You could make a fair argument for Hong Kong being a massive shopping center with some hills and people to add variety. You probably reach your local MTR station by walking through a shopping mall, if you spend much time in Central you’ll become a dab hand at navigating by retail emporia rather than compass points, and retailers like SOGO in Causeway Bay are city landmarks. That incredible riot of Chinese characters that crowd streets like Hennessy Road and Nathan Road? Selling, always selling.
It can be exhausting, but it’s also part of what makes Hong Kong such an amazing city. This place was built on commerce, and the buzz never stops. You can certainly get anything you want here, and you probably won’t have to look hard. However, the days of world-renowned bargains are over – you’ll have to head north across the border for the lowest prices, and even those are heading up. This is relative of course, and spending time at the various markets around the city to get your bearings will help you nab some great deals compared to most Western countries. You can also still get good deals on electronics and have suits made for you at nifty prices, but when it comes to luxury goods and other high-end merchandise you won’t really pay less in Hong Kong than elsewhere.
Not that that’s proving to be any impediment to the luxury business, which continues to boom. Global high-end fashion retailers have flagship stores here, and business is good. This is in part because the people of Hong Kong have a well-earned reputation for keeping up with trends, and it’s important to be seen with the latest LV bag – heaven forbid if you carrying last season’s. This holds true for electronics too, with the ever-crowded Apple Store and the booming market for second-hand phones that were new only months ago demonstrating that everyone’s got to have the latest gizmo.
The biggest reason though, and by now a key driver of the Hong Kong retail market, is the rise of the purchasing power of people on the Chinese mainland. Newly wealthy (or even just middle-class) Chinese visitors hit the shops with a vengeance, intent on spending on high-end clothes and bags, jewelry, luxury cosmetics and electronics (which are cheaper here than the mainland). In many cases, the things they buy have also crossed the border just before them, but that’s simply the way of the world. Less happily, there’s also a booming market for baby food, milk powder and the like, due to justified suspicion of the mainland food chain in the wake of scandals in recent years. It’s a reminder of how good Hong Kong still has it in many ways, despite the huge wealth being accumulated to the north. Local high-end department-store chain Lane Crawford, with four branches in the city, is a particular draw.
With cinemas and other entertainment options aplenty, particularly for people in parts of Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, the mall can be the first port of call for a night out. All big malls have high-end restaurants as well as food courts with a wide range of choices, and many are pleasant environments to rest your feet and refuel. They learned long ago in Hong Kong to spend money on a pleasant environment to keep the people coming back.
The culture of bargaining is still alive and well, but only in certain places. Malls, department stores, chains – anywhere high-end or standardized, and you simply pay whatever it says on the label. The same goes, of course, for grocery stores and the like. The fun starts when you hit the markets, whether you’re buying grapefruit, a hard drive or a new suit. The best approach is to think of it as exactly that: fun. Vendors can be aggressive and know all the sales tricks. Feel free to respond in turn with the walkaway, the feigned lack of interest, the focus on something different to the item you really covet. Never respond positively to time pressure – if you’re told something will be gone the next day, shrug and say that’s a pity. Decide what you’re willing to pay for something and go in at below half that price as a starting point – never go above your own valuation. When it comes to ‘antiques’, your starting point should be that everything is fake. Buy something because you like the way it looks, and assume materials are nothing special. A non-Asian face means prices instantly soar, but if you get to the point of being able to throw in a little Cantonese you may get a little respect as an old hand and get down to real business sooner.
It’s definitely caveat emptor once you’re working the markets, particularly when it comes to electronics. Most places are just trying to swap their products for your money in a mutually advantageous manner, and nobody’s going to hit you over the head and steal your wallet, but you should be extremely careful that you get exactly what you’re paying for, and if a deal seems to good to be true – it probably is. Scams include returning from the stock room with an inferior product, convincing you to trade up for the same price (you’re really trading down) and additional extras that turn out to be vital components. Feel free to walk away if something doesn’t smell right, but once money has changed hands you’re unlikely to be able to prove anything. For retailers, keep an eye out for the Quality Tourism Services (QTS) logo, which should mark out trustworthy places. If you think you’ve been ripped off, contact the Consumer Council (2929 2222).
In our listings we concentrate on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The New Territories of course have plenty of shopping too, and Shatin has a massive shopping mall (included in our listings), but given the wide range of commercial options we’ve concentrated on the main hubs. Even Lantau Island has an outlet mall – if you want at least a chance to escape the retail hubbub, you can always visit the Outlying Islands.