China is a key foreign market for many U.S. businesses, one that seems likely to grow even more important over the coming years. But it’s worth noting that Chinese consumers differ in many ways from customers in America and elsewhere in the West.
Here then is a look at some of the cultural differences that separate Chinese shoppers from their U.S. counterparts — particularly, some of the practices common among Westerners which can boggle the minds of those on the other side of the world.
Drinking tap water
Many Chinese are surprised to discover that Americans are willing to drink water straight from their kitchen faucet. Back in China, where pollution has made water safety a major issue, most people drink bottled water or at least boil the water they draw from the tap.
China’s demand for bottled water has grown sharply over the past several decades, a trend that has only increased due to a series of water-safety scares. Shanghai saw a tap-water panic in 2012, prompting a bottled-water shortage, preceded a year earlier by a similar scare involving electrolytic-manganese pollution in the western province of Sichuan.
In fact, bottled water represents the biggest category in China’s soft-drink market, accounting for over 35% of total share, according to a 2014 report by Chinese industry-research institution Forward Business and Intelligence Co.
Leading companies in this sector are mostly local — such as Tingyi Cayman Islands Holding Corp. and unlisted Nongfu Spring Co. — but some Western brands are strong as well, especially at the high end of the market. These include Italy’s Acqua Minerale San Benedetto SpA and Evian from France’s Danone.
A lack of parasols
Chinese tourists traveling in the U.S. during the summer — especially older visitors — sometimes express surprise that no one seems to have a parasol.
While parasols enjoyed some popularity in the West before the early 20th century, their use has since dwindled. The likely reason for this is that Westerner have come to see a suntan as a sign of health and beauty, while Chinese culture prefers paler skin.
China is currently one of the world’s largest manufacturers of parasols — and umbrellas in general — in part because of the use of parasols, but also because China is currently one of the world’s largest manufacturers of pretty much everything.
But as with bottled water, several Western companies still hold some of the high ground in terms of upmarket umbrellas and parasols. Among them are privately held Totes Isotoner Corp. from the U.S., A. Fulton Co. from the U.K., and Kobold International of Germany.
No post-maternity rest period
Despite what you may have read in Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth,” Chinese mothers don’t generally rush back to work moments after giving birth.
Just the opposite — in China, women traditionally spend the month after childbirth, known as the “yuezi,” sitting in bed. And when the British Princess Kate Middleton was seen in public less than a day after giving birth, it caused an explosion of discussion in Chinese social-media circles.
The yuezi has a long list of rules for the new mother to follow in order to safeguard her health, including not washing her hair or not so much as touching cold water, as well as eating a diet of traditional “post-maternity” foods.
China has an entire business segment catering to such women — the maternity-service industry — mostly unknown in the West. Part of the demand is met by maternity-service centers, the revenue for which a People’s Daily report late last year valued somewhere above 3 billion yuan ($480 million).
Likewise, government data say roughly 10% of all Chinese mothers hire a nurse or other care provider for their yuezi.
If maternity-service centers are a particularly Chinese phenomenon, the opposite seems true for elder-care/senior-care facilities. Sometimes known as “nursing homes,” such businesses are anathema to China’s Confucianist principles, which call for children to care for their ageing parents personally.
That said, however, the popularity of senior care is on the rise in China. In some respects, Chinese consumers pick this option for the same reason as Westerners — to secure 24-hour medical attention for an ailing parent, or when geography or work schedules prohibit their children from providing such care at home.
But while this sector may prove to have potential in the Chinese market, it’s still a small industry at this point. This is partly because of concern over the level of service, or in the case of high-end private facilities, because of the big price tag involved.
So much ice
Chinese visitors to the West are sometimes surprised to find the locals drinking ice water year-round.
In China, by contrast, many people prefer warm water, or even hot water, as Chinese medicine warns that cold beverages can hamper digestion and the body’s metabolism.
This is probably why ice machines are not very popular in China. Or at least right now — the use of ice is on the rise, partly as a result of the popularity of Western fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Yum Brands’ KFC.
If this trend continues, the ice machine could prove to be a hot item — no pun intended — for the China market.