My field site has evolved as my time leading up to and arriving in China has progressed. My final field site is Xidan. Though technically not one mall, it provides a wide range of merchandise and environments in several city blocks. The district has 6 or 7 large buildings of 5-8 stories that contain both vendors and corporate stores. There is also a sprawling underground maze that makes up a mall under the central plaza around which all the larger malls are located. As individual buildings, the different malls are relatively unmarkable, but what makes this site unique, is the configuration. You can shop high-end European stores in one mall, then you can walk across the elevated walkway and haggle in the dingy basement for the shorts you couldn’t find at Zara.
A brief description of the different malls: One of the malls is upscale vendor style; think Macy’s but where the vendors are a little
more aggressive but the product quality is the same. The second upscale mall, Joy City, is more akin to your traditional western shopping mall. In fact, if I didn’t tell you and the ethnicity of the customers was not homogenous, you might think you were in an American shopping mall. Marble floors, spacious clean layout, and individual stores such as Zara, Gap, Quicksilver, and Armani, line the corridors that surround the central rotunda. The other three malls are a varying degree of market where many vendors are comprised of personally owned booths where owners sit on stools hawking there wares. Also worth noting regarding the differences in mall, in the higher end malls (the ones closest to Chang’an Ave) there is an air of hip professionalism. Most of the employees are under 30, and there is a vibrance to the mall. In the lower end complexes, the average age of the vendor increases significantly and it isn’t unusual to see small children sitting on the floor af a vendor’s space (like a large cubical) sleeping or eating food. I ate a brief dinner in the food court of the mall farthest form Chang’an Ave, and consequently the least organized and oldest feeling, and the food court of full of people sleeping at tables, giving the appearance of a “working persons” mall. The feel was that the individuals working here, worked harder.
As I stated earlier, the appeal in this site is the diversity in experience, environment and product. Though individually these malls are not unique, combined that create a truly unique experience. In a sense, the upper tier malls are competing with the individual vendors in the next mall over. Zara has to compete with the little Chinese woman selling knock-off shoes. The product quality varies as much the price, and the consumer knows that.
I have the distinct advantage of having a local contact from William and Mary as a sort of guide. Living in Beijing and being Chinese, Carine has provided as wealth of information regarding the Xidan area. One of my biggest questions regarded the flow of customers between the different malls. I know that the elevated walking bridges directly link the different malls, but I wanted to know if the average consumer is really willing to spend 400RMB for a pair of shoes in one place and 10RMB for a T-shirt 10 minutes later. The answer I got: Yes. It is perfectly normal to spend hundreds of RMB in one location and haggle for a couple extra next door, but the mentality varies. According to Karen, most people buy the basics and common items at the “haggle” mall, while saving up for that nice dinner, pair of shoes, or suit from the upper tier mall. There really is not in between. Karen even acknowledged that most Chinese know they are buying goods that won’t last long when they shop at the “haggle” mall but they accept that.
The cross buying between malls is why I want to focus on one aspect of the consumer experience that most people don’t consider at all, the shopping bag. To many, the bag is only noticed when it is too bulky or the store is out so you are forced to carry your purchase. An experience we all consider an annoyance. But in Xidan, I want to examine the meaning and significance of the shopping bag. At Joy City, young people carried their shopping bags on their arms like a collection of trophies, seemingly in an effort to ensure the world could read the brand names printed on them. Faces of European youth or large lettering covered the bags like mobile billboards. This, in itself is not special nor unique to China, it is a global phenomena. However, what was interesting was the mix of dingy looking plastic bags as well. The type you carry your swim suit home from the pool in. On the outside causeways connecting the different malls, people carried bags of all shapes and sizes. From the high end European and American retailers, to the mom and pop vendor in the nameless mall across the street. Very little stigma seemed to exist. There was no shame in buying a T-shirt for $1 US then going to Quicksilver carrying the same bag to look for shorts to match. As far as the culture went, all the malls were part of one bigger entity that encompassed commercial culture at all levels.
The varying shopping bags could serve as a status symbol, like the Audi’s that drove up and down Chang’an Ave. Yet, it said arguably more about the way stores compete and market. The larger stores in the upscale malls used brand name recognition to market their products. Each brand trying to seize more of the growing Chinese luxury market. A recent interview by Forbes with leading Oxford economist specializing in Chinese Consumer Culture Karl Gerth, noted that there is considerable reason to believe that the top end of the Chinese market is expanding faster than anywhere else in the world. This is ground zero for luxury brands looking to grow. However, Gerth also notes that China can’t just shake it’s past. Cultural traditions, like haggling, don’t disappear overnight. Both the owners of these small shops and the big brands, are facing competition in each other that they are unfamiliar with and yet must cope with to survive. The result is Xidan. The image of plastic bags with cheap goods, carried on the same arm as Zara and Gap shows why many brands initially struggle in the Chinese market. There are few in-betweens and polar extremes. And the shopping bags provide a window through which to view these consumer interactions.
Interview with Karen Zhang. Beijing Resident and consumer.
Forbes article interviewing Oxford Economist Karl Gerth