Shopping in Shanghai is an experience in and of itself. In the past two decades, Chinese consumer culture has flourished, and Shanghai has answered the call. The markets are potent, bustling and interesting, the boutiques are edgy and innovative, and the gigantic new shopping malls glimmer. In fact, shopping seems to be the new favourite pastime in Shanghai. On any given Saturday, it feels like everyone in the city is browsing international flagship stores in a mall or haggling over trinkets in a market. Expats can find any practical items they need in Shanghai as well; it’s only a matter of knowing where to look. Outside of well-established stores, prices are cheap and often negotiable. Credit cards are accepted at big retailers and malls, but generally cash is still king. Refunds and returns are not as common as they are in the West, so be sure to inquire in each store before making a transaction. In the market, you’re generally stuck with anything that you buy.
Import duties on items classed as luxury goods by the government can be hefty. Cosmetics, for example, have a 50 percent import duty and luxury watches 30 percent. Many other items such as luxury clothing, liquor and bags are at least 20 percent more expensive. Nonetheless, the Shanghainese love imported luxury goods, and it is not uncommon to see women spending a month’s salary on shoes or a handbag, which in Shanghai’s consumer culture is a symbol of prestige.
Recently however, it has been reported that the government is set to reduce import duties on a range of luxury items due mostly to the fact that wealthy Chinese are spending as much overseas and in Hong Kong as they are at home on heavily taxed luxury goods. Chinese tourists spent nearly USD1 billion on duty-free items in France alone in 2011.
Furniture, old or new, in traditional Chinese styles can be an excellent bargain, even if you custom order. Shanghai is also known for its selection and low prices on silk and other fabrics, which can be fitted into a garment of your liking for a fraction of the cost at home. Jewelry can also be a bargain, particularly gold, jade, silver and freshwater pearls. However, haggling is key to actually get a great deal and it is critical that you know a lot about what you are buying.
Handmade leather goods are also exceptionally good value in Shanghai. Finding a boutique where you can choose from a variety of styles and the specific type of leather you want is not difficult, particularly in the French Concession.
All manner of consumer goods produced in China, as one might imagine, are a steal. Whether it’s toys for the kids, laptops, appliances, household goods, hardware or virtually anything you can think of, as long as it was made in China for the local market, the prices will be good. As for the quality, it’s probably best to judge for yourself on a case by case basis.
Bargaining is a fundamental part of shopping in the markets and on the streets of Shanghai. Merchants expect it and it is an exercise usually carried out in good humour. 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 Shanghai 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. Try offering an expression of shock, grabbing the calculator, and punching in a counter offer that is about 25% of the original price, and then working towards an agreeable number. Shanghai 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 humour, 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 jewellery 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.
Be prepared to be stared at and perhaps followed during your shopping experience, particularly on weekends and in markets. 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. Showing anger in these situations is rarely helpful.
Many Chinese like to touch foreign children out of curiosity. This is not threatening, but make sure that your children are aware of and prepared for this.
Violent crime is extremely rare in Shanghai, however pickpockets and bag-slashers are common in some shopping areas so keep your valuables safely stowed.
Learn basic greetings and numbers in Chinese. Locals will really appreciate it and it will help you get a better deal.
Quite a lot of China’s products are not what they seem, not surprising as ninety percent of the world’s counter- feit goods originate here. If you don’t have any moral qualms about it, fake items may be good value. Some of the watches work just fine, Louis Vuitton handbags can be convincing, and many expats amass impressive collections of RMB7 DVDs. Baseball hats are a safe buy and golf clubs are said to be passable and even good in some cases. However, avoid buying fake electronic goods or medicines for obvious reasons.
As opposed to regular Shanghai bargaining, where you try for around one-third of the starting price, aim for ten to twenty percent for fake goods. Also, most vendors trafficking in counterfeits only keep the low quality ones out front. Ask to see the ‘good fakes’ and the vendor will usher you though a hidden door into a back room where the good stuff is unveiled. Expect the prices to be about double that of what’s out front.