I work in beverage sales in China, and I love my job. I go around to bars and cafes around the city and discuss wines and ciders with managements. One client the other day unexpectedly asked, “Which of your [beverages] is the fanciest-looking?”
I pointed to a tall bottle hand-wrapped in red tissue paper. It can comfortably fill 2-3 cups, and normally sells at 50 RMB (~$7) per bottle.
“I think we’ll up that to 70 RMB,” she thought aloud.
It sounded nuts. An average noodle bowl in Beijing costs about 18 RMB. I won’t buy a drink that’s more than 50 RMB, on principle. Most consumers agree; at a bar, the cheapest beer sells the fastest, regardless of quality (my advice: don’t go for the cheapest beer, especially in China. There is probably a reason it is that cheap, like they didn’t hire anyone to clean the draft machine. You will feel much more pleasant if you spend the extra $1 on a slightly nicer drink). So what was she thinking upping the price to a whopping 70 RMB?
“Chinese customers,” she said, “often come here and don’t know what beer to get. They just get the most expensive thing on the menu, because they think it’s better.”
The Chinese consumer of beverages may not have the most refined palate in the world, and it makes sense given that China opened the festivities to things other than baijiu and rice wine only forty years ago. You can’t expect Chinese consumers to have the same complex culture of beer drinking as in Belgium, or wine culture of Spain.
But why do they tend to go with the most expensive thing regardless? Why not ask which beverage is the best — what qualities they have?
The answer is [again and again] face. If a group of Chinese friends go to the bar together and one guy wants to treat everyone, he’s going right for the most expensive item. When I used to work at a high-end restaurant in Nanjing, we were trained to only bring the wine menu over when everyone at the table was seated, and to hand it to the most important-looking man. He would scrutinize the list, not ask many questions, and then inevitably point to a red wine. He would not necessarily order the most expensive one every time, but the point is, we were trained to only take drink orders when everyone at the table was watching.
The bar manager with whom I met the other day said that this was true with other things they sold. Being a niche outdoor-themed bar, they sell recreational equipment as well. She said that sometimes Chinese customers come in, point to items, and simply say, “How much?” This is the most common question. When she tells them a price (not a small price, mind you!), some may say, “Mine cost [x amount more]” or “I saw it for [x amount more elsewhere],” as if demanding to know what is wrong with their products.
Unlike other recreation stores, their goal is not pure profit so much as fostering a community of common interest. As such, the manager also asked if I could come in and give a talk on beverage qualities, open for anyone to attend. I like to think that these sorts of events can help increase an appreciation for quality in goods rather than just appearances, but it will take many such events over a long period of time to facilitate that change. In the meantime, we may continue to see people sitting in crippling traffic for the sake of owning a car, Chinese college students walk around campus with expensive hiking backpacks, and good-quality, moderately-priced drinks go unnoticed.
For more thoughts on consumerism and China, see last week’s post: Who’s more materialistic, the US or China?