Grocery shopping in China is probably not going to be as simple as what you’re used to back home. In the United States, I’d just go shopping at 1 grocery store, and find all I needed: meat, vegetables, fruit, packaged goods, frozen goods, canned goods, everything. In China, it is not so simple. As you’ll see, if money is not an issue, it can make your life a little easier, but with some good planning you can do your best to save time, money, and get the best quality food available.

First things first – Know how much groceries you can carry. In your home country, you may have been used to filling up your cart and loading the bags into your car’s trunk, but in when you grocery shop in China, you’ll either have to carry everything with you. If you’re doing a big shopping trip, I’d suggest taking a backpack with you to put the heaviest items (milk, cans, other liquids) in, so that it is easier on your arms.

Types of Grocery Stores in China (and strategies for shopping):

• Hypermarket (Megastore) – These massive stores have groceries, cleaning supplies, kitchen supplies, home goods, clothing, electronics, and even some sporting equipment. Most usually have an aisle or two of popular imported food items, usually cheaper than the strictly import grocery stores. Imports you can get at these stores include milk, pasta, sauce, tea, cookies/crisps, canned goods, and more. If you like breakfast cereal, they’re likely to have affordable locally made options. As I’ve discovered living near 2 different Carrefours in my time in Shanghai, not all import sections are created equal. If the Carrefour is in a more foreigner-heavy area, it’s much more likely to have a better-stocked import section.

For those of you who get frustrated or impatient easily, do not go to these stores at peak times (after work on weekdays). When I used to go after work, I’d know I made a bad decision as soon as I heard the saleswomen on microphones yelling about the yogurt they were selling (this really happens, no joke). At peak times, aisles become crowded with carts, and everyone is in a hurry and seemingly working together to create one of the most stressful atmospheres possible. Also, the stores may not be laid out logically, so go when it’s not crowded, take your time, and don’t rely on the salespeople for any constructive help on finding products.

Store Examples: Carrefour (家乐福), Walmart (沃尔玛), Tesco (乐购)

• Basic Local Grocery – These stores are smaller, and carry food, as well as cleaning/bathroom supplies. These types of stores will probably be within walking distance of your apartment, so they are convenient for buying fresh produce, meat and any impromptu dinner food. Explore the different local stores in your neighborhood. Some may have better vegetables, while others may have a wider selection of meat cuts.

Store Examples: Lianhua (联华), Hualian(华联), NGS (农工商), Jiadeli(家得利)

• High-End Local Grocery – I’m seeing more and more of these in Shanghai. These are Chinese owned groceries that definitely cater to a higher class of consumer than the basic grocery store. I’ve recently been buying my meat here, as the cuts are better, cleaner, yet also affordable. These stores will often have a bakery, deli, meat counter, as well as areas for imported cleaning supplies, wine, and health food. These will also definitely have more imported products that either the local grocery or the hypermarkets.

Store Examples in Shanghai: BLT (Jing’an), Ole (Xujiahui). Similar to this in Shanghai is the Japanese store Freshmart

• Wet Market – Wet markets are markets where everything is fresh and on display, including meat, fish, and vegetables. It’s kind of like the zoo, but not as depressing. You buy according to weight and everything comes unpackaged. Some people love wet markets, some don’t. For those adventurous shoppers wanting to use some Chinese,