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8 Things to Know About Chinese Shopping Culture

DIANA XIN | APRIL 20, 2015

The truth is, I hate shopping. But something happens when I go to China. Something in the air — either the around-the-clock manufacturing or the settling dust of a run-away economy – turns me into a rabid consumer.

Cute eyeglass frames for $15 USD each. Wooden buttons shaped like elephants. Ceramic buttons painted like porcelain. Tibetan prayer bowls. Cellphone covers for every day of the week.

Some may ask whether I actually needed the same linen balloon pants in three different earth-tone colors.

Honestly? I really did. Because I was on my China shopping spree.

China isn’t simply about the Great Wall or 5,000 years of history. With its economic development, China has become a major shopping destination with its own unique flair.

The Guomao district in Beijing, home of the China World Shopping Mall, features such storefronts as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Prada.

For me, however, these sterile fluorescent halls with their white mannequins have never held quite as much appeal as China’s other shopping venues.

Packed antique stalls, bustling night markets, and shopping centers divided into booths of different vendors with the same merchandise. That's what I'm here for.

For those inadequately prepared, however, shopping in China can be a complete nightmare. There are certain things you'll have to know to survive your first few shopping experiences.

1. Understand the discount system

Shopping centers in China will often post sale signs advertising dă zhé (打折), such as “打2折 (dǎ 2 zhé)” or “打 8 折 (dǎ 8 zhé).”

Instead of posting the percentage of the discount, these signs tell you the percentage of the original price you are expected to pay.

So “打2折 (dǎ 2 zhé)” means you will pay 20 percent of the original price (for an 80% discount) and “打8折 (dǎ 8 zhé)” means you will pay 80 percent of the original price (for a 20% discount).

I found this incredibly confusing at first, but just remember: A lower number means a better deal.

You may also encounter the phrase "...zhé qĭ (折起)", such as “2折起 (2 zhé qĭ),” which means you can get discounts up to 2 zhé, or up to 80 percent off.

2. Sometimes people will follow you

I was seven years old on my first trip to China when this happened to me. A salesperson trying to convince my mother that I needed a pair of khaki pants followed us for several hundred feet.

Depending on where you are, sales associates will be terrifyingly tenacious when dealing with weak-willed customers.

You'll need to be equally tenacious when you're bargaining to get a good deal.

3. It's easy to get exactly what you want

One of the best things about shopping in China is getting your purchases customized.

Jewelry stores often display strings of beads that can be bought and transformed into whatever shapes and patterns you please.

Fabrics of your choice can be brought to a tailor, along with a pattern, photo, or sample of what you want made.

Friends of mine have purchased silk-lined suits, cloth cargo shorts, and even a wedding dress custom-made this way.

4. Most vendors only accept cash

While modern shopping centers typically accept credit cards, you will definitely want to carry cash when you shop off the beaten path.

In general, most Chinese people tend to carry cash rather than rely on plastic.

5. You'll get tons of receipts

Often, when you shop in different departments of a large store, each sales associate you encounter will write down your purchases on a small piece of paper. This is a called a fā piào (发票), or receipt.

Seemingly insignificant, these little slips of paper have become an important part of China’s invoicing and taxation process since the late 1980s.

Properly issued invoices should have a number and a government stamp, but there is quite a bit of fraud and an entire black market around these squares of paper.

For the most part, however, shoppers only need to worry about bringing all their receipts to the cashier counter where they can finally check out, and receive yet another receipt.

6. Vendors expect you to bargain

Modern shopping malls generally have set prices that can’t be negotiated, but vendors at night markets, antique stalls, or personal booths at other shopping centers usually expect customers to question their prices.

But bargaining and haggling isn’t just procedure. It’s an art form. I've listed a few phrases, too, so you'll have more to work with!

How much is it?
duō shăo qián?

Too expensive! (This should be the first response to any price.)
tài guì le!

Let me think about it
wŏ xiăng yi xiăng

Can you make it a little cheaper?
néng pián yì yì diăn ma?

I don’t want it
bú yào le 

7. It's okay to talk with your hands

If you are still brushing up on vocabulary, consider learning a bit of sign language instead.

Chinese number gestures allow you to use one hand to signal the numbers one through ten, a “handy” way of naming your price.

Because Chinese dialect is so varied, merchants across the country have long relied on these number gestures to communicate with one another.

If you don't know these hand signals, see some unbelievably adorable local Chinese children show you with this free Yoyo Chinese video:

8. Knockoffs as far as the eye can see

Depending on who you are, fake merchandise can be the highlight of or the bane of shopping in China.

Either way, it’s always good to double-check quality. Read any letterings or labels for spelling errors, and check the stitching and seams for loose threads or unraveling.

Also make sure that colors and materials match up. Jade, pearls, and other precious stones can be brought to an appraiser.

Shopping in China can be fun if you know what you're doing. It takes practice and a thick skin to get what you want at the price you want it. 

Just remember that vendors expect customers to bargain. If you can't get the price you're looking for, chances are, you can find the exact same thing in another vendor's stall. 

When you've finished shopping for yourself, don't forget about your friends and family back home! Handcrafted kites, embroidered shoes, and feathered Chinese hacky sacks make great gifts for children. 

Women may appreciate silk scarves, jewelry, or lipstick cases with decorated compact mirrors.

For the home decorator, there are wooden boat models, calligraphy scrolls, handmade pottery, and ornamental compasses.

What’s your favorite unnecessary purchase? (Have I mentioned my elephant lamp that lights up when you press its belly button?) And do you have any great bargaining strategies? Share in the comments below!