Face Shopping: the role that “mianzi consumption” plays in consumer choice in China

Face shopping

When I walked into the wedding flower shop in Tonglu, China — my husband’s hometown — I knew exactly the kind of flowers I wanted: roses, just like the roses on my wedding dress. The shop owner, however, didn’t ask us what type of flowers we wanted. Instead, she asked us how much we were willing to spend: 380RMB, 580RMB or 800RMB.

The implication was this: money defines who you are. The more you spend, the better you are.

I came for roses, and I was holding my ground. Even if they were on the lowest (380RMB) tier of pricing.

But most Chinese consumers would probably be tempted to go for the 800RMB choice — whatever it was. Why? Because it makes them look good in the public eye…and just as the salesperson said, it’s the trendy choice.

Chinese culture has long valued face, or mianzi. And as a collective country, Chinese people tend to easily follow mainstream trends; they desire conformity. All this spills over into consumer behavior, creating what many refer to as “mianzi consumption.”

If you’ve spent any time in China, you’ve probably seen mianzi in action already. Think about gift-giving customs — the packaging is just as important, if not more so, than the actual product. (this has, not surprisingly, led to excessive packaging in China). You’ll find these elaborate, overwhelming packages, all in the name of giving the sender good face. Shanghai’s Maglev Train, supposedly one of the most hi-tech trains of its kind, was built in the name of giving the city some good mianzi. Doesn’t matter that the design (forcing riders to take the metro before switching over to it), hours (it only runs 8:30am to 5:30PM) and cost (40 RMB one way — a lot for a lot of inconvenience, considering direct buses only cost half of that) have rendered it utterly useless.

Mianzi consumption takes the concept of face into the world of shopping, allowing Chinese consumers to exchange their renminbi for services and products that will boost their face and reputation — sometimes at the risk of their own health and financial well-being.

For example, a Sohu article (Chinese) describes how college-age women will spend hundreds of RMB on name brand makeup and beauty treatments, even to the point where they haven’t enough money leftover to eat. But they’d rather “invest” the money on their face — literally — because, as far as they’re concerned, appearances count.

This article in the Youth Daily makes a link between the “Housing Slave” (people whose mortgages take up 50% of their monthly income) phenomenon in China and mianzi consumption. They suggest that people get into such a precarious situation — having an unmanagable mortgage — simply because they choose to buy homes they can’t afford, all to live a lifestyle they believe is theirs.

Mianzi isn’t going away anytime soon — and neither will mianzi consumption. Especially when it comes to high-end, often foreign, products, such as BMWs, Louis Vuitton Bags, and top-shelf liquors. But there is a certain manipulation involved at times, one that perhaps nudges Chinese consumers into purchases that they would rather not make. Just as Chinese consumers have a responsibility to make smart shopping decisions, companies have a responsibility to sell their products without preying on a consumer’s emotional or cultural vulnerabilities (remember the sleazy car dealers?).

Come on…give roses a chance. 😉

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