If you want shopping options, Beijing has them. Capitalism is out in full force here, and the options range from a blanket on the sidewalk to a glittery new shopping mall. I have not yet exhausted the shopping options (pretty sure I’ll be able to live here for years and not do that), but here is a basic guide to some common types of stores and the goods you can find in them. I’m becoming more and more convinced that there are few things you can’t buy some form of here, IF you know where to look. For foreigners, that doesn’t mean that it will be the same as in your home country, that you’ll always have tons of options, or that it will be affordable. But you can probably find something.
There are lots of vendors who don’t actually have a store. These include people who set out a blanket filled with wares on a sidewalk, people selling fruit from the back of a truck or a horse drawn cart, shoe and/or bike repair carts, and snack carts. There are usually no posted prices and bargaining is almost always possible.
These are little neighborhood stores. My apartment complex has a whole set of little stores outside the gate (which is also outside a university campus gate). This is an art supplies and stationary store, but there are also little supermarkets, home goods stores, clothing stores, produce stores, a pharmacy, and restaurants. These are not expensive places, but the selection is limited. They are also often filled to the brim, so it can be helpful to know what you’re looking for and how to ask for it. They can hold amazing treasures, though. A couple of weeks ago, I found a hot glue gun at this store. I had just been thinking that a glue gun would be useful for making some Christmas ornaments, but wasn’t exactly sure where to find it. Then browsing this store, I saw one. I didn’t see any glue, so I did have to ask for that (“hot glue sticks” is not in my current vocabulary, so I think I asked for the “things that go inside this” with an appropriate hand gesture). He had the glue, but they were in a box under some other things, so he just pulled out how many sticks I wanted. I felt like I had found a hidden treasure!
Beijing has lots of markets. These are usually indoors with lots of little stands. Each stand has a separate owner. The wares vary some from market to market. Some markets have a specialty, like food items, flowers and plants or clothing. But many of them are generalists and hold all kinds of things you might want (or didn’t know you needed). The market in the photo is a clothing market close to my house. They have lots of clothing, shoes, and accessories, but they also have gift items, places to get your nails done, and a few craft supplies stands. Prices are usually not marked in markets and bargaining is often required. How much bargaining depends on the market—the ones that attract lots of tourists quote more inflated prices, so I haven’t been to those during this stint in Beijing. Markets can be fun places to explore, if you like a treasure hunt. They can also be crowded, frustrating, and exhausting.
This might look a little more familiar. Another common shopping option is supermarkets. These focus on food and household items, but most of them also have at least some basic clothes and toiletries. Some of them are Chinese companies and some are foreign companies (i.e. Wal-Mart, Carrefour). But even the foreign ones are catering to Chinese customers, so a Wal-Mart in China is different than a Wal-Mart in the U.S. Chinese supermarkets usually have an entire aisle each of instant (ramen) noodles, oil, soy sauce and vinegar, and rice. The cheese selection will be very limited (if available at all). The meat section is probably the most different. There is some already packaged meat, but most of it is sitting in the open, waiting for you to come and pick what you want (especially for chicken) or tell the butcher what you want. The cuts avilable are often different, too. It can be a bit overwhelming. But these are good, practical places to shop. Prices are marked and there’s no bargaining. You go through a checkout line and they scan the items and tell you how much you owe.
Then there are malls with lots of pretty things. These tend to be more upscale with more name brands. Prices are usually marked and bargaining is rare. I actually don’t usually shop in malls. I’m more likely to go to a mall for the restaurants or the supermarket that is often in the basement. But for window shopping for pretty things, malls are nice—and there are a lot of them in Beijing.
There are also stores the specialize in particular goods that are nicer that the little shops above, but are not necessarily super expensive. These might be roughly equivalent to a big-box store in the States like Best Buy or Walgreens (but not usually quite as large). There are a couple of chains of electronics stores where you can buy all kinds of home electronics such as TVs, cameras, hairdryers, refrigerators, etc. Prices are marked and there’s no bargaining. Another store in this category is Watsons. It is a British (I believe) drugstore. It would be along the lines of a Rite-Aid/Walgreens without the pharmacy and fewer home items. They have a wide selection of things like shampoo and make-up and face whitening masks (I have not bought any of those) and snacks. Imported Food Stores also fit into this category, although the atmosphere can be more like one of the small stores with lots of things jumbled into a rather small space. It is still amazing to me (based on previous experiences in China), there are these whole little stores full of things that have been imported. That includes American favorites like root beer and Doritos, but also European cheese and Australian spices alongside Korean and Japanese snacks.
And then there is online shopping. This was not really a thing yet when I left China six years ago. Today it is a HUGE business. November 11 (11/11) is “Singles Day” in China and functions equivalent to American Cyber Monday with crazy online sales. I have not fully delved into the internet world yet, since there is a lot to read and my reading skills are still a little basic for online shopping. But I have bought some things online, most notably my oven. Some of the sites allow you to pay cash on delivery, so you don’t need a Chinese credit or bank card. It is pretty nice to get things delivered to your door. If you want to browse the wide range of things available, Chinese Amazon has an English interface.
What I Haven’t Discovered Yet
I obviously don’t know what is in this category yet, but I’m sure there are great places to shop that I haven’t found yet. There are lots of things I’ve not needed to shop for yet, which leaves many things for me to discover!