Shopping is frustrating. It's like no one place ever has everything you need. Not even Avocado Lady. Things have gotten better in the last five years, with new high-end entries to the market and the rise and spread of Hema. Hail Alibaba. No matter where you go, though, you've got to be a savvy shopper, or your bill can easily rise into four figures. App ordering for groceries via Ele.me and Meituan means you could technically dodge the whole sordid affair, but sometimes a little aisle space and a butcher's counter is what you need
What We Did
We built an index. We like indexes. We picked out ten common staples and then went shopping. We picked stores by selecting for size and the variety of imported items they had, which excluded smaller places like Laura's or the other import bodegas. Then we averaged the prices, rounded up to the nearest decimal point, and built the charts. Red price if it's above the average, green price if it's below.
How We Shopped
We picked an assortment of staples, butter, cereal, eggs, beer. Not an exhaustive selection, but things that'd make up a cross-section of the average shopping cart. We went around to seven stores over the course of a week and tried to buy the same brands at each store. When that was not possible, we tried to buy a similar brand at a similar price.
What This Tells You
Short answer? No place is a crazy bargain or even crazy overpriced, at least for the staples. The range for stores that had all of the products on our list, and so could be compared apple to apple, was from 336.8 (City'super) to 300.7 (METRO), a 36.1rmb spread. 32.1rmb if you subtract the 4rmb metro ticket it takes to reach a METRO from downtown.
Hong Kong-based City'super has four locations around town and they are as lavish as supermarkets come. They have a sparkling seafood counter, a big selection of fresh meats including a counter for expensive, expensive beef, some wildly overpriced Manuka honey, a good selection of Japanese groceries, and high-end staples. It's where you come when you want to buy expensive Iberico ham and nicely packaged herbs and maybe some Royce chocolate from just outside. You could do a whole shop here but then you could do a lot of things... with 5,000rmb.
City Shop was the OG import grocery store before any of these others came into the market. Their signature item is the loss-leader rotisserie chicken (38rmb as of summer 2019) and their flagship store is probably the one in the basement of Shanghai Centre on Nanjing Xi Lu. They have a deli counter with meats and cheeses, and it's fine, though it has been shown up by the swisher grocery chains that have opened in the last five years or so.
Doing a full shop here requires a bit of savviness. Prices on some things here are eye-watering (cereal or imported ice cream) while others are actually quite a bargain (the freshly made laffa bread, great for wraps or dips at home). Forget the bakery; go to Baker & Spice just across the way instead.
Also notable, their fruit section. While on the pricey side, City Shop often gets in really good varietals of tropical fruit, from "ugly" bananas from Hainan to "xian shui" mangoes and even oddities like kiwiberries that are hard to find elsewhere. Also, avocados are cheap(er than other stores), though they only offer them in fours.
One gripe about City Shop: they only ever have 70% of what you came for. Their supply chain is capricious and unreliable. If you find something you like and want to cook with a lot, like, say, canned chipotle peppers, buy in bulk, because you never know if they'll be in stock on your next visit.
Ole is the supermarket brand from Vanguard, which has thousands of stores in Hong Kong (ultimately owned by huge conglomerate China Resources). In Shanghai, they have seven branches, mostly in fancy, high-end locations, where they target fancy, high-end people shopping for fancy, high-end imported food. It's all quite fancy. And high-end. They do have a decent butcher counter that will cut you thick steaks of expensive beef (American, once upon a time) for a special occasion, but this is probably not a place to do the weekly shop. It's on par with City'super, at least in the exclusivity vibe.
New arrival from Germany, ALDI, has two shops. There's one in Minhang, which we didn't go to, and the one we shopped at, on Jiangning Lu. It's small and has a limited selection compared to the other chains. We hear the one in Minhang is similar in size. The thing here is that most dry goods are Aldi's private label, meaning you've never heard of them and may have to take a blind shot on them. Still, prices are cheaper than most of the other import supermarkets, and the vacuum-packed beef brisket is a good deal. Eggs are cheap too!
Alibaba's food court/food market/bid for grocery domination Hema isn't a grocery store. It’s an experience. Not only is the selection exhaustive and the staff very friendly, but the conveyor belts rumbling by overhead are just cool to look at. You won’t hear many people say this, but once you figure out the self-checkout system, it’s actually really convenient.
That's if you end up going to store at all, which you may not — the app is just too good and too convenient, and delivery is usually within an hour, if you're within the 3km delivery range for fresh foods.
They are particularly good at live seafood at discount prices. It's the place to go for a live Boston or Canadian lobster, a pomfret and maybe a brown crab, plucked right out of the huge tanks. Otherwise, it's the everyday option for stocking up on fresh vegetables and fruits, and whatever dry groceries you might need.
One specific note: Hema is the best place in town to buy avocados, as they partner with Mr. Avocado (a brand from California's Mission Avocado) to make sure the avocados are ripened professionally before they hit the store. Sounds picky but you'll never get a half-ripe, brown-stained, fibrous avocado from Hema. You'll pay slightly more for the assurance, ranging from 10-15rmb depending on the size of the avocado.
Pudong's Deli Life is trying to be a combination of City'super and HEMA, with a fancy import supermarket grafted onto a food court. Or maybe the other way around. There's a Mammamia in here, plus many regional Chinese stalls. If you're in Pudong, this is probably a welcome addition to your weekly shopping routine, but for those of us in Puxi, it's not worth the trek. The variety of import foods is no better than City Shop and none of the individual stalls are that much of a draw in themselves. Still, if you're in need of some very expensive fruit and a chocolate bar, and you're near the Century Link mall, Deli Life would probably come in handy.
China's answer to Costco (until Costco arrived), German chain METRO doesn't have the nicest locations, but their distance from the downtown means that the warehouse spaces are absolutely massive. Vertigo-inducing shelves of pallets loom overhead while you're picking out 10-gallon drums of soy sauce. They also have the largest beer selection we've seen in China to date. This is where you shop when you need to do a dinner party for 20 teenagers and need chicken in party packs. Downside is that you have to sign up for a membership the first time you check out, but there’s no added cost, just a bit of irritation and some WeChat promotions. Prices are a few rmb under the average across the board, and it came out as the cheapest way to get your hands on our shopping list. Priciest goddamn avocados we saw, though.