Understanding the Chinese consumer culture

by hexacoto

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Photo credits to South China Morning Post

Ikea bends over backwards to accommodate Chinese keener on sleeping than shopping, but sees unprecedented growth

Shoppers sleeping on display beds; couples taking “selfies” in the showrooms; thermos flasks of drinks and plastic bags containing food sit on the display kitchen tables, with shoppers actually eating and drinking off of them — these sorts of behaviour would be unthinkable anywhere else, but in China, they seem to be the norm.

And it is not as if the store actively encouraged it. In the article, store staff Jason Zhang says that every day, he wakes up about a hundred of them.

Ikea was certainly not expecting such behaviour, and has certainly bent over backwards to accommodate these shoppers in hopes of chasing their yuan, and it has certainly worked — their turnover in 2012 exceed 6 billion yuan.

Understanding why they behave that way requires the understanding of two conflicting ideals: Being insensitive to criticism and the needs of others (having a thick skin), while being sensitive to scrutiny at the same time.

There is a certain lack of awareness of others among the Chinese; if the Japanese are overly-conscious about the considerations of everyone around them, then the Chinese would be the antithesis. Only by having a skin thick enough to brush off admonishments from their inconsiderate acts could they even behave they do in the first place. If the customers at China’s Ikea considered about other customers using the products in the future, they would be more careful with it. If they cared enough about not appearing to be uncouth, then they would not spit in public or be disruptive. If they cared enough about the people trying to get out of the trains, they would not be rushing headfirst as the train doors open.

As such, you have people doing whatever pleases them, oblivious to the disapproval of those around them.

According to Tom Doctoroff, an expert on Chinese consumer psychology and author of What Chinese Want, … going to Ikea may not be too dissimilar to visiting a theme park. Generally, Doctoroff explains, Chinese people tend to take a more recreational approach to consumption. “Shopping in China is far more about the experience itself than it is in the West,” he says.

Blindly charging ahead, in pursuit of their ‘experience.’

Doctoroff also says:

For Chinese consumers, products for domestic consumption are secondary to the more visible status offered by Western brands such as cars, watches or even Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Starbucks coffee.

This is a rather salient point about Chinese consumer culture: buying things is very much less for its utility than the perceived status it affords. Therefore, a brilliant sofa from Crate and Barrel would be inferior to a Gucci handbag, and people would rather tote around a Starbucks cup containing average coffee than a cup of fair-trade organic coffee.

What this means is that just as they brush off criticisms of their actions, they are at the same time sensitive to how people perceive their prestige, and the easiest way to obtain that is through acquisition of material goods. They are eager to be seen wearing their expensive clothing and bags, and eating, drinking and socialising at establishments that boast of an affluent lifestyle.

This obsession with flaunting status is not something new: traditionally, in restaurants, a Chinese host would often order more dishes than anyone at the table could finish, resulting in incredible wastage. This is so that the host can display his generosity and capability of affording such lavishness.

The Chinese equate goods that are expensive, and easily-recognised brands with social standing. One needs only to go to premium outlet malls such as Woodbury to witness the whimsy with which they buy bags and purses from Coach, or Prada, or Gucci. Of course, to afford these goods, they have to have a certain amount of wealth in the first place, and indeed the ones causing the most antagonism worldwide in their squabbling ways are those who can afford to leave the country to tour, travel, work and vacation.

For example: A teenager was caught defacing a 3,500 year old Egyptian temple, Thai message boards were abuzz with complaints of Chinese tourists being a nuisance in public and spitting, a French boutique hotel announcing that they would bar Chinese visitors — the burgeoning affluence of China has opened the doors to the world to its newly-rich, and the rest of the world feels it.

“That China is a lawless, poorly educated society with a lot of money is going to take its toll on the whole world,” said Hung Huang, a popular blogger and magazine publisher in Beijing.

Ms. Hung, the blogger, blames the Communist Party’s tumultuous rule for China’s uncivilized behavior abroad. “There’s an entire generation who learned you don’t pay attention to grooming or manners because that’s considered bourgeois,” she said. While Chinese are more open to Western ideas now, that has not necessarily sunk in when actually interacting with the outside world. “They think, ‘The hell with etiquette. As long as I have money, foreigners will bow to my cash.’ ”

Despite the bad rep, countries are still bending over backwards to accommodate the Chinese, for they represent revenue to be made. As reported in the New York Times, 83 million mainland Chinese spent $102 billion abroad — overtaking Americans and Germans — making them the world’s biggest tourism spenders, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Wedding companies in South Korea are trying to lure Chinese couples with bling-heavy ceremonies inspired by the viral music video “Gangnam Style.” A coastal county outside Sydney, Australia, is building a $450 million Chinese theme park centered on a full-size replica of the gates to the Forbidden City and a nine-story Buddhist temple. France, one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists already — 1.4 million visited in 2012 — is working to further bolster its appeal.

Parisian officials recently published a manual for the service industry that offers transliterated Mandarin phrases and cultural tips for better understanding Chinese desires, including this tidbit: “They are very picky about gastronomy and wine.”

Such pandering, however, encourages the poor behaviour of these Chinese tourists. Be it countries abroad, or Ikea in China, letting revenue permit the lack of social grace is as myopic as the Chinese who spit and litter wantonly on the streets: focusing on whatever is pleasing now and not having to worry about consequences or how it might affect others.

Perhaps shops should enforce orderliness, and firmly rebuke those who are disruptive, even if it might cost them some business. Perhaps greater social education should be emphasised upon in schools. Change will not happen overnight, and in fact, given the vastness of the country, China may not even see a betterment of its ungraceful problem for many generations, but leaving this wildfire rampant and unchecked is not a solution either.

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