Bulk pricing at last?

It seems hard to believe, but bulk pricing is hard to find in China. When I had only been in China for about a year, I would typically have conversations like this with supermarket clerks:

> Me: How much for one?

> Clerk: 5 rmb.

> Me: OK, how about if I buy this 6-pack?

> Clerk: (looking at me like I’m a little slow) 30 rmb.

> Me: OK, then this whole case of 24?

> Clerk: (wondering what’s wrong with me) 120 rmb. Like I said, 5 rmb each!

Coming from such a hugely capitalist nation, it confuses me when I’m not constantly being goaded into consuming more, more, more. But finally I got it: China just doesn’t do bulk pricing in supermarkets.

蒙牛 = Mongolian Cow

Mengniu Milk

Until recently! I saw this box of 蒙牛 (lit. “Mongolian Cow”) milk packets at the grocery store, and they were doing a special promotion: you buy the box of 8, and you get the one taped to the outside for free. Soon thereafter I began seeing this “buy 8 get 1 free” strategy everywhere (but only for milk).

But speaking of Mengniu, have you had this stuff? It is so good! I’m a milk drinker, so I can’t believe I lived in China so long before trying it. It’s so thick it puts American “whole milk” to shame. And then Mengniu chocolate milk… well, don’t even get me started. If you live in China and you drink 光明 (Bright), you’re totally missing out. (If you don’t want all that delicious milk fat, I guess maybe you want to be missing out, though…)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Did you just not go to the supermarket until recently? 🙂 The “free stuff taped to other things” marketing strategy has existed for as long as I’ve been here. The little yogurt cups I normally sold either 8+2 or 12+4, and juice is commonly sold with another smaller juice of a different flavor taped to it.

  2. Actually I’ve only been to the supermarket twice.

    OK, you’re right, there are a few other promotion types, mainly centered on juice and yogurt. The point is that they’re the exception, not the rule. You still just can’t buy most things in bulk for a discount. And I don’t remember them being around 5 years ago (but my memory sucks…).

  3. John,

    Oh yeah, the other thing is that Mengniu is actually packaged for bulk sale by the manufacturer rather than just being taped together by the supermarket with clear packing tape.

  4. So are these the same guys who shot Li Yuchun to fame?

  5. Well in WalMart in Kunming you can buy a six-pack of the Nescafe Coffee cans, but if you calculate the price it is 1 mao more than buying 6 cans separately. I queried this with shop assistants, and they told me “that’s for the extra packaging”. I was left wondering who was the denser participant in that conversation, me or the shop assistant?

  6. Mmmmm…. Mengniu. I’m not sure about other parts of China, but Mengniu is one of the biggest dairy brands in Xinjiang’s supermarkets. It’s good stuff.

  7. bulk sales could happen in the case when people have been having a habbit of weekly purchasing for ,but not limited,grocery.The Chinese have never been having this kind of life style before and even now.That might be the reason why you have had a hard time finding something crying to you “buy me ,buy me ,buy one get one free”
    Personally,guangmin is better for daily drink since its sterlization process keeps more nutritions and microorganisms ,which could be killed under a temperature higher than 121(C.). Mengniu adopts the high temperature sterlization and that makes mengniu easy to delivery while guangmin uses the low temperature way and that makes it never on shelf in the Northern China. LoL,if you love the thickness of mengniu,the good thing is you don’t have to carry some with you when you travel north.nowhere to get guangmin in Beijing although GUANGMIN extremely wanted to expand the market in the Norther CHina

  8. I’ve been buying stuff at bulk prices since I arrived in China 10 years ago!

    Not in supermarkets, but independent stores, markets etc. all do it! Everything from beer to toilet paper.

  9. Liuzhou Laowai,

    OK, maybe I shouldn’t have made it sound like it never existed before, but comparatively speaking, bulk pricing is nowhere near as widespread here as in the US (and the UK too, I would imagine). Haven’t you had similar conversations to the one I quoted above?

  10. Lantian Says: April 6, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    I guess you mean buying things in a ‘supermarket’ right? Because almost every negotiation on the street has offered me, well if you buy 5 instead of 1 it’ll be cheaper. Come to think of it though, I don’t see a lot of SUVs or really LARGE grocery carts. The phenomenon hit Japan a few years back though. Do we want to encourage this suburban-ization?! A daily walk to the supermarket is healthy!

  11. I drink Yi Li ( from Xinjiang ?) , Nestle and Meng Niu… but never drink Guangming. It’s interesting to see Marco compared that. I never knew. And I never really realize they’re different hahaha…But the bulk sell did exist long long time ago… if you go to Carrefour there are forever bulk sells on this item or that. I only wish more Chinese start to like baking.. cos then it’s convenient for me to buy ingredients from China.. instead of those imported ones. 🙂

  12. Lantian Says: April 6, 2006 at 9:59 pm


    That is the funniest retort ever. I am constantly amazed at the ability of Chinese people to think up of responses (non-sensical or not) at lightning speeds. It’s an aspiration of mine to be this nimble.

  13. Down here at the local Wal Mart, (Shenzhen) I routinely see staff breaking out the “special offer” tape for all sorts of things, not just yoghurt and milk. I’ve seen frozen jiaozi with an extra pack of tangyuan, packs of sandwich meat taped together, you name it. Granted, Wal Mart is an American company, and they do this in America a lot. Maybe that explains it.

  14. When bargaining, it’s very usual that they offer you cheaper prize with the condition of buying more. After your first offer (less than the prize that the seller has said) they use to ask: “for how many?”.

    I don’t think that bulk pricing doesn’t exist, just go to Wal-Mart and see.

  15. I’ve always understood it as an indication that unmarked prices are always negotiable, while marked prices are rarely negotiable. A larger quantity going for a cheaper unit price would seem to imply room for bargaining on a single item – and it’s not too uncommon in smaller, marked-price stores to find a bottle labelled “20% more, free!” priced 20% above the original-sized bottle next to it.

  16. I love that “for how many”. As if I’m going to buy 10 identical scarves or whatever. I might point out that another thing supermarkets don’t go in for, which is common most other places, is haggling over prices. Supermarkets blah, everything is more expensive but the service is worse.

    But yeah, it is a bit surprising when a shop offers individual items and bulk packaged items with no difference in price. But I guess that’s what those wholesale shops are for?

    Worth noting, perhaps, is that Orion chocolate pies come in boxes of 2, 6, or 12, discounted appropriately. As for toilet paper, which so many people buy in bulk, I’ve never calculated whether that is cheaper than individual rolls or not.

  17. zhwj and Todd get it. I was just at the Metro behind our house today and had to check twice to make sure I was correct in seeing two 500g bags of sugar being the same price as one 1kg bag of the same product. And that’s at a supermarket that is specifically selling stuff in bulk. Amazing. Also, Metro had the same Mengniu offer that John talks about. Must be a manufacturer thing, not specific to a store.

    Metro has the biggest blocks of mozarella I’ve seen in Shanghai.

  18. Marco, what you say surprises me, I’d been drinking Guangming all year long when I was in Beijing (and another brand starting with 三 whose name I forgot).

    The scariest promotion I ever saw was in Carrefour, and the pack was including a bottle of Xinjiang wine + a bottle of Coke. At first I thought it was a family pack, wine for the parents and Coke for the kid (how European of me to think so), and then I figured out how these products were meant to be used… I almost fell on a customer behind me when I stepped away out of disgust. Eww.

  19. Hui Mao Says: April 8, 2006 at 3:18 am


    Have you tasted Chinese wine? Trust me, it’s a good thing that they mix it with coke before drinking it.

  20. I would like to try some of this milk. Milk where I live only gets good when you travel miles to Wisconsin.

  21. Doesn’t that milk seem just a little weird to you. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated and can conceivably last forever. That’s not normal. I’m not certain that the oh so fatty flavor actually comes from fat, in fact I’m not even sure that it’s milk at all.

  22. Sometimes the full-size container costs more than twice as much as the half-size.

    If you want some amusement, go to Sam’s (山母) Club。

  23. John brings up a great point on this… I’ve always pondered that same thought to myself regarding bulk pricing, especially after shopping at one place I thought I would be able to find this… Metro. Metro is a warehouse membership store similar to a Price Club, Sam’s Club, CostCo in the U.S. Although they sold a ton of things in bulk quantities, just like in the warehouse stores in the states, the prices still weren’t much cheaper (per unit) than buying products in smaller quantities at other retailers such as Lianhua, Carrrefour, or Lotus… I’m thinking it might have something to with government regulations to stablize pricing for big store retailers in China, I don’t know that for a fact… but it seems reasonable.

  24. So where do you buy those Orion chocolate pies??

  25. […] Google Beijing has Mongolian milk – we usually get Beijing milk           What’s the big deal about Mongolian Milk? Read this. Netease recently took pictures of the Google office in Beijing’s Wudouko area, (across the street from my very local high rise Hutong). Looks a little like ourMSRA floors but definitely not our ATC space. Through careful scrutiny of the pictures I can conclude that they stock their pantry with the same liquids and snacks as we do but with more accessibility. The big difference it that they allow staff to get snacks off the shelf wereas we need to ask our Ayi’s (thats like old office tea ladies who act as mail/delivery/copy/fax/stationary/food custodians) to open the locked drawers so we can get cookies, crackers and ramen noodles. Neema and I have discussed this in the past of how office space determines or reflects free thought and creativity. An excellent book which used to be a required MS reading for PM is Peopleware. Your physical environment effects you more than you think. The simplicity of having privacy not only increases productivity but it also improves morale. Maybe being in China, where the sense of privacy and personal space is different than in the west means that our offices also need to be different. Maybe it could be that Chinese people tolerate more cramped spaces and more shared desk space  with their colleagues. Some Chinese families live in one room, why can’ t all of one danwei work in one cubicle area as well. It would be interesting to see how Chinese workers feel about Silicon Valley like open spaces like in the Googleplex vs. Redmond style corridors of offices.     Frank Yu UPDATE Here are Flickr Pix of the Beijing Complex   […]

  26. Sally Long Says: October 14, 2007 at 9:32 am

    ha, you like milk. Why don’t you try yogurt, Yili yogurt? That is good! You could try it, if you want!

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