Five ways Wal-mart in China is way different (and way more intense) than at home

Faced with errands for unrelated items – body lotion, slippers, yogurt – I decided that today I needed some one-stop shopping. Visiting individual shops and bargaining down the price of each item would take me an afternoon.

So where do you head for one-stop shopping in Kunming, China? Wal-mart, of course.

The “supercenter” was pointed out to me earlier in the week by a local who, when I asked him about a sign reading “Kundu Night Market,” told me that the Wal-mart was the new market, and that Kundu was now just bars and discos. “But watch out for pickpockets at Wal-mart,” he added.

I didn’t feel good about it (though I joked to myself about “shopping locally” — hey, everything was made in China, right?), but I knew I couldn’t handle running around town in the cold, bargaining for a bottle of inexpensive lotion and pair of $1.25 slippers.

What ensued was an overstimulating experience that was probably far worse than bargaining away a chilly afternoon. Following are five observations I made on the differences between Wal-mart in China and the U.S., though I’m sure there are many more.1. Food products. Of course the food is different; that’s a given. But it’s the piles of small fish (sardines? krill? I wish I knew) with blank eyes staring up at the ceiling, and sausages hanging in the open air next to what appears to be the leg of some four-legged animal that make me do a double-take. Nothing is packaged and there is a thick smell of raw meat and fish. It’s not at all like the sanitary, scent-free shopping experience of home.

2. Salespeople. It seemed as though there were nearly as many staff as there were shoppers. Employees reorganized clothing bins and swept the floor. But most present were the staff who hovered at every stack of shampoo or home appliance display, handing out samples, yelling out prices, and demonstrating the fabulous capabilities of vacuum cleaners. These folks almost gave the store a market feel: individuals hawking different goods. I wondered if they worked on commission.

3. The crowds. I’m a person who craves stimulation, and even I was over-stimulated to the point of biting my lip to keep from screaming. The crowds on a Wednesday afternoon at Wal-mart were worse than any day-after-Thanksgiving-Christmas-shopping rush imaginable. I felt like a football player dodging other players on the field as I shopped, occasionally getting rammed into. Standing in “line” at the registers took more patience than surely even Buddha had cultivated. Shoppers banged me in the back of my knees with their baskets, pressed against me, shoved in front of me, and made me sweat.

4. Personal body space. In China the concept of a “personal bubble” is considerably smaller than mine, and this lack of space seems to be translated into shopping areas. The aisles are narrow, and shelves are crammed with products. Even the ceilings in the three-story building were low, pushing the illusion of air to breathe into the minuses.

5. No shopping bags. I doubt it’s because Wal-mart is super eco-conscious, but I noticed right before it was finally my turn at the register that the tidy plastic-bagging system usually in place was absent; customers brought their own bags. I quickly snatched a bright red reusable bag for around $.50, which had Wal-mart’s name in bold letters printed across it.