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The Asian women's shopping experience
New research from Thailand
Kristian Gotthelf
2/10/2004

"What do you like to do in your free time?" The young assistant manager thinks a while before she answers the English teacher during a her company's weekly language training. After careful consideration she responds: "Sleep". Then she lights up in a smile and adds "..and shopping...".

This scenario is typical for cities across Asia. Almost considered a cliché, women with time and cash in hand are most likely to be found at the local mall buying shoes. Young female shoppers have become a natural part of the industrialized world and now their counterparts in developing countries are catching up. In Asia the shopping has emerged as a way of life for urban women and while women in the West are still shopping, the behavior patterns and motives differ when comparing East and West.

As the economy changes, consumers change with it. Industrialized economies such as that of the United States are going through tough times and they are finding their consumers shopping to relieve stress. Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing says that "When men get stressed, they go to bars, and women go shopping". The company's research shows that American women buy for emotional satisfaction, especially during an economic slowdown. They give themselves small gifts and look for purchases that can symbolize "life's little luxuries". Often the products are not satisfying a direct functional need. Also premium priced brand names are surviving and Pam Danziger explains that consumers want to make a statement and show what they stand for. However, these brand names are more likely bought at Costco than at Rodeo Drive. Costco has specialized in luxury products at minimum prices and American consumers are thrilled to go to a warehouse style outlet to get top quality. They can later brag about how they picked up designer products cheaply on their way home from work.

Here lies a contrast to Asian women who are, in a sense, still "shopping purists". They shop not for self actualization or to find a luxury bargain, but to spend and to embrace the shopping activity as a social event. Similar to the yuppies of the 80's, Asian women are earning and spending, but this newly found wealth is part of a newly found freedom as well as an economic evolution. In South East Asia more women are joining the work force. They are becoming financially independent. In the industrialization of many Asian countries is the grassroots of a growing freedom for working women. Last year a press conference with Thai starlets discussed the wonders of the TV Show "Sex And The City". This is a quiet women's liberation - Asian style.

Here at Bangkok University, a recent study revealed that most single women in Bangkok spend their free time shopping, but they are also hard-working. They are also marrying later (25 is the average age for marrying compared to 23.5 in 1990), saving up their own money, and spending their hard-earned money wisely. According to the study by Dr. Krairoek Pinkaeo and Anuchit Thaingtam this particular group of women go on brand shopping sprees four times a month. In addition, Asian women also have the opportunity to supplement their shopping with low priced items such as toys, casual clothes, and of course pirated brand names. The latter phenomenon will be addressed in my next article.

Activities connected to the outing with friends or alone to the nearest luxury mall that Western shoppers take for granted are brand new (no pun intended) in many South East Asian countries, including China. Parking your luxury car, strolling through the mall, and talking on the hand phone have high value in places where such outlets have only existed for around decade. Single Asian women either live with their parents or in a small apartment, so showing off their wealth by sporting expensive handbags, clothes and jewelry comes naturally. In Japan, collecting designer handbags has become a fetish among young women, many of them still in school and here price is a concern and bargains are sought out. Of course as the Japanese economy continues to slump, the healing power of browsing should not be ruled out. It seems that in the rest of Asia, newly-wealthy women are just discovering the thrill of shopping and are approaching routine shopping as fun rather than emotional therapy or a tragic obsession.

Shopping as a life style will continue to grow in Asia, notably among the women from the growing middle class. There are important subtle differences in the motives for shopping when comparing developed and developing countries. These trends are worth following, especially if you are a brand name manufacturer and are looking for female shoppers in Asia with time and money.

Kristian Gotthelf
Researcher
Research Institute of Bangkok University
Rama 4 Road, Klong Toey
Bangkok 10110
Thailand
Phone +66 2 350 3500 #772
kristian.g@bu.ac.th


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