Appropriately for the capital of the world’s most prolific emerging commercial power, Beijing offers boundless shopping opportunities. Much of the nation’s wealth is concentrated here, and Chinese and international companies are more than eager to establish a consumer base among Beijing’s trendsetters, all the while imagining 1.3 billion consumers picking up the habit. Shopping options vary enormously, from buzzing informal markets to glimmering Western shopping malls, and everything in between. Expats can find any practical items they need in Beijing – it’s only a matter of knowing where to look. Outside international chains or well-established department stores, prices are cheap and often negotiable. Credit cards are accepted at big retailers and most malls, but overall, cash is still king. Refunds and exchanges are not as common as they are in the West, so be sure to inquire about the refund policy before making a transaction. If you purchase something at a market, you are generally stuck with it. English is spoken at boutique shops and in the nice shopping malls, but don’t count on being understood at the markets.
In addition to all of the international labels, Beijing draws merchants from all over China, meaning that shoppers can find deals on all things Chinese. The beautiful handmade carpets from Xinjiang, Tibet and Tianjin are good value, although be sure to visit a reputable dealer, as unscrupulous traders will try and pawn off a factory carpet as Tibetan. Fabrics, particularly silk and cashmere from Inner Mongolia, can be fashioned into tailor-made clothing for a fraction of what it would cost at home. Antique furniture is also a good deal in Beijing, though the same rule applies as with carpets. Many expats have their furniture custom made, which is a tremendous bargain here. Pearls are very popular and good value, if you know what to look for and how to avoid the abundant fakes. Beijing is also the capital of Chinese souvenirs that range from tea sets to Cultural Revolution kitsch, and probably best avoided unless you need quirky and affordable gifts to bring home. Some ‘antique’ markets may present tempting buys, but it takes a seasoned eye to sort out the real from the fake. Clothing, unless it’s an imported international brand, is almost always a great deal. Imported items are often at least 20 percent more expensive here, and expats recommend trying the local products first, which means learning how to navigate the markets. Most markets are crowded, noisy and full of hagglers, but they are usually a great experience and deals are plentiful.
Preparing for the Shopping Experience
Be prepared to be stared at, followed, pushed and grabbed during your shopping experience, particularly on weekends. In China, personal space and privacy are not valued in the same way as in Western countries. Invasion of it is common and generally tolerated. If you are annoyed, be firm and move away while remaining calm and polite. If you show anger or frustration, no one will understand you anyway.
Many Chinese like to touch foreign children out of curiosity. This is not threatening, but make sure your children are aware of and prepared for this.
Violent crime is rare in Beijing, however pickpockets and bag-slashers are common in some of the busy shopping areas. Keep money and valuables in a safe place.
Learn basic greetings and numbers in Chinese. The locals will really appreciate it and it will help you get a better deal.
Bargaining is a fundamental part of shopping in the markets and on the streets of Beijing. Merchants expect it and it is an exercise usually carried out in good humor. If you are not used to haggling, take a few trips to markets with a Chinese friend or an experienced expat during your first few months in the city. This will inevitably enhance your shopping experience and prevent you from getting fleeced by cunning vendors.
Market vendors are fully aware of the money that expats spend in Beijing and will begin with an outrageous price, usually displayed on a calculator. This tactic is best countered with a smile and a very low offer on your end. We recommend a fine-tuned expression of shock, grabbing the calculator, and punching in a counter offer that is about 25 percent of the original price, and then working towards an agreeable number. Beijing vendors are experienced professionals and have seen all of the tricks, including the plea to poverty, the walk away, and the “I am not very interested” act. The way to get the best price is to first consider what value the item has to you. Remember that this is an ancient game. Maintain your sense of humor, bearing in mind that the point of the exercise to reach a mutually acceptable price. Knowing some Chinese will help you get a better deal; traveling with a group of expats with shopping bags and expensive jewelry will not. If you really want the local price for market goods, make a list of the items you want and have a Chinese friend or your driver go to the market with you and purchase the goods.
Quite a lot of China’s products are not what they seem. Its not just antiques and DVDs –you can buy counterfeit phones, medicine, up-scale clothing brands and even new Mac computers. Definitely avoid buying fake electronic goods or medicines for obvious reasons. Many fake designer clothes fall apart at the seams or shrink in the wash.
On the other hand, if you do not have any moral qualms about it, fake items may be a good value. Some of the watches work just fine, Louis Vuitton handbags can be convincing, and many expats amass impressive collections of DVDs. As opposed to regular bargaining, where you try for around one-third of the starting price, aim for 10 to 20 percent for fake goods.
Read more about the best expat shopping in Beijing on our Listly list: