We Are What We Buy
I love visiting grocery, drug, convenience and even big-box stores when traveling abroad. My husband does not always view these visits as highlights of our vacation, but he’s generally a good sport about it.
When I am traveling on business, I visit with immoderation. Seeing what is on the shelves of stores (and what isn’t), how the shelves are merchandised, what the packaging looks like, prices, what is in shoppers’ carts, etc., … can draw a vivid picture for me of the marketplace and the people. You can learn about customs, tastes and traditions just by walking into a retail store.
While recently in China, I noticed in a Watson’s drug store that there were no aspirin or pain relievers to be had on the shelves – no section at all on the floor dedicated to these products. It turns out that in China you need a prescription for aspirin and analgesics or at least need to speak to a pharmacist to buy what you need for what ails you. Even in Europe, where things are still behind the counter in drug stores, you can point and ask for what you want. In China, you need consultation. And coming from a country that has end caps of Tylenol during “cold and flu season,” it was sort of a stunning observation. It made me think differently about a headache or a sore leg.
In Carrefour and Walmart, three areas within the store really stood out for me:
1) The candy and sweets section. Notice I didn’t say aisle; it was a section of aisles and took up a large percentage of the store, with everything from packaged candy bars, gift packs and baskets, to container upon container of individually packaged pieces of bulk candy, merchandised the way I am used to seeing grains or nuts at a Whole Foods back home. And there were so many interesting and different types of candy. Tiny, individual “pudding cups” filled with pieces of fruit, suspended in a sweet gelatin base (unrefrigerated) made up most of one, long aisle. Clearly this is a go-to snack for Chinese kids. It reminded me of the Del Monte Snack Pack of my childhood. But that was fruit suspended in sugary water, not jelly. I can say without any research, these would be a hard sell in the U.S. because the concept of jellied sweets is not a popular, mainstream texture profile here; not yet, anyway. And I am sure my Del Monte Snack Pack would seem watery and odd to the Chinese.
2) The fresh fish section of the store. There was a wide assortment of seafood including fresh, fileted fish, laid out on ice, like you would see at a U.S. grocer or fish monger – salmon, tuna, clam, mussels, etc., … but what you wouldn’t find was the large, aerated tank of live frogs or the live, local yellow croaker fish swimming next to them in an even larger tank. I am sure that if I liked frog legs, these would be the freshest I had ever tasted, but from my perspective, the frog tank belonged in the pets aisle. Of course, if one of my fellow Chinese shoppers had walked into a Petco in the U.S. and seen the frog tank, he or she might wonder why that was the only human “food” they were selling in there!
3) Fresh fruits and vegetables department. I could have created my own game show in this department – Name that Spiky, Brown Fruit! This is where, as a cook, I get frustrated traveling abroad, not being able to fill up my cart and go home and try these exotic, interesting foods. There were huge piles of interesting, unknown-to-me produce with signs above them, written in Chinese characters, so I really had no idea what half the stuff was. I did a few sniff tests and took a lot of pictures. One fruit I had never tried before going to China was dragonfruit, which I loved and know that I can get in New York.
Convenience stores were smaller and cleaner (for the most part) than their U.S. equivalents, but they served more as prepared-food destinations. I visited a 7-Eleven and a Family Mart at the lunch hour and they were bustling like we would think of a QSR in the states. They had prepackaged vegetable, rice and chicken plates on the shelves, alongside boxes of crackers and chips. I guess the chicken was preserved in some way as to not need refrigeration, but the look of it was still a little unsettling. And there were interesting flavors of chips to accompany the meal, like shrimp and salted-fish flavor. I am a fish and seafood lover, so why not a chip flavored with those ingredients? What is new and unknown might be delicious. Might it also be just a little weird?
While there were several fun and funny differences between these retail experiences and the familiar ones back home, there were as many similarities. Merchandising clearly matters; I saw some great displays and well-stocked and maintained shelves. Wayfinding was in place and helpful (if you read Chinese) and there seemed to be a familiar flow to the store’s layout, so finding the different sections and departments was not hard. At Carrefour, there was a huge, well-stocked imports section, (accurately) reflecting the presence of a large ex-pat community nearby who shopped the store. At Walmart I saw families with full baskets clearly doing the weekly “big shop.”
Shanghai is a world away from New York City, of course, but I was very much at home in retailers I know (and several that I didn’t), surrounded by brands I know and love (and others that piqued my curiosity and were loved by my fellow, local shoppers). Shopping is social, even if you don’t speak the same language. We can express ourselves and define parts of ourselves by what ends up in our basket – and that’s true anywhere in the world.