Coffee's success in China owes more to status

By Michael Knapp
0 CommentsPrint E-mail Global Times, November 17, 2010
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The differences between coffee shops in the US and China today are minimal. Not all Chinese coffee shops are smoke-free. Naturally, menus in China are modified. Starbuck's coffee has the same flavor worldwide, but I've only seen red bean scones in their Chinese shops.

There's no drive-thru coffee places yet, unlike in the US. But drive-thru coffee shops do a lot of business and I'm sure we can expect to see them springing up in China soon.

Here's another startling difference between coffee shops in China and the US today. Since the economic crisis hit the US two years ago coffee shops have struggled to survive. Not so in China. Even with the increase of rival coffee bars, Starbucks profit in China doubled between 2008 and 2009.

The question remains: Do Chinese really like coffee or is it only a cosmopolitan status symbol? I think it's an acquired taste.

For whatever reason they start sipping coffee, many seem to have actually grown to like it. But for many tea-loving Chinese, coffee drinking is still only a matter of social cachet.

Over 80 percent of coffee is consumed in the morning in the US, where traditionally it's a breakfast wakeup beverage. But many of China's coffee shops don't even open till mid-morning, and some attract the biggest crowds at night.

In the US, coffee may be a fashionable component of urban lifestyle, but whether it's black coffee or an expensive latte, we savor the taste. This explains the drive-thru success. There's nothing showy about sipping mocha in the privacy of your car.

Only 20 percent of American Starbucks' customers consume coffee inside the shop. In contrast, 90 percent hang out on the premises in Chinese Starbucks. I've seen a number of reasons for this. It's more prestigious to meet a client in a Western coffee shop. But for many it's more than status. It's often matter of convenience and comfort.

Although some Chinese coffee shops are loud and smoky, most cafes provide a quiet, crowd-free environment. Universities lack adequate study spaces, leaving coffee shops as the best alternative for writing papers. For negotiating business deals, coffee shops are neutral ground. Hey, I'm even writing this article in a cozy corner of a favorite coffee shop!

The author is an English teacher in Beijing, author of Here They Come! Are You Ready?

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