With the 2008 Beijing Olympics fast approaching, international eyes will be on China and its burgeoning economy more than ever. Some estimate the number of foreign visitors to China at over a million this July, which will most likely generate handsome tourism dollars from lodging, food, and retail shopping. According to an article by Josh Adams in Asia Times, Olympic preparation has seen "Chinese consumers acquiring a taste for Western-style superstores and exclusive, big-name brands" as developers construct more large malls to accommodate the influx of foreign shoppers expected this summer. But China’s economic boom is intensifying more than just retail space. Class differences and income disparities could also be on the rise.
Adams says, "While Prada boutiques and Tissot displays are seemingly de rigueur for many Chinese malls looking to display their stylish credentials, focusing on the wealthy elite may have effectively alienated them from the country's massed ranks of aspiring middle-income families."
Social difference in the retail world is an issue that Amy Hanser tackles in her book Service Encounters: Class, Gender, and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China (2008). Hanser, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, utilizes her personal experience working as a salesclerk in various retail stores in the city of Harbin to support this unique exploration of inequality in China.
With the goal of understanding how economic and social transformations reshape social relations in urban China, Hanser studies how different retail sites (among them a state-owned department store with working-class clientele, a high-end private department store, and a low-end clothing bazaar) represent various social strands within Harbin society. Hanser details how interactions between salesclerks and shoppers in these retail environments play out ideas of social difference, inequality, and entitlement.
Will Beijing's growth in luxury stores (and there are more on the way) exacerbate unequal relations between salesclerks and customers? According to Adams' article, these new mega malls may not survive long enough to make that impact. "10% or 20% of China's malls will realize their true profit potential…these places are just too big and too pricey…As the market becomes increasingly saturated the underperformers will naturally find themselves squeezed out."