There's no better way to get to know a place than to see how its people shop.
For an inexpensive, family-friendly, accessible, and extremely educational outing during your trip to East Asia, consider visiting the neighborhood supermarket near your hotel. Not only are you going to save money on everyday foods, water, and supplies compared to the hotel gift shop, you'll have the opportunity to immerse your kids in math and reading lessons, and do sociological field work!
While Walmart and Costco, the big French chain Carrefour, Lotte from South Korea, Hong Kong-based Wellcome, Hualien from Beijing, and Malaysia-based Parkson have been building big supercenter markets all over East Asia, most neighborhoods still feature smaller groceries, often within walking distance of your hotel. For a Westerner, these hometown markets feel like a trip back in time – before “warehouse” stores put traditional grocers out of business.
You will be surprised at how easy it is to shop – store layouts have the same departments, the shelving looks the same, many of the brands and products are familiar, and checkout counters work the same as at home. (Just count on using cash only.) They’ll bag your purchases for you, too.
It’s cheap fun – and a lot of fun – to walk the aisles. Discovering how products you use every day have been adapted for the local markets – different flavors, packaging, performance – teaches you what is important here. In the refrigerated section, notice how much yogurt and milk are promoted for good health – and that average folks didn’t drink milk ten or twenty years ago. Chocolate used to be a rare luxury, so notice how they package and position even the simple Hershey bar. The Tide laundry detergent you’ll find here proclaims different cleaning powers than the version you use back home!
Noticing the non-Western items is also fascinating! Aisles full of dried noodles, strange fruits and vegetables, and snacks you’ve never seen before. Fresh seafood, hot items at the deli, and even fresh baked goods will get your senses going. The frozen foods section will test your powers of deduction. (The ice cream is reasonably good, and the little cartons come with a tiny spoon.)
Like supermarkets back home used to do (when you were a kid, or perhaps during your parents’ time), here you’ll often find a section of the store devoted to household goods – cooking gear, cleaning gear, small appliances, towels and sheets, and even underwear… Stock up on snacks, beverages, and supplies for your downtime between tours or an impromptu picnic.
The neighborhood market will often sub-lease space to other businesses – not unusual, as you may well expect to see a floral shop, dry-cleaner, barber, and lottery desk at your store back home. In China, it can be even more interesting than that, like the “surplus military gear” shop at our local market in Beijing!
Back in North America, check out your city's own Asian markets for some of the same scents, flavors, and brands that you saw on your trip; while many goods have been too expensive to ship across the Pacific, you may be surprised at how much selection you can find...