China: Me-too inspired consumerism replaces Mao-inspired conformity

The Washington Post reports the story today, “Chinese Consumers Eager to Excel at the American Pastime”:

Long known for high saving rates, China’s middle-class consumers are starting to spend like their American counterparts. Of China’s 11.4 percent growth in the gross domestic product last year, the largest segment, 4.4 percent, was in consumer spending. That sector still represents just 38 percent of China’s overall GDP, roughly half the percentage in more developed countries, but in the eyes of retailers that means more opportunity….

Meanwhile, some Chinese consumers are also adopting the biggest vice of American consumers: debt. Mesmerized by a banquet of Western-style financial products, some Chinese consumers are juggling multiple credit cards, consumer loans and installment plans to buy an ever-increasing quantity of cars, washing machines and vacations.

So if you thought the global recession meant even a temporary hiatus in our pedal-to-the-metal race to planetary self-destruction, no worries — there’s a conspicuous consumer born every minute second microsecond.

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And what about the recent protestation from the Chinese Premier: Rich nations should ditch ‘unsustainable’ lifestyles … and stop buying all the crap we make? Just kidding!!

And why is “conspicuous consumerism” on the rise in China? Fu Hongchun, a business professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai, explains:

He said the trend is driven in part by competitiveness. “If one resident in a community buys a new TV, all residents in the same community will update their TVs,” Fu said.

Keeping up with the Chans? Can’t criticize them for that. And where there are conspicuous consumers, there are rabid retailers:

Nowhere is the buzz of activity greater than in China, where consumer spending hit $1.3 trillion last year. For American companies, China represents an alternate consumer universe where the slate is clean and marketers can rewrite the story of their brands.

Wrangler jeans, which in the United States are associated with cowboys and rodeos, are urban in China. A Wal-Mart opening is the social event of the year. Buicks are young and hip. And KFC and Pizza Hut are hot places for dates.

Coach, the upscale handbag brand, plans to add 50 shops in China within five years. Sports shoemaker Nike, which has 3,000 retail outlets in 300 Chinese cities, is expanding into smaller cities. And jeweler Tiffany recently opened stores in Chengdu, Tianjin, Shenyang and Qingdao, for a total of eight in mainland China, and hopes to continue opening four to five a year.

James E. Quinn, global president for New York-based Tiffany, said in an interview that Chinese customers are the “fastest-growing segment” of its business. “A lot of American customers have a complete wardrobe of jewelry, passed down from previous generations. That’s not the case in China. Chinese consumers are at the early stage of acquiring a sense of style and appreciation for design in jewelry.”

U.S. companies have been so successful in China because “Chinese consumers have a ‘look up to the rich’ attitude and the United States is the world’s top developed country in their eyes,” said Gao Tao, a consultant for the International Brand Association in Beijing.

Awesome. Perhaps they can buy our used Hummers (see “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of SUVs”).

Let’s end with the personal story that opens and close the article:

Decked out in a stylish black suit and knee-high boots, Wang Yaping surveyed the scene at her favorite spot in the city for afternoon tea. It was packed, but there, in the back, was a single free table.

The waifish 26-year-old dropped her laptop bag on a chair, opened her menu and began ordering her favorites: milk tea, black forest cake, chicken wings, waffle fries. It was a typical Chinese order at a quintessential American chain: Pizza Hut.

“The food is good, but really I come here for the ambiance,” said Wang, who is a client liaison for a construction company. The bill for her snack: more than $25, or 70 percent of her day’s wages….

Sitting down to her chocolate cake and chicken wings, Wang said she sees consumption as a liberation from the Mao-inspired conformity of her parents’ era.

“Many Chinese consumers spend,” she said, “because they are not as restricted as before.”

Let’s ponder that for a moment:

… consumption as a liberation from the Mao-inspired conformity.

But wait, didn’t we learn

… the trend is driven in part by competitiveness. “If one resident in a community buys a new TV, all residents in the same community will update their TVs.”

Oh, I get it “Mao-inspired conformity” is bad but “me-too inspired conformity” is good.

You have learned well, Grasshopper. You have become a master of kung fu consumption. You no longer need a teacher. Use your power wisely, or, failing that, self-destructively, like the rest of us….