No pictures, please,” snaps the surly security guard as my seasoned Costco chaperone and I (a Costco virgin) hurry through the bulk store’s hallowed entrance hall in Shanghai. We hastily pull out our phones to join the throngs of fellow shoppers posing for photos with novelty-sized sacks of chips, nuts and popcorn, a year’s supply of toilet rolls, mammoth jars of hot sauce, kilo packets of cheese, and boxes of lobster rolls.
On my maiden voyage to China’s first brick-and-mortar Costco, an hour out into the Shanghai suburbs, it strikes me that I can’t even remember the last time I entered a physical grocery store in Shanghai, let alone the last time I traveled three-quarters of an hour to get to one. As one of life’s rare people who gets a genuine thrill from grocery shopping, treating it with the same attitude as others might a leisurely outing, looking for excuses to go daily and refusing to order online back home, that’s a big deal.
While shopping at wet markets and supermarkets still trumps online stores, like many people in this city, my phone is loaded with more online-only grocery delivery apps than I dreamed imaginable: hypermarket Yihaodian, expat focused grocery store Epermarket, farmers’ market Yimishiji. And that’s just scratching at the surface. There’s also Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Hema app, an online-offline hybrid that can deliver to city dwellers within 30 minutes.
As these apps all vie for my attention, I’ve replaced my guilty habit of randomly browsing shelves for end of day discounts with an arguably more dangerous and time consuming one: scrolling through apps and getting suckered in by limited time deals counting down in front of my face, all scarily tailored to my exact shopping preferences. Who am I to say no to five kilos of discounted washing detergent, especially when it can be delivered to my door the same day? And, of course, I need a couple of cases of cheap imported red wine (headaches, guaranteed).
Perhaps it’s not surprising to make such a change in China, a country famed for its online shopping habits and home to the world’s largest online shopping holiday – Alibaba’s annual frenzy, Singles’ Day. Like Black Friday or Cyber Monday, only bigger than both combined, this year the holiday smashed its world record again bringing in US$38 billion. Also known as 11.11, held annually on November 11, the holiday actually started out as a celebration of singledom, thought up by some Chinese college students in the 1990s. But today it’s another shopping trap for bargain hunters.
The hype is pretty much unavoidable. For weeks leading up to it, promotions pop up everywhere: from where it all began on Alibaba-owned online shopping platform Taobao and its competitor JD.com to all the online grocery apps, take-out apps and beyond. It even sneaks its way into my personal WeChat feed (China’s biggest social media platform), which is inundated with promotions from official accounts I follow touting Double 11 discounts on everything from gym memberships to dinners. And 24 hours later, in the aftermath of it all, come a series of 11.11 anecdotes recounted by remorseful shoppers resurfacing from a frenzied shopping haze – one friend confesses they ordered 10 Victoria’s Secret bras, none of which were her size, just because “11.11!”
But as we mooch around the Costco warehouse, chucking things into the shopping cart that I’ll ultimately return to their shelves when I’ve had time to think and realize the error of my ways, it feels nice not having everything already cherry-picked for me, flashing in front of my face, and bought with the tap of a finger. While there are a few purchases that I’ll buy and regret (yes, I’m looking at you 2.5 liter vat of coconut oil that was a bargain just too great to resist), somehow the experience seems more thoughtful. At least in part due to the knowledge that I somehow have to get all this stuff home by myself. Plus, there’s the extra bonus of free food samples.
After all the hype that surrounded Costco’s opening (it was forced to close eight hours early on its first day as hordes of eager customers flooded in and wrestled over designer handbags, fresh beef and Moutai liquor), pundits are out on whether the fervor will last now all the opening sales are over – especially in the context of other foreign supermarkets such as Carrefour and Tesco struggling in the Chinese market. However, while my expert chaperone and I perch over our shopping carts eating sizeable slices of cheap Costco pizza, I consider myself fully initiated to the cult and I’m pretty psyched to go back to old-school bargain hunting. Just maybe not when I've got a longer shopping list.