Hong Kong is Asia's shopping paradise, a seaside port whose history revolves around international trade, and the economic gateway to Mainland. Naturally, this makes Hong Kong the economic gateway to the rest of the world for Mainlanders. Many foreigners come to China expecting it to house their favorite products at half the price (considering the majority are made here), but sadly, my naïve friend, that's not the way it works.
Every place in the world has their own specialties that are cheaper, like massages in China, tech support in India, or cover bands in the Philippines. Then there are countries that subsidize to attain cheap prices, like Venezuela's USD 0.06 per gallon of gas. This does not mean that Filipino pineapples will remain cheap once they get to your suburban supermarket, nor will anything exported to Alaska for that matter.
So here is a list of products that are cheaper to buy in HK, or sometimes completely unavailable in the Mainland, for you to consider the next time you are making a visa run, or you're just in the area and want to make the most of your trip....
Food & snacks
Western snack brands, especially those made by specific multinational corporations that have manufacturing operations in HK, are much cheaper than Mainland China. Furthermore, they sometimes have a formula or process that results in a product with a flavor more similar to the original than their Mainland cousins.
Doritos are made by Frito-Lay, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, and consequently, many of Frito-Lay's many, many other products are cheaper to procure in HK, like Cheetos (RMB 15) and Sun Chips (RMB 15.80), and in the case of Lays, offer more of the flavors you're accustomed to.
Miracle Whip is of course the superior faux-mayonnaise brand. It's sold at RMB 62 for 443 ml (15 oz) in City Shop or whatever your local international food store is on the Mainland, versus HKD 28.90 (22.8 RMB) for the same size jar at Hong Kong's Park n' Shop—that's roughly a RMB 39 difference in price. If you really love mayonnaise, you can get double the amount for only ~RMB 10 more, and if you don't, then there's always Nutella or Vegemite.
There's also the various products from Cadbury, Nabisco, Chips Ahoy, Oreo and many other brands operated by Mondelēz International, the snack food division of Kraft Foods, plus offerings from companies like Australian biscuit company Arnott, which is owned by Campbell's, Nestlé and a few others that seem to make 99% of every product known to man. Because of the lack of sales tax, and through the power of globalism, your favorite candy bars are consequently abundant and affordable. Also keep in mind the power of Taobao. If you can navigate its treacherous halls, you can often find some of these very same products for quite cheap. It's where I buy my Dr Pepper for RMB 6.50 a can.
Beer & wine
The major factor behind the ubiquitous nature of cheap alcohol in Hong Kong is the fact that they abolished their beer and wine tax in 2008, making it an incredibly attractive market for beer manufacturers, as well as the wineries of the world, old and new. The result of this bold plan to make HK an economic trading center for beer and wine is reflected in the prices of many of the world's most prevalent beer brands, with most of those available in both regions carrying a lower price tag in HK.
For even more savings, the 640 ml bottles of Guinness, which aren't even sold in Mainland China, can be had for RMB 15.75. Another popular brand, Hoegaarden, is RMB 13.06 in HK, compared to RMB 17.60 at your nearest City Shop. However, if you're like me and just want to try something completely new, there's also a large number of new beers entering the market, such as the Danish extra strong beer called Bear Beer.
Now I'm not advocating you use the entirety of your 15 kg of allowed of luggage on Spring Airlines for Danish rocket fuel. The best plan is to simply head to a 7-Eleven with 2-for-1 deals and try a new beer (or three) while wandering your way to the harbor; and bonus points if you're on HK Island and manage to attract scornful looks from men in 2,000-dollar suits.
The lack of sales tax is the key reason why the majority of the major mid-tier fashion brands have become so successful in HK, with multiple locations throughout, as well as factory outlet stores with even cheaper prices. Sometimes you'll find a particularly good deal, like two shirts for HKD 100, otherwise you might simply find it at the same price in China.
However, with the favorable RMB-to-HKD exchange rate, that HKD 100 shirt only costs you RMB 79, making HK one of the best places to update your wardrobe. And given how international HK is, the styles, variety and sizes are often more diverse than in the Mainland. The best seasons to shop are the end of December until mid-February for winter sales and July-August for summer sales.
Here are the major brands, their store locators, and my personal pick for their best location.
Zara: Elements Mall connected to Kowloon Station, because it's generally less crowded and has a large selection.
H&M: The branch located in Central (Queens Road Central) on Hong Kong Island is the biggest, but will be replace at the end of the year by a Zara because the lease is ending and the rent is going up to 1.1 million Euros a month.
G2000: Hunghom has a factory outlet store, as well as City Gate Mall in Tung Chung.
Bossini: Mongkok has a very large branch with the top floor housing older styles for discounted prices.
Giordano: Tung Chung, in City Gate Mall. There are several other brands (Armani Exchange, Adidas, Coach, Escada, Esprit, Guess, Levi's, Nike, Ralph Lauren, etc.) with outlet stores here, so it's a good place to check out.
Esprit: Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui has a massive outlet store with cheaper deals. Mongkok (Nathan Road) has one as well.
Mango: iSquare on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui houses a popular and convenient branch.
Cotton On: Granville Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.
One stroll around Chungking Mansions will tell you that HK is a multicultural place, with its demographics being made up of Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Nigerians and many other African countries represented. Within Chungking Mansions there are many sit-down restaurants as well as food stalls serving Indian and Pakistani food, with curries with chapatti for as little as HKD 25 (RMB 19.8), a far cry from the RMB 70 curries you find at top-tier Indian restaurants like Kebabs on the Grille in Shanghai. Good and cheap curry just doesn't exist in China yet. Then again, outside of HK, Thailand and of course India, it doesn't exist in many places.
And if eating out at Indian restaurants isn't affordable, you can always take advantage of the many shops in Chungking that sell Indian spices. It's one of the best places in Asia to get everything from turmeric, garam masala, methi leaves to roti flour, ghee (clarified butter), Kingfisher Beer, Shan mixed spice packs and dried chili peppers straight from India. A lot of these are quite difficult to find in China, and if you do manage to track them down, they are considerably more expensive. If cooking Indian food is as daunting of a task as it should be, then you can always buy the Indian version of frozen dinners, minus the frozen part.
And given the sheer number of Filipinos in HK, the shopping arcade World-Wide Plaza in Central (Exit D1), a "Little Manila" if you will, represents the Philippines, with many stores stocking familiar Filipino products, including the best instant noodles I've ever had, Chilimansi flavored Pancit Canton.
It's also the best place to go if walking around HK doesn't already make you feel like a giant, with mostly Filipino women perusing the selection of lechon and other Filipino staples, laundry services, domestic helper agencies and the Filipino favorite—Western Union—for sending money back to their family. Furthermore, because there's also a large amount of other SE Asian countries represented in HK, you can find areas with shops and restaurants that cater to them as well, especially Indonesians and Thai.
Cosmetics & personal hygiene
Cosmetic brands such as Clinique, Neutrogena, Olay, L'Oreal, Bobby Brown, Shu Uemura, Maybelline, as well as any number of new and established perfumes are all significantly cheaper than in Mainland. Let's take for example the not-at-all false advertising Clinique Dramatically Different Moisture Gel and Mac foundation, two very popular products.
That's a staggering RMB 112 and RMB 148 more expensive in the Sephora stores located around China. Along with the sheer number of Sasa locations around HK, the lack of sales tax affords them the ability to offer cheaper prices than everywhere but the US. If you were planning a bulk moisturizer heist, then the Clinique cream is only RMB 153 on Sasa's American site. Sasa is the place that most wives of your co-workers and friends will ask you to stop and pick them up something. They also have a large variety of deodorants, hair gels, facial scrubs and the ever-elusive tampon.
Books are an expensive commodity in China. Other than what you can find on Amazon.com.cn, there aren't a lot of options for used English books. Given HK's penchant for English and general Western influence, there are a handful of used book shops. My first recommendation is located at 112 Castle Peak Rd, Sham Shui Po, and requires a bit of digging for the occasional rare find, like HKD 50 for The Stand. It's the cheaper of my two recommendations, but it's a bit of a crap shoot.
The other option is The Book Attic, located in Central on 2 Elgin Street. This place is very well maintained, with books categorized by genre and a decently-sized sci-fi/fantasy section. If you finish a book you get from there, return it and receive 15% of the cost to put towards another book you've been meaning to read.
Electronics is a major one, especially considering the initial high prices. If you're looking to build a beast of a PC, buying all of the components yourself and putting it together is always the best way to go. If you can put together Lego, you can build a PC. Check out reddit.com/r/buildapc if you want to learn more on that front.
That said, taking the time to buy all of your components (RAM, hard drive, CPU, motherboard, etc.) in HK and you can save even more money than buying a pre-built computer, sometimes more than USD 300. Let's take for example the premiere video editing CPU, the i7 3770k:
That is a significant difference, and the price used to be much higher in China a year ago. The Mainland price comes from newegg.com.cn; JD.com is a bit more expensive. The HK price can be further bargained down if you are buying multiple different components. That said, if you're planning a trip to somewhere in the US near a Microcenter, you can get the same thing for RMB 1,412.51. However, basic computer accessories like mice, headphones, keyboards, etc., can be found for the same price or sometimes cheaper than HK. The Reddit-approved Gigabyte M6880 gaming mouse was listed as RMB 88, but sold on JD.com at RMB 49.
Just a quick tip, if you'd like to compare the prices of electronics in China online then you should check out Huihui.cn. Then when you discover the cheapest price, do a quick comparison with the price in the US at Newegg (Price.com.hk or Jumbo Computer if you're desperate), but the price should be around the same as the US, and sometimes cheaper; just make sure to bargain hard. Head to Sham Shui Po and go out exit D2 in order to find the Golden Computer Arcade electronics market, which has everything you will need.
The other major electronics products that are significantly cheaper in HK are Apple products. Instead of simply marking up the price of the 13" Macbook Pro by 10%, they decided to raise it to the ever-auspicious price tag of RMB 8,888, a poorly veiled attempt to attract even more illogical purchases than usual.
Now that you have a suitcase chock full of obscure beers, a new wardrobe, enough cosmetics to win Miss Korea, a brand new computer, sacks of curry and an abundance of snack food to ensure you won't fit into any of your new clothes, it's time to head home. If you aren't making a trip to Hong Kong anytime soon then I suggest you start learning how to use Taobao. It's about damn time.