Sunday, December 13, 2015

Ah, Ikea!

As a foreigner whose friends and family all shop at Ikea and have many Swedish-made goods, I enjoy visiting that store. I can walk through the children's department and see many toys that my grandchildren play with or think longingly of my daughter's home, decorated with functional Ikea pieces. Oh, the many hours my stateside friends and I have spent, strolling through those displays, laughing and admiring – but seldom buying anything.

A couple of years ago (while living in China), I so wanted to visit an Ikea store that I went to Shanghai just for that purpose. Except for the price markers and information plaquards being primarily in Chinese, I felt just as I did when visiting that store stateside. That was both good and bad: suffering the sweet longing of my loved ones and recalling the fun times spent in their company simultaneously brought me closer to them and made me feel so very far away. Maybe going to Shanghai to walk through a store I'd walked through countless times seems silly, especially as there is so much else to do there, but who can say what the heart or stubborn mind wants at any given time?

I was elated when Ikea opened a branch in Wuhan. Now, instead of a 5-hour bullet train ride and a hotel stay, I only needed a 2-hour ride on public transport to satisfy my longing for that Ikea feeling. And, because one of my more attention-getting lessons involves food culture in the west, I can invite my students on an outing to that store. Several times, I chaperoned avid groups through Ikea's marketplace and basked in their delight.

Last time I was stateside, again walking the wide aisles of that store with my daughter, I recalled my dear students gasping in awe at the comfort and convenience Swedish furniture can bring.

I have that same problem with Pizza Hut and Burger King: when I'm here, enjoying those establishments, I miss the states. When I'm there, partaking, I think of my China home. Funny how a commercial venture can do that.

Mind you, I'm not an expat who seeks only a western bubble within China. As much as possible, I'd rather 'go Chinese': buy from local stores, visit historical places, live à la Chinese. But sometimes there is comfort in familiarity, and for those reasons, as a treat, I'll undertake the long journey on public transport to visit that store where my family likes to play. I go for the bittersweet memories and a connection to family, but the Chinese patrons are there to buy foreign goods. That's what this blog is about: while everyone is enjoying western stores, goods and restaurants, what is happening to the Chinese market?

Because KFC, McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks and Pizza Hut; Carrefour, Metro, Walmart and Ikea are always crowded when I go there. I doubt that the masses plan their dining and shopping around my schedule to trick me into believing that those concerns are well frequented, so it stands to reason that those western establishments are the target of many a Chinese on a regular basis. Equally reasonable is the assumption that millions – if not billions of Yuan are pouring in to overseas money coffers from eager Chinese buyers. News reports support that belief: Chinese prefer to buy foreign made goods over their own national brands.

What does that do for industry and the economy in China?

All foreign businesses I've been to in China are staffed exclusively by Chinese. That means jobs for the people, and that's good: people have money to spend. Of course, the businesses in question pay a percentage of the total sales to China, but make no mistake: the parent companies are pulling in a hefty profit. Foreign companies are getting rich off Chinese longing for 'status brands'. Meanwhile, Chinese brands can't seem to get a leg up in world marketing.

Does anyone see a problem with that?

This weekend, Gary texted: “Would you like to go to Ikea?”

Do cows give milk??? Of course! I'd love a trip to Ikea with my good friend here, so I can share with him my family's pastime.

But then... last time I took Gary to Ikea – the first time he had ever been, he was not impressed. In fact, he commented how poor the quality was. I was ruffled. This was IKEA, whose toys resided in my grand-children's rooms! Where my family had purchased many of their decorations and home accessories!  Where we had spent precious hours together! And here, I wanted to share that experience with him...

He said he could buy higher quality furniture for much cheaper on the Chinese market. After I calmed down from my feeling of slight, I saw the wisdom of his approach. Here, a Chinese man is supporting the Chinese economy by buying Chinese, just as many Americans claim they would only 'buy American'. Imagine my surprise when, on this second visit he spent over 50,000 yuan on furniture and accessories at Ikea! And that he had an Ikea membership card!

I wonder what changed his mind?

And I wonder what will turn the tide for the average consumer in China to 'buy Chinese' rather than pour their hard-earned money into western pockets?   

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