket jade items.
Please also be aware of piracy. This is so endemic in China that it is difficult to make official purchases of such items as DVDs and CDs. Consequently, these are to be avoided given that they will cause difficulties with customs upon your return home.
The same applies to computer software. Installation disks may be tempting if you have your laptop with you and decide to dispose of the disks themselves before returning home, but the fact a copy of Microsoft Windows, for example, is pirated will be detectable during the updating procedure, and may lead to reduced functionality. In addition to this, viruses are common on pirated software disks in China.
Piracy extends far beyond these more obvious items. Books, designer-label clothing and accessories, famous-name watches, and a host of other items will be available to you at ridiculously low prices. These are, of course, also pirated, so beware bargains, particularly those set at ridiculously low prices.
Though reputable-looking department stores may seem good places for reputable goods, they are still no guarantee. Your best guard against piracy is common sense. Given that piracy is rife, those things which are readily copied, or which are branded so as to make them worth the effort of copying, are probably best avoided altogether in China.
More Reasons to be Wary
You should check the import restrictions in your home country as some items may attract tax upon your return, especially if mailed or shipped separately.
It may seem obvious, but it is always worth reminding yourself that you will have a restricted luggage allowance for your return flight.
Remember to check for voltage differences. Provided your home country's voltages are the same as those in China, then you should be fine. If not, you may find your electronic goods to be unworkable upon your return home. However, there is still the question of whether or not you will be able to plug it in. Chinese sockets are not universal so again, please check before making any purchase. See China Power Supply and Adapters for more information. Once again, be aware of the possibility of import duties imposed upon the goods you buy in China.
Electronic goods are, in any case, often more expensive in China than elsewhere, and should you find bargains then again, be suspicious. Always be sure to check any electronic goods you buy before leaving the shop. Ask for a demonstration. Also be sure to package such goods securely for the return journey.
Mobile phones and comparable devices
These are best not bought in China. Android phones in particular will not be able to connect with Google Play, necessitating the use of third-party app providers which may prove risky. However, other devices may, too, be adapted to the Chinese market in terms of restricted usage and various additional apps and hidden programs you would rather not have on your phone. These can be difficult to remove, and any effort you make to do so may lead to the device becoming unusable.
Unless you know what you are buying, it is best to stick with low-ticket items when purchasing jade. That which is presented to you as high-quality may be a low-quality stone, or even entirely fake. Cheap baubles abound and may be readily purchased, but some cheap baubles come with a price tag well beyond their value.
Regular batteries are readily available and generally reliable. However, product-specific batteries such as those for cameras, portable computers, mobile phones etc. may be unreliable. These have been known to malfunction catastrophically, even dangerously. Such batteries are best purchased from clearly reliable outlets, and even then it is best to stick with brand suppliers rather than go for cheap imitations which, at best, are likely to rapidly degrade with successive recharging.
These do not always meet the safety standards you would expect back home. Please be exceptionally careful when purchasing such items, particularly as gifts for younger children.
Sadly, medicines may also be faked. Should you require medicines, please be certain to purchase them from large and clearly reputable outlets. Fatalities resulting from the purchase of fake medicines in China have been known.
When buying food as gifts to take home, be aware you may face import restrictions in your home country. Once again, check the regulations before you go. Such items are usually reliable when purchased from a reputable department store, but those from smaller outlets may be best avoided. Remember to check for any sell-by dates, and do not purchase goods which require refrigeration and may begin to spoil on your return journey.
These tend to find their way out of the manufacturers' bins and into the marketplace. Sometimes it may be that it is nothing more than an item of clothing with less-than perfect stitching on an inner seam, and you've got yourself a bargain. However, it may also be that a USB stick is being sold at a very low price by a street-side stallholder because it simply doesn't work. Inspect such bargains carefully, and consider the nature of the goods you are buying. If it is an item you are unable to check out fully before handing over your money, then that may be money you are simply throwing away.
Being ripped off may be galling, but it is a transient irritation. Your health, however, and the health of those to whom you may present gifts from your travels upon your return home, is of paramount importance. In any purchase you make, be aware of the health and safety implications for yourself and for the recipient of your purchase. Health and safety regulations are not as punctiliously observed in China as in some other countries, and goods sold locally often fail to meet the standards required of those manufactured for export.
Smart Shopping - How to Bargain in China
Bargaining is a national pastime in China so you will find that most retailers except for department stores, large shopping malls will be prepared to bargain. Prepare some small change for buying inexpensive stuff. Vendors are usually reluctant to find change for a 100 yuan note.
There's lots of shopping to do in the capital city (and other places in China), but it's important to be prepared by understanding how find the best prices for the goods you want. Aside from knowing where to go and what to shop for, make sure your bargaining skills are up to snuff, or you may end up paying far more than you should have.
Regardless of the market you go to, here are some tips to help you get the best price on all your goods.
Bring your poker face
Rule number one of bargaining: never (ever!) act like you absolutely must have the item. Salesmen love customers that are excited about a product – it means they can price it much higher. Play it cool – if you see something you really want, keep a straight face and act like you'd rather walk away than pay a fortune, and you'll get a much better price.
Really low. Depending on the market, the starting price could be 7 or 8 times what it should be. Keep this in mind when you throw out your first price. You can always go up from there, but you can't go back down.
See something you like? Walk around and see if other stands have it. That way, if you can't get the price you want, you can always walk away and try a different stand.
Observe other people. If someone else is buying the same thing for a reasonable price, tell the seller you want the same price. Sometimes you can avoid the back-and-forth routine altogether!
Be firm, but stay polite
Don't underestimate the importance of allowing the seller to save face. Sometimes, negotiations do not go the way you planned. Especially in larger clothing markets, sellers may act outraged by a low price, but keep your cool. Often if you say something insulting, or even quote a price that is ridiculously low, the seller may decide not to sell to you at all.
Come back for more
If you know what you want, and you've gotten a certain price from that stand before, sometimes you can save time by just assertively saying that price from the get-go. They see that you know, and they want to save their time too. You can also get a better deal when you buy multiple things from the same seller.
The "nasty husband" trick
A good one for couples who fancy trying out their acting skills. Gentlemen. You are the irritated husband who is tired of his wife spending all his hard-earned money. Ladies. You are the long-suffering wife who has to argue for every cent your husband spends on you. If the seller believes he has to convince the man who doesn't even want to make a purchase, the price should plummet.
Customer Lynne Buddin's Bargaining Experience:
Haggling is hard work. Guide books say to offer ¼ what was asked, so prices went up; they now start at 10 times what they actually want. This doesn't work for me because if they start at a ridiculous price, I just walk out.
One time we did persevere was for a nice scene of the Li River, an artist's scroll. At 1,680 Yuan/£168, even if Chairman Mao himself had painted it, I wasn't paying that price! Negotiating went on for ages; we ended up paying 4% of the original price.
You can't however haggle in named stores like Nike or Adidas. You will offend the staff, as the price is the price. Also beware, one mistake we made, we thought we had a bargain pair of trainers; the 49 yuan sign was 49% off, not 49 yuan. Not such a bargain as we thought, but it made the sales assistant laugh when she realised.
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