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Love … Exciting and New

December 2, 2011

Rather than focusing on all the doom and gloom, here’s a more lighthearted story about the some of the unique cross-cultural challenges of doing business in China.  For years, one of my favorite outings in Beijing has been shopping at the giant IKEA store on the northeastern outskirts of the city.  Why?  Because of the way Chinese consumers hang out and make themselves at home there, a phenomenon first described — hilariously — by David Pierson in the Los Angeles Times.  It’s not at all unusual to see folks taking family photos in the mock living rooms, or every single display bed occupied by people naps — on my last trip, I remember seeing three little old ladies tucked comfortably into the same bed, placidly watching the other shoppers go by, with their six stockinged feet sticking out from under the covers.  It’s absolutely a hoot, and should be on every tourist itinerary.

Now Laurie Burkitt of the Wall Street Journal has written a new story that offers a new twist on the Chinese love affair — quite literally — with IKEA:

At 62, Tang Yingzhuo, a retired widow looking for love, doesn’t think it is appropriate to scope out men at bars, clubs or Karaoke joints. That’s why she goes to IKEA.

The former tax-bureau worker is among the throngs of seniors who meet every week at the Swedish retailer’s cafeteria in Shanghai’s Xuhui shopping district to take a second shot at romance.

Retired and divorced chiropractor Qian Weizhong is also on the prowl. On a recent Tuesday at IKEA Mr. Qian was excited to get the number of a woman he referred to as a “nice lady.” He plans to ask her out soon, he said.

Apparently the cafeteria at IKEA, which in China serves local dishes along with the standard Swedish meatballs, has become quite the singles’ scene for China’s senior citizens.  Hundreds of them show up every day, looking for love, or at least some free coffee.  They’re not buying furniture, and they can be a bit of a problem:

They sit for hours in the cafeteria, leaving behind orange peels and egg shells they have picked off boiled eggs brought from home. Occasionally, security guards intervene to try to keep order . . .

Policing the freeloaders and the unruly isn’t so easy. Attempting to tell a rowdy crowd of seniors to lower their voices recently, 24-year-old security guard Li Ya says he encountered resistance. An older man who didn’t enjoy being hushed by someone 40 years his junior, says Mr. Li, once splashed scalding coffee on him. “They always argue that they have the right to do what they want here,” says Mr. Li.

The article goes on to describe various companies’ efforts to grapple with  the Chinese habit of “people of all ages using big-box stores as their personal playground,” and ideally translate it into sales.  Wal-mart has set up in-store “children’s camps” during school breaks, where they are “encouraged to try their hands as part-time greeters and announce deals over the broadcast system.”  Apparently McDonald’s in Hong Kong is letting people get married in their stores:

One proposed feature of the ceremony: When it is time for the big kiss, the bride and groom can each chomp on the end of a french fry until their lips meet.

The whole thing reminds me of one of my favorite short stories, which I highly recommend:  “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town,” by Ha Jin (which can be found in his collection of stories published as “The Bridegroom.“)  It tells the tale of what is clearly meant to be one of the first KFC’s in China, through the eyes of a typical Chinese employee.  If you think what goes on at IKEA is amusing, read what happens when Cowboy Chicken’s expatriate managers offer an all-you-can-eat buffet, or try to dispose of their unordered leftovers at the end of the day.

As Homer Simpson said, “It’s funny ’cause it’s true.”

(btw, for my Chinese readers, the title of this blog post — Love, Exciting and New — comes from the theme song of the classic American TV sitcom The Love Boat.  If you think I’m poking too much fun at the Chinese here, watch a couple episodes of this show, and you’ll have all the material you’ll ever need to poke fun back at Americans!)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2011 7:37 am

    Patrick,

    It’s true that the Beijing Ikea store gives a chance to see some quirky things, but it comes at the cost of being forced to do the “Swedish shuffle”. There’s no choice but to shuffle along at half a mile per hour, because the huge throngs of shoppers all travel at about that speed or slower. Someone once told me that the greatest skill foreigners need in China is patience, and nowhere is that more evident than in the aisles of Ikea.

    • December 4, 2011 11:41 am

      I’d say some of the same is true (slow traffic) in American IKEA’s but I haven’t been to one in a few years. Reading this did remind me of some of the camping I see at Barnes & Noble, where the WiFi is free (unlike the public library, unless you’re a local resident). I have a 45 minute trip in either direction to my daughter’s school, which runs for 6 hours a day. It’s a waste of time (and money) to do the commute 4 times, so I often look for a place nearby where I can plug in and maybe get a little bit of work done on the days I have to do the driving, as the alternative would be to pay the school district tens of thousands to run a special bus. There are others there who are practically using the place as their unofficial office, including meeting coworkers and so on.

      Things are tough everywhere, and older people tend to get practical, usually out of necessity.

      • greg permalink
        December 6, 2011 4:12 am

        What you said is true and is consistent with my experience.The difference is that China is still a developing country and is a country with much higher population density. A lot of what you observe in China result from these facts. The people who take advantage of/abuse the freebies are just much more numerous in China percentage-wise. In the US, business can tolerate these people because it’s a small percentage.

      • greg permalink
        December 6, 2011 4:13 am

        Sorry, I was trying to respond to Brett Unis above.

      • December 6, 2011 10:50 pm

        @greg – I’m glad you clarified, and I agree, as far as it goes. Actually, the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, though, seems to suggest that even relatively affluent-nation retailing could stand to become a lot more personal and less alienating than tends to be sort of an expectation on the part of those who want to see the efficiency, but somehow get rid of as much of the social and the wear and tear that would tend to result when a retailer becomes a place for people to hang out, who aren’t necessarily boosting sales in any direct or obvious way. Not sure I agreed with the HBR, and I only skimmed the copy that I took off a shelf at B&N and later replaced without buying it.

        I do tend to feel an obligation there to buy at least a little something, though, and often buy a bit more than I probably should when looked at solely from my own POV and considering my own self-interest. But I don’t want to wear out my welcome.😉

  2. Roger permalink
    December 4, 2011 9:29 am

    I didn’t feel fun when I was in IKEA and saw people act like that. I just want to leave ASAP.

  3. andao permalink
    December 5, 2011 11:09 am

    I was actually looking to buy a mattress at China IKEA once but it was impossible to get a feel for the mattress because people wouldn’t get off the damn things. I remember standing over a guy for 3 minutes waiting for him to get up, but he was out like a light. In the end I went with a Chinese brand from another big box store instead.

    If I was just browsing the store I guess it would be pretty funny, but it was lousy when I was actually trying to buy something. Chinese people often don’t see that their actions might negatively impact other people.

    • greg permalink
      December 6, 2011 4:08 am

      andao,

      When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In this case, as in many others, just tell the person occupying the mattress that you’re waiting to try it on, and ask him/her to either quickly finish his/her trials or get off.

  4. Dean permalink
    December 11, 2011 10:38 am

    Professor, a week ago you said you have some new statistics on the Chinese economy. Has the reserve rate loosening made them moot?

Trackbacks

  1. “Love … Exciting and New” | The China Hotline
  2. Love, China and IKEA | Simon Taylor's Blog

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