Fieldwork in China on Grocery Shopping for Over 65s

Arriving at Tsinghua University campus, Beijing

Arriving at Tsinghua University campus, Beijing

I am currently in China! Beijing specifically, but before that I spent a week doing fieldwork in Qingdao and Nanjing (in the Mid/South East). It was always part of the plan that I would come to China during my 18-month research contract at Winchester School of Art. The project I joined, ‘Silver Shoppers’, looks at the grocery shopping experiences of consumers over the age of 65 in both the UK and China.

Findings aim to improve our understanding of the consumer behaviour, values and capabilities of this increasingly heterogeneous population with implications for future research, retail business strategy and social policy on ageing and wellbeing. Having completed the UK fieldwork (which you can read about here), I set off for China at the beginning of July.

Why the UK and China?

The retail markets in the UK and China are very different but are united in the need to develop solutions to service the ageing population. Equally, within the globalized retail industry, China is regarded as the biggest and most profitable overseas market by major international firms such as Tesco (UK), Wal-Mart (US), Carrefour (France) and Metor AG (Germany). Chinese consumer needs are different however to the needs of consumers in Europe and the US, particularly amongst the older generation who have to adapt to broader societal changes and the impact of new globalised technologies. This research seeks to understand older consumer behaviour both within the context of the newer supermarket environments and more traditional grocery stores and markets. There is also a gap in the literature looking at older shoppers experiences at open markets in China.

What we did

Data collection in China follows much the same methods as the UK. With three regions selected across the country, we aim to follow the everyday routines and shopping habits of 30 participants using a diary and inspection card pack for six weeks. We also conduct filmed observation of their normal grocery shopping routine and a post-shop interview. In the UK this focused solely on supermarkets but here in China, half have been to supermarkets and half to open markets.

How I got on

I’m sure it’s little surprise to know I don’t speak Chinese so we have a Chinese team based at Tsinghua University partnered on the project. A group of Masters students are managing the fieldwork, using the materials we developed in the UK which were then translated into Mandarin. By the time I came over the participants had been recruited, a plan was made and I joined the group as they started data collection in the first two cities. All of the interviews were conducted in Chinese but I was at least able to observe the shopping process. The students themselves were able to communicate with me in English (to a mixed degree) and looked after me very well! It was a great introduction to China and although it was an intense week of travel and long days, I really enjoyed it.

At the end of the week I ran a training session on data analysis so they will manage the rest of the process. My manager (the project lead) is Chinese so there’s no problem there when it comes to going through the findings. I’m now back at Tsinghua University in Beijing where I will stay for 3 weeks in total. This gives me a chance to explore the culture some more and do some informal observations, visiting the main supermarkets and watching people on the street.

Vegetable market in Qingdao, China

Vegetable market in Qingdao, China


Shellfish and seafood at the market in Qingdao

Shellfish and seafood at the market in Qingdao


More from the open market, Qingdao. What are they??

More from the open market, Qingdao. What are they??

What I’ve found

The thing that strikes me most about China, in general, is the contrast between rich and poor, new and old, shiny and dirty etc. In Nanjing we stayed next to a huge, shiny shopping mall with Starbucks and a cinema and Western clothes shops. But outside, people were selling fruit on the streets just placed on the pavement and a worker from a small restaurant was peeling his veg outside on the street. The train from Nanjing to Beijing went nearly 300km per hour but still had a dirty, squat toilet. Queuing to enter the National Museum of China a security guard grabbed my arm and moved me an inch sideways to get us exactly in line, but everyone pushes onto the subway train before you have a chance to get off. Everything is a contradiction. But maybe that’s good. They have the technology to make life easier, but can still ‘rough it’ better than us in the UK. We’re probably too precious. Too preoccupied with health and safety.

The same could be said for the supermarkets vs open markets. To me, the open markets were not hygienic at all. But as all proper food comes from the ground or sea to start with, it’s probably right that we should have to prepare things to eat ourselves. Qingdao is on the coast, so the market there was packed full of fish and seafood, a lot of it alive. The vegetables at the market too just seemed huge! A lot of people travel by bike, and watching them strap their shopping to the back is quite interesting.

Supermarkets have a lot more staff than in the UK, with assistants hovering around each main section. Fruit and veg is weighed before going to the till, sometimes you pay there and then separately. They have lots of pick and mix sweets and brightly coloured packets creating a rainbow effect. In Beijing so far I’ve visited Carrefour, but got distracted by the ‘imported foods’ section. I bought Babybel! They had a map to show the store layout at the entrance, something suggested by a number of our UK participants. Obviously Carrefour is French rather than Chinese, but I hadn’t seen this in the UK.

In terms of shopping with the older people, there are far fewer mobility scooters and wheelchairs here. They just don’t have the space to get around in them. I spotted this in the Hutong in Beijing though. Similarly, I’m sure a lot of people don’t bother with pushchairs. I haven’t seen many. Some of our Chinese participants can’t read and write either so they have family members helping with the diary tasks, but clearly, this has to affect their shopping, especially in a supermarket as opposed to the open market.

Motorised bike/wheelchair with parasol

Motorised bike/wheelchair with parasol


Useful map in Carrefour, Beijing

Useful map in Carrefour, Beijing

There’s not a huge amount more I can say until I see the results (translated back into English for me!). We will be publishing a comparison study of the UK and China, as well as on the two contexts individually. I’ve had some time to be a tourist too, so I’ll post another blog about that later!

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