Why custom & social shopping will both work in China

My mom’s generation is a “lost fashion” generation. In her best youthful days, the country was going through the cultural revolution. Individualism was suppressed, not only in thinking and speech, but also in clothing. The whole country was clothed in gray, black, or army green. Any show of lace, color, or design was considered “corrupted capitalism life style”. When the revolution ended in mid 1970 after a decade, any fashion sense my graceful grandma put in my mom’s mind was washed clean.

Then came the introduction of “market economy with Chinese characteristics” – basically a re-branding of the free market. Then entered the first western movie. Then returned the memories of silk and embroidery. The interruption of fashion for ten years left almost all women at my mom’s age clueless. They adopted whatever they saw in the movies. Today the release of a Hollywood blockbuster in China is synchronized with US. In 1980s the Chinese were so behind that we were watching movies five, six years old, if not older. The few movies that passed the strict censorship became the golden rule for women all around. Color slowly returned to the streets. Many colors of the similar style.

In 1979 the single child policy was in place. The first batch of the single children found themselves at a crossroad when they entered their teens. Growing up the single child, with attention from six adults (parents, four grand parents), they were treated as individual, they were told they were special, until they left the home. Suddenly, they found they were among the hundreds of millions of other single children, who grew up being told the same thing. And to compete, they needed to stand out. Being different also included dressing differently.

However, the market at that time did not offer many choices. Large part of the movements in its society is driven by collective opinions. China is fundamentally a community based country. It is hard not to follow. Hence the waves of hot trends – trading stocks, buying real estate…Everyone is afraid of “missing out”. If the skinny jeans are in, you can barely find a pair of straight legs in fashion shops.

Comes the 21st century. The Web eliminates the time lag of information exchange with the outside. The accumulated personal wealth for the past three decades allow consumers to go way beyond the basics. The mighty production industry hums all day long to produce the fashion for Milan, New York, Tokyo, while saving enough raw materials and is spot on at copying the styles. Chinese consumers are buying the designs at a fraction of the price.

The variety of information and its easy accessibility through the Web provide the educated Chinese alternatives to the mass media; and giving them the space in their mind to form their independent thinking. While they sit in front of their computers to do so, they also lose the touch with real people, an element that was inseparable in their parents and grandparents’s lives. Fortunately, Web also provided them the venue. Before the air conditioner days, at summer nights the whole families would get out their small places and flock to the public parks and town squares to catch the cool breeze. The view of a whole square covered with people in every inch is still vivid in many people’s memories. They were talking, exchanging information, listening to the radio, sometimes flighting over the best spot. Now, the town squares are social networking sites, blogs, instant messengers.

The combined desire of keeping in touch and being an individual makes customized social shopping a natural fit for the Chinese consumers in their 30s and 20s. Teenage’s purchasing power is not to be underestimated, either. By limiting the social interaction to shopping, hopefully it will not draw unwanted attention (FB is blocked in China.). And by giving the consumers the power to customize based on template designs, and with access to the factories in the back yard, the cost of customization can be kept efficient enough to maintain mass market price. After all, the skyrocketing real estate price in cities is a towering shadow over the money earners, who are finding every possible way of quality but affordable living.

Examples of customized shopping:

custom jewelry


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