In our two weeks in China, I went to several markets and malls in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai. From what I could see, I divided them up in four categories, according to their audience and infrastructure.
a) The touristic markets
Every city we visited had dozens of stores with souvenirs and traditional Chinese artifacts. Each store was perfectly divided and while some of them were focused or specialized in certain types of items (silk, fans, or chopsticks), others sold a varied offer of products. They were all ordered to make people, especially foreigners, to enjoy the visit. However, not all the attendants were able to speak in English but it was easy to understand the quality of the products, or to agree a price using a calculator. In most of the cases, it was also possible to bargain to get a better deal. In these places, the buildings are made to remember traditional Chinese architecture. The advertisements are in both Chinese and Western characters. The most joyful experiences were in the Yu Yuan Market in Shanghai, the Paizi Hugong in Beijing (southwest to the Tiananmen square), and the places located in Zhuangyuanjing Street in Nanjing.
b) The local markets
Local residents mostly visit these places. In these spaces was hard to find English speakers and personally, it was difficult to know what to buy because many products were unknown. Roots as ginger, insects, unknown vegetables and fruits, as well as different types of meat could be found here. The architecture of these local markets was more based in functionality. Among all the places we found, one located in Shanghai was fabulous. We got in there looking for a quick lunch between the meetings and even though we could not find food to eat, several things were remarkable such as the living fishes as eel, lobsters or crabs.
For a shopping experience these places were almost as the Western version but with a small difference. The stores did not have walls or glass to divide them and it was difficult to understand, on a first impression, which part belonged to whom. They looked as a big department store (as the JCPennys or Macys), but actually each business had a different cashier and the products were more specialized. The outside architecture was entirely as any western mall, but inside the design resembled the way Chinese people used to buy. These malls were the Huayu Fashion Shopping Center in Beijing, and the Orient Shopping Center in Shanghai.
d) Luxury malls
I did not expect to find many of these malls in China. However, in every city I visited at least two of them. They were exactly as any other mall in a Western country. The names of many stores were written only in Western characters, and except for the advertisements of the toilets or the exits (which are in Chinese symbols), there is no other way to recognize where are these stores located. The looking is as any other mall in Europe, the United States or Latin America. It was very surprising to find that much quantity of some of the most expensive brands in the world.