Vanity versus Value in the Chinese Consumer Market

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? 

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6 Responses to Vanity versus Value in the Chinese Consumer Market

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I once accused the Chinese of having a “herd mentality” on this Blog and was roundly denounced for “orientalism” by another 老外 commenter. I accept his criticism but wonder how Chinese society will mature beyond this all encompassing value of “face”. And how long will it take? I think maybe several generations, at least. I tend to think that women are more sensible than men in this regard but one of my most practical female Chinese friends recently acquired a car. She said that she felt guilty at adding to Beijing pollution and it was silly really as her husband already had a car, nevertheless it was a “must have” for her to have her own vehicle.

  2. Joel says:

    When will Chinese “mature beyond this all encompassing value of “face””?

    When it is no longer such a socially valuable commodity. “Face” may be ethereal, but it has very pragmatic effects. I know “honour” in European societies a few hundred years ago isn’t the same, but when I read The Count of Monte Cristo, for example, I could see a lot of general parallels to maintaining one’s honour and name in society, to the point that ‘good’ people would commit suicide to preserve their family’s name and good standing.

    Part of the reason we feel we Westerners have “matured” beyond face (I agree that face has many negative aspects to it, but I don’t think we deserve credit for not needing it), is that we are individualistic in the extreme. We have the luxury of being able to make do without it, but that comes at the cost of relative relational isolation, and all the issues of true social and relational intimacy, which we tend to run from.

  3. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I can’t agree with you Joel. Yes, we Westerners have the luxury of being able to make do without mianzi but that is relatively recently. since society changed, after the Second World War. In my youth (I am aged over 60) women comitted suicide if they got pregnant outside of marriage, rather than bring shame to their family. Men comitted suicide rather than tell their family they were homosexual. Handicapped members of a family were “locked away” rather than bring shame to their family – even the British Royal family did this. You talk about a lack of intimacy in Western society but I would not know about that. I have been married for more than 40 years and my parents have been married for 68 years. My daughter has been married for 17 years and chooses not to have children. Of course I would prefer to have grandchildren but our individualistic Western society allows my daughter to fulfil her own needs rather than mine and that applies to everyone nowadays. I am so glad that a handicapped person can fulfil their potential, that a homosexual person does not have to lie to their family (or worse still, to their unsuspecting spouse), that unmarried mothers are supported in today’s society and their children accepted fully. You can keep your “face” – the Count of Monte Cristo was an upper class fool. Most people were just struggling to survive in his day, just as many are in today’s China. I wish them a mianzi free future!

  4. Joel says:

    Meryl — I’m confused about what part you disagree with. I’ll try and clarify what I said:

    – in the past Western societies have had something similar to (but not the same as) “face.” I’m not offering The Count of Monte Cristo as an example of something good, but a Western example of somewhat similar social dynamics. My implication is that Westerners would behave similarly to Chinese if living in a similar social context (where ‘face’ made a real difference), so while we can be thankful we aren’t constrained by face, we don’t necessarily deserve credit for “maturing” out of it — it’s more like we got historically lucky.

    – face has many bad aspects to it. I’d add that we Westerners typically have a very slanted view of face dynamics, only seeing the bad because it’s so often abused. I personally don’t like face, but I also realize that it can have good aspects to it.

    – Western individualism, in it’s more pronounced forms, has negative consequences.

    I’m not setting this up as a cultural comparison/competition thing: “yeah face is bad but so is individualism.” I’m not really interested in who’s culture is worse, though I personally prefer my Western individualistic heritage (but I’ve done specific intentional things to have more meaningful relationships in light of my heritage).

    I much prefer our Western individualism to “face” culture, but I don’t want to be simplistic and naive about Western individualism, because it is a mixed bag. Between our individualism and our technology, we as a culture are increasing isolated and consumeristic in our relationships. We have less meaningful, undistracted face time with people and more interaction at a distance, mediated through technology and entertainment. This isn’t a new or novel idea. You brought up the example of marriage, which I think aids my point: compare the percentage of long-term marriages now to those in your youth. Westerners increasingly suck at relationships.

    I don’t quite understand your reply; you came off a little strong and brought in politically loaded stuff like homosexuality. Have you been reading too much American election news? 🙂

  5. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Hi Joel: Thank you for your comments. I guess I should leave the critique of Chinese society to Murong Xuecun. He does it so powerfully, which my “participant observations” can never equal. I don’t live in North America but in Scotland, where I am well aware of society’s ills, as an ex social worker. In his book of the same name, Daniel Goleman defined “Emotional Intelligence” as the two moral stances of self-restraint and compassion. Just look at Hao Hao Report – Flight attendant attacked by Government Official, Toddler’s Karaoke Tantrum leads to Bloodbath – is this “face”? It’s certainly lack of self-restraint. And toddler Wang Yue did not receive much compassion when passersby ignored her (she’s not family (?)). So it’s what I would call lack of emotional intelligence which upsets me in any society but which seems to be writ large in China, due to “face”. Yes I see many examples of poor self restraint in my own society but I am not one of these old people who hark back to a golden age of long-term marriages. Too many people were trapped in poor relationships then and I observe young people communicating more honestly with their families and learning from their mistakes nowadays. Parents “parent” their children with more empathy than they did in my youth and beaurocracy is more kind too, at least here in Scotland. I have never heard of divorce cases where the parents fight for LACK of custody, except in China. So much for family closeness!
    BTW I have given up trying to understand the American election news – even my American sister does not understand it!!!

  6. Chopstik says:

    When i read this I was considering how Westerners may not look to buy the most expensive item they can find – but they (in this case, I speak mainly of Americans) will look to buy as much as they possibly can. “Ooooh, look, he has a 90″ screen television!” or “Ooooh, look at that new 5000 sq ft home that they bought for the two of them!” It is a similar form of face and equally amazing in its lack of depth of the people who practice it.

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