Hong Kong, a historically reputed shopping hub, has experienced an interesting twist in its relationship with its neighbor, Shenzhen, located in mainland China. Over the past few months, Hong Kongers are traveling north to Shenzhen to experience a wide range of inexpensive and novel consumer activities. Driven by economic and cultural factors, this trend marks a significant shift in consumer behavior in the region and suggests deeper integration between Hong Kong and mainland China.
The Rise of Reverse Shopping
Cross-border shopping is a hot topic on Chinese social media platform “Xiaohongshu” (Little Red Book), where users are mainly university students and young people working in Hong Kong with a mainland background. They post a wide variety of posts about their weekend trips to Shenzhen to dine and shop, and share tips on the city’s food and entertainment options.
At one point, there were also people on Xiaohongshu who provided errands. This involves collecting orders, going to Shenzhen to make unified purchases, and then transporting them back to Hong Kong’s MTR stations for distribution, charging HK$20 each time as an errand fee. This has now become a de facto industry, with milk tea, pastries, seafood, and even floor sweeping robots brought back from Shenzhen.
The reverse shopping trend is not just limited to the university student population in Hong Kong, but is gradually becoming a trend for all Hong Kong people. In Sam’s Club stores in Shenzhen, Cantonese is even heard more than Mandarin — a testament to the volume of Hong Kong residents seeking diverse products.
Kevin Ho, a 42-year-old designer working in Hong Kong, goes to Shenzhen about once every two weeks. He drives directly to Shenzhen and usually comes to Sam’s Club before returning to Hong Kong to buy some daily necessities.
What I like about coming to Sam’s Club is that Sam’s items are cheap and come in large quantities, which is perfect for us to shop as a whole family. Besides, there is no such warehouse supermarket in Hong Kong, so shopping here is actually a novel experience for me, ” said Kevin Ho.
Underpinning the Shopping Shift
The gradual removal of border barriers between Hong Kong and mainland China in the post-epidemic era is one of the key reasons for the reverse shopping spree.
The easing of post-pandemic border restrictions has been instrumental in catalysing this shopping wave. The resumption of regular travel and the elimination of the Customs Health Declaration Card, dubbed the ‘black code’, have greatly simplified cross-border movement. According to the latest statistics of the Hong Kong Immigration Department, on November 17, 2023, an impressive tally of 296,057 Hong Kong residents crossed into mainland China.
Cost disparities also play a role, with Shenzhen’s consumer goods pricing significantly lower than Hong Kong’s—evident in the comparison of beverage prices at popular tea shops. A drink at the Heytea offline store, which is a popular drink shop, costs about 19 RMB (HK$21) in Shenzhen, while a Heytea drink in Hong Kong costs about HK$36. Shenzhen’s affordable prices have naturally become a major attraction for Hong Kong people going north to spend money.
However, the shift has deeper roots. The mainland’s FMCG and retail sectors have experienced transformative growth, with big players such as Heytea, Guming and Naixue continuing to improve quality and service, and having a strong appeal to consumers through innovative marketing strategies, social media presence and youthful product positioning.
Conversely, Hong Kong’s longstanding consumer brands, though iconic, are grappling with consumer downgrading due to slow economic growth and a monopolistic market, stifling the emergence of disruptive new entrants.
More than a topic of economics
The transformation of Shenzhen into a retail haven for Hong Kong residents underscores the city’s escalating appeal and the deepening integration with Hong Kong. This ‘reverse shopping’ trend reflects a profound economic and social shift, as a new wave of consumer behavior emerges, spurred by the easing of border restrictions and the allure of lower prices and innovative products.
This shift is not just a matter of economics; it is a cultural embrace, a sign of an increasingly integrated Greater Bay Area where lifestyle and consumption patterns are blending, and mutual familiarity is growing. As the border becomes a mere checkpoint, the flow of goods, services, and people between Hong Kong and Shenzhen is painting a picture of shared prosperity and a redefined, interwoven future.
I am now renting a studio apartment in Shenzhen near Huanggang Port and the rent here is almost half the prices of the studio I chose in Hong Kong. So now I live in Shenzhen. If I have a class on that day, I get up early and go to Hong Kong for the class and then come back to Shenzhen on the same day,” said Yufeng Huang, a master student of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who rents a place in Shenzhen.