Grocery Shopping in China

Grocery shopping, that weekly mundane task many of us dread…becomes so much more exciting if you move to a foreign country! Not only do you have trouble reading and understanding the words on the products, but the currency is different than what you are used to and you are not sure if 90 RMB is a reasonable price to pay for a lifetime supply of what you think hope is peanut oil. Turns out that quantity will only get you through about 2 months (3 at best), and the price is not too bad when you factor in the 6.4:1 exchange rate.

After trying out about 7 different grocery stores I ended up with my two favorites, both of which provide a distinctly unique shopping experience depending on what I need to purchase that week. The French based supermarket (Auchan), might as well be a Chinese grocery store as they have done such a good job catering to Chinese peoples wants/needs that it is regularly PACKED with people either for grocery shopping, exercise, or a meal in their restaurant area. The German based supermarket (Metro), on the other hand, tends to have a larger assortment of imported foods (cereal, canned vegetables, cheese/dairy products, non-Chinese cooking spices) as well as a decent selection of local products.

Before going to the grocery store I like to make a list of all the items we need so I don’t forget anything. Unlike my normal grocery lists in the U.S. (written out on paper in English), my new grocery list looks something like the following stored on my phone:

Grocery List
Exhibit A: Grocery list.

This is the only way I feel confident I can win the “matching characters” game, as I currently only know ~355 of them and many do not have to do with household products yet.

So, how does one select the appropriate product if you did not come prepared with a list? There are many mobile apps you can use for this. Google translate has an excellent photo recognition option which allows you to translate any section of an image it can detect, though in China all things google tend to be blocked, so this is not always the best option. I have picked up Pleco as my favorite mobile app dictionary for words and phrases. It cannot translate full sentences like google translate or iTranslate, but when grocery shopping, full sentences are usually not necessary. I’m told it also has a photo recognition add on you can purchase, but I have never tried this…and besides, I like to practice my drawing writing.

Chicken Powder
I really like the writing add-on in Pleco. If I see a character but do not know what it means, I can draw it and have the program decipher it for me (even if the drawing is really bad)! Side note: I had no idea what that was when I was requested to buy it the first time.
Exhibit B: No English to work with. It is amazing how consistent some packaging is though (aka light pastel colors for fabric softener and sometimes laundry).
Exhibit C: Picture cues can be very helpful. It would seem you use this to clean dishes (as opposed to your toilet for example), even though the only thing I can read on the label is “White Cat,” “tall,” “go,” and “a lot.”

Outside the essentials, one never knows what items or fashions they might encounter…

Don’t worry everyone, the overall is still alive and well somewhere in the world!
Disney (particularly Mickey & Minnie) are used frequently on product packaging…which you can do when you don’t bother paying any licensing fees. (Nothing to support this accusation, just an assumption)
Delicious pork floss?
One must always be vigilant in a Chinese grocery store as not only can you buy your groceries here, but is is commonplace to test out the fitness equipment and get more exercise in while you shop. It is even more terrifying walking through the sports store in this mall as all the little children are swinging rackets around as though they have the whole store to themselves. I have had many a near miss in that store.

NOT PICTURED ABOVE: the place on the cart where I had to put in a coin to release the cart from the row it was connected to. One time, when two of the three rows of carts were locked up and could not be released by a coin I had to push my way through a gathering crowd of people and run at the next available cart lest I stand there waiting all day. I had been waiting a minute or two while the people ahead of me got their carts, but the people who showed up after me had the gall to look angry when I squeezed ahead of them into the row of carts after I determined it was “my turn.” Moral of this story: if you are polite and afraid to be assertive, you could end up standing outside a Chinese grocery store for hours waiting for “your turn” to get a cart.

What I like to call the “food sandbox.”


There is a very large display of individually packaged assorted snacks to try out as well.
Perhaps one of the best aspects of the more Chinese friendly grocery store is the plethora of Chinese learning materials for Children. I aspire to master the Chinese language proficiency of a child one day… 🙂
Which of the 110 grocery lines should I pick today?
Cart Escelator
Getting back to the car requires a series of escalator trips, so the carts had to be designed to lock into the grooves on the floor. They work quite well actually. Pretty clever.

I know many people who have become so overwhelmed with the in person shopping experience that they have gone to online shopping. The great thing about excess labor in China is that means deliveries are frequent and cheap and you can get all your shopping done without traveling anywhere. Though I was quite overwhelmed the first few weeks, I quickly discovered that going first thing in the morning on a weekend meant visiting a much less crowded store. As such, I am no longer stressed out when grocery shopping. I may still explore the online shopping option for a few choice foods, because no matter how many stores I go to, I have still not found english muffins!

The other grocery store I frequent is far less crowded any time of day, and if you go earlier in the morning, you can basically have the whole store to yourself. You may pay slightly more for certain items, and it is a longer drive from our apartment, but if crowds are not your thing this is a very good option.

The housewares section.
Only 6 checkout lines, of which usually only 3 are ever open.
You get more of a feel of a western grocery store here.
Wine Glass.jpg
The frequent shopper rewards program. This exists at both stores I frequent. For every multiple of X you spend on groceries you get a sticker. You can then collect stickers and get massive discounts on the selected item(s) being offered at that time. The mos recent one we actually participated in was for crystal wine glasses since the ones we got at IKEA were cheap and tiny.
As you can see, the shopping cart items I come away with from each store are QUITE different minus the milk (we always seem to run out).

At the end of the day we have been able to find almost anything we could want (minus the english muffins) as long as we are willing to pay for it. This is part of the reason we decided to live in Suzhou instead of Zhangjiagang: we knew it to be a more expat & western friendly area, so when desperation strikes, I can still have some cheese.

3 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping in China

  1. Oh my…. This is quite an experience… I LOVE your stories… and hope you get enough to eat!! It’s a good thing you are young and energetic and know a little of the language. The pictures are wonderful also. I hope you find your English muffins soon. Do they have bakeries? Maybe they would have them there. Your wonderful Mom brought me back to Ludington… so we came from 84 degrees to 50 degrees… quite a difference. Can’t wait to see you ….Love, G’ma Lou


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