Carrefour Brings Order to Check-out Line Chaos

I was happy when the Zhongshan Park Carrefour opened. It’s right by my apartment, and while it may not have the cheapest prices in town, it has a nice mix of local goods and imported stuff. Not long after the opening, though, I noticed that anytime I went to Carrefour–mainly weeknights right after work, or on weekends–was exactly the same time that everyone else went to Carrefour. The checkout lines were horrific, stretching back into the aisles of food. And this is even with two floors of checkout lines, all registers staffed.

Anyway, it wasn’t surprising that under these circumstances, the “5 items or less” signs were being completely ignored. This was especially frustrating for me, because I frequently only wanted two or three things. No luck. I wasn’t going to get a break in that chaos. I wondered how long it would be before they simply gave up the whole “5 items or less” line idea.

Carrefour didn’t give up, though. It has come up with a clever solution to the problem: a metal barrier and a “basket check-out” sign.

Carrefour "Basket Only" Checkout Lines

Smart. I like.


John Pasden

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


  1. now all you need is to buy a car and drive to carrefour so you can buy a week’s worth of groceries in one go. you know it’s gonna happen, it’s the new Chinese way!

    seriously, why not buy your ‘local’ necessities at your local wet/street market? every community has one and the food is cheaper and fresher than the supermarkets. it’s the same way here in HK.

  2. I like the idea, too. I figure it won’t be too long, though, before people figure a way around it (carrying a few empty hand baskets in their carts, transferring the stuff before the checkout, and then chucking the cart, perhaps).


    It is my impression, having lived in a couple different mainland cities before Shanghai, that Shanghai’s local markets suck a bit more than those in other cities, or at least compared to the big supermarkets they do. We still buy almost all of our fruits and vegetables at the local market, but pretty much everything else we get at Carrefour. It’s cleaner, fresher, and in many cases either exactly the same price or cheaper (a lot of the smaller places buy their stuff from Carrefour or other supermarkets anyway).

  3. The only people who buy local necessities at Carrefour are the new middle class. You know, the young professionals with shopping carts full of fruits and veggies. The rest of the people shopping go for the fact that one trip to Carrefour can save you five or six trips to separate local stores for other things. Or for imported groceries that you can’t find at the 农工商 (though I’ll tell ya, the next-door 联华 and 华联s by our place at Century Park are getting better by the week).

    Oh, and mad props to Carrefour for inventing this. Once again, they show why they’re at the top of the Shanghai grocery store heap.

  4. Dezza, eeek! The Chinese might be victimized by the glam and novelty of the store but Dezza’s right – having a local market with all the goods next to your home in a walkable distance is so choice! Instead of packing up an obese SUV with 2 weeks of supplies (think big box stores like Costco), and driving 30 minutes to your $700,000 home in urban sprawl hell. Then having to face the problem: what to do with the 4 loaves of bread you just purchased in the super-saver pack. (Worst case scenario)

  5. what is it with the grocery stores? I open my RSS reader and there are two entries about grocery store experiences in the 老外 blogosphere!

    BWG is the other one: Thanks, Grandma!

  6. Such a creative solution.

  7. I like it when I see the Chinese being creative. Now, if they could only figure out a creative solution for the insanity I have to endure when I’m standing in unoragnized chaos to buy tickets or to get on a bus or a train etc etc.

    I have noticed that I have become a lot more aggressive since coming to China. I no longer let people cut their merry way in front of me. I now put my foot down and growl! 🙂

  8. “I have noticed that I have become a lot more aggressive since coming to China. I no longer let people cut their merry way in front of me. I now put my foot down and growl! :)”
    Yeah I am with you. We need some tough people like you to make the unwritten rules run better 🙂

  9. hey, there’s a KFC inside the Carrefore.

  10. I noticed that Lotus (at 正大) started doing this a few months ago and I’m glad that Carrefour is following suit.

  11. John-
    I’m sure you’ve figured this out after 6.7 years in China, but in case you haven’t, and for your readers sake, I always find the best time to do anything (shopping, bank, pay bills, etc.) is from 11:30 – 2. At this time the vast majority of China’s 1.3 billion residents are either eating lunch or sleeping…makes for a great time to do errands, if you want to skip the crowds. As for Carrefour, I’m not a big fan. They opened one here in Fuzhou with a lot of Hoopala. I’m not sure if the Carrefour here is exactly the same here as the one in Shanghai, but the Fuzhou Carefour isn’t too much different from a Chinese supermarket, except everything is more expensive, and the signs are prettier. Peronally, I’m a big fan of Metro. They have all kinds of international products that you can’t get at Carrefour (seriously, how the hell is it supposed to be spelled?) and Wal-Mart.

  12. Sorry to spoil the story, but Carrefour (or at least this Carrefour) did not invent the ‘baskets only’ line. My local supermarket in Holland (Digros in Leiden) has had such a line for I think about a year, and I can hardly believe they were the first, either.
    Still a good idea though. And in ‘my’ supermarket I’ve never seen anyone cheat the way John B describes. (People do overload their baskets, though, at least I do.) Of course, Shanghai might be different from Leiden in this respect 🙂

  13. Don’t build up your hopes. You will now find that the queue jumpers will compete to see who can put the most purchases in one basket. I know, because I already do this at our local supermarket. My record so far is 35.

  14. pharmine Says: May 5, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    I have mistakenly assumed, based on my limited travel experience, that 結帳 was completely replaced by 埋単, especially in the southern part of China. That seems to be wrong. Maybe 結帳 is a little more formal?

  15. pharmine. 埋単 is Cantonese. 結帳 is the Mandarin term… however, many PTH speakers have absorbed Cantonese 埋単 (close the bill / bury the bill) by Mandarizing it into 買單 (sell the bill) which is closer to the original Canto tone, but meaning wise, doesn’t make sense.

    However, Cantonese typically use this term when calling for he bill at restaurants.

    I’m not sure what a sign over a checkout counter would say in a Cantonese speaking store… quite frankly, i’ve never seen one. I would guess it would say 結帳???

    I’ve never been to a grocery store that had signs like that. Usually, it’s self explanatory, but I suppose at Carefour it’s a megaopolis of a food depot, so more signs are needed to keep order for the masses.

  16. BLOCKED OUT – Hahahahahaa good to see that the local folk of Shanghai aren’t much different than in my neck of the woods. I find Carrefour kinda like the Kmart of yesteryear, while I prefer Target or Da Run Fa (RT-mart).

    I, like Ben, typically limit my excursions to a weekday mid-morning, and or during the lunch snoozing hours. It makes for peaceful browsing.

    While I agree with most of the comments about patronizing local marts, unfortunately after awhile one also tires of the haggling, bugs in vegetables, smell and constant vigilance necessary.

    I would differ with Micah’s idea that it’s only the middle-class shopping there, I think it’s a significant cultural vote that so many ‘locals’ pack the big-marts, and often commodity items like tp, rice, laundry detergent, etc. are also bought there — simply because they are cheaper, of better quality and less likely to be fake. Our local box-mart provides free bus shuttles that are always packed.

    Here at these marts the vegetables and fruits are priced and sealed near the vegetable section rather than at the final checkout. There’s no metal barrier and it’s beneath me to block out those quick middle-aged ladies that cut in front of me. Well actually these days I do lift the elbow a bit. j/k

  17. Carrefour? Its for the peasants! The real middle classes are hob knobing it at Jusco.

  18. 樱弗丽娅 Says: May 8, 2007 at 2:59 am

    Wow, that’s a great idea. I wish they’d do that in the states so we don’t have people buying a week worth of groceries using self scan lanes (grrr…)

  19. […] with the shopping hoard that flows through its boundaries every day here in Shanghai. I mentioned a “basket-only line” idea a while back. I’m not sure when it disappeared, but it seems that idea is long gone. Lately I […]

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