China's Savvy Shoppers Load Carts With Expensive Imported Goods

Consumers Prefer International Choice to Domestic Thrift

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BEIJING-Now that Zhen Xiaowen has a new, higher paying job, she can afford to browse among the Western-style goods during her weekly shopping at state-owned Jiang Hua Supermarket.

In January, the 26-year-old accountant left her hostess job at a Beijing restaurant where she earned just under $100 a month. Now earning $250 monthly at an American bank she declined to name, she's starting to indulge in Western brand cosmetics and foods, all marketed by joint ventures in China.

"I like the American soap. It smells so much nicer than the Chinese kind," she said, picking up a bar of Safeguard and eyeing Wella Balsam shampoo, both marketed by the Tianjin Liming Cosmetics Joint Industrial Co. "And the next time I buy shampoo, I want to try one that the foreigners use."

But she buys Western brands selectively because of high prices. Local shampoo Pan Ting, marketed by Shanghai Cosmetics, costs $2.84 for a 750-milliliter bottle; Wella Balsam is priced at $4.60 for the same size.

Jiang Hua, located on noisy, crowded Jianguomenwai Street in central Beijing, is one of a growing number of supermarkets changing the way Chinese shop. For most of China's 45 years under communism, diets have been limited to what could be grown nearby, and people had virtually no choice in personal and household products.

But since paramount leader Deng Xiaoping propelled the country into market-style reforms starting 15 years ago, the array of products has burgeoned and Western name brands are on store shelves. Brands like Nescafe, Tang, Raid, Crest and Del Monte can be bought here but at a hefty price: they cost anywhere from 50% to 300% more than elsewhere, and in rare instances, up to 13 times times more than their Chinese rivals.

Crest toothpaste, at $3.59 for a 130-gram tube, for example, is much more expensive than locally made Liaominjun, at 30 cents.

Supermarket shopping is becoming big business in Beijing, according to the official New China News Agency. The Beijing Municipal Commercial Commission reported the city's 27 largest supermarkets, where crowds of salespeople in matching uniforms wait on droves of shoppers, produced more than $11.5 million in profits in 1993, up significantly from 1992, when there were just 15 supermarkets in the city, the news agency said. The group reported total grocery sales of $1.09 billion, or 17.2% of Beijing's total retail sales last year.

"Large department stores are winning more customers and playing an increasingly important role in market competition as they have the priority in market information, feedback and power," the news agency quoted an unidentified Beijing official as saying.

In addition, several foreign-run supermarkets offering imported products exclusively have opened their doors. The outlets, including Wellcome Supermarkets, run by the Wellcome Group from Hong Kong, and the Yaohan department store chain from Japan, cater largely to Beijing's growing foreign community with a small mix of prosperous and curious Chinese shoppers.

Most Chinese, though, can't afford the foreign supermarkets and still do much of their buying in small shops and open stall street markets. No longer restricted by government regulations, many Chinese factory and government workers are trying to cash in on the country's fast-growing economy by starting sideline businesses as vendors.

But with urban inflation averaging almost 25% and workers facing the prospect of layoffs from cash-strapped state enterprises, many families find they can survive only by careful budgeting.

Wang Guosheng, a Chinese railroad employee, says his wife quit her job two years ago and now runs a small beauty parlor. Perusing a counter of iced fish in Jiang Hua, Mr. Wang says that, even with the extra income, the couple still has to watch what they buy for themselves and their baby son. For example, they purchase all their vegetables from less expensive roadside stalls and only rarely visit the foreign-run shopping center.

"We hardly ever buy anything there," he said. "We can only afford to look."

Instead, Chinese flock to supermarkets like Jiang Hua, where Western products, now produced in China, are available alongside Chinese name brands.

Foreign-run stores do run occasional ads in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper geared to Western readers, but they are extremely simple ads showing the store's name and hours. Chinese supermarkets have as yet no need for promotion because their aisles already are crowded.

Its central location on one of Beijing's busiest thoroughfares near government offices and foreign embassies keeps Jiang Hua constantly busy. The store's 40 employees serve 7,000 customers daily.

Western-style display and self-service have yet to arrive. Most goods, including Western-brand canned goods and cosmetics mixed with Chinese staples, are still drably lined up behind counters tended by numerous sales clerks who hand over the products customers want.

Although there are refrigerator and freezer cases, other departments are only vaguely defined. Typical of many others, Jiang Hua sells liquor, but basic foods such as rice are bought in bulk from huge bins lining the walls. And although there is a cash register in the front of the store, many clerks continue to use the traditional Chinese abacus to compute bills.

But change has already made inroads. Next door, with a connecting entrance, is a Vie de France, run by Vie de France China. Here, croissants sell for $1 each, in contrast to the 25 cents for a whole loaf of white bread in the supermarket.

Ms. Zhen, the accountant, says she sometimes wanders into the Vie de France bakery to enjoy a cup of thick espresso, at 52 cents, her favorite. But only occasionally. "It's still a big treat for me," she said.

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