For many, the prospect of shopping elicits one of two images. The first and more pleasant is that of casually browsing goods in a mall or department store and searching out a deal or coming across something needed – generally a happy experience for those that enjoy the process. The second is of crowded stores, poor service and a feeling of futility when sought-after products are not found.

For those expats relocating to Chinese mega-cities like Shanghai and Beijing, the first experience is difficult to find as, outside of Ikea, big retail box stores do not exist. Some American retailers like Best Buy have arrived in China to much fanfare, only to find that local Chinese, while enjoying the experience of seeing products in real life (however large the crowd and poor the service) preferred to leave the store empty handed and return home to purchase products from Chinese language online retailers for the small savings they offer.

Others like Walmart have succeeded in carving out a niche in the local market by tailoring their products, pricing and services to the tastes of the Chinese consumer. This means that the Walmart experience in China will not be the same as one would expect in North America or Europe. Their slogan “Everyday Low Prices” was not effective in attracting Chinese consumers used to rock bottom prices (with quality to match), so the quality and prices went even lower; while Walmart’s success in China has been limited, they have managed to survive.

For expats who prefer quality at fair prices at the higher end of the consumer market, the retail experience can causes sticker shock. Products like high-end electronics or high quality bed and bath linen fall into the luxury category of Chinese government taxation, which applies a 20% luxury tax on all imported luxury products. The ironic aspect of purchasing many of these products in China is that they were manufactured in China, exported abroad, then imported back to China at a 20% premium and then sold to the wealthy Chinese consumers that have the quality preference not satisfied by normal local retailers.

Many of these consumers tend to travel to Hong Kong, Singapore, or Europe to purchase luxury items as the savings often outweigh the cost of the flight. There are even those who have made a business out of travelling for this specific purpose and then retailing foreign luxury items on local Chinese online retail sites by splitting the savings for a profit.

So for those shoppers who tend to enjoy shopping, expect to move to category two when you move to China, for those that are in category two (you hate shopping with a passion!) can expect to find the retail experience in China infuriating at the very best.

The most dangerous aspect of culture shock is that people rarely see it coming. In its purest form, culture shock is an accumulation of straws on an expat’s back. Day in and day out, the frustrations of living in a culture where all but a select set of western brand names or words are in English begin to add up from day one.  Reading a product’s specifications, an item of clothing or linen’s washing instructions, any instruction manual, the names of the buttons on your washing machine or dishwasher is all but impossible for foreigners in China, even after studying Chinese for months.

The best defence against culture shock and the danger it poses to your relocation abroad is to be aware that it is there, even if you don’t feel it. Taking steps to provide for the basics for you and your family is a good start.

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Moving Overseas as an Expat