With the rising buying power of Chinese consumers, major Chinese cities have set out to develop large shopping centers, such as Sun Dong An Plaza in Beijing, Tianhe shopping center in Guangzhou, Ganghui Square in Shanghai and Century Ginwa Shopping Center in Xi’an. Retailers in these newly erected establishments are in dire need of marketing strategies to attract customers who are willing to buy. As a result, consumer purchasing behavior in China’s shopping centers has drawn increasing attention from academia.


In a new study, titled “Customers’ Behavior in the Shopping Center: Investigation, Comparison and Validation,” Guijun Zhuang, a marketing professor at Xi’an Jiaotong University, Nan Zhou, a marketing professor at City University of Hong Kong, Alex S.L. Tsang, a scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University, and Fuan Li, a management professor at William Paterson University in the U.S., surveyed consumers at a large shopping center to discover which ones were most likely to make purchases. Among their findings: Retailers need to focus their promotions on shoppers who are young, well educated and local.


Shopping, Dating or Touring?


The four scholars studied shoppers who entered Century Ginwa Shopping Center in Xi’an between April 24 and April 30 of 2000. The center is located in the most prosperous area in downtown Xi’an and includes a supermarket, a large furniture market, over 20 stores of various brands, restaurants, gaming ground and a parking lot. “This center has a great variety of functions, and it is similar to regional shopping centers in the U.S.,” the researchers note in their study.


To capture their data and ensure a random sample, Guijun and his team invited every tenth shopper leaving the center to complete a questionnaire. If the selected consumer was unwilling to respond, the team would ask the next one, and then every tenth thereafter. The researchers conducted their surveys from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. each day until they reached their targeted quota.


The survey inquired about the consumers’ reasons for entering the shopping center, their degree of satisfaction after shopping, their age, gender and educational background, in addition to other information. In order to encourage the respondents to complete the survey, Guijun says, the team offered small gifts to all who were willing to participate. The researchers collected a total of 459 completed questionnaires.


After analyzing the survey responses, Guijun and his coauthors discovered that only about 40% of the shoppers who visit Century Ginwa Shopping Center are there for the purpose of shopping. “Our data has revealed that the motives for those shoppers going into the center are pretty diversified, and mainly include shopping, strolling, meeting friends, and touring, etc.,” they write.


Their analysis also found that, compared to those who are natives of Xi’an, people from outside the city are more likely to visit the shopping center as tourists. As for the gender mix, more females than males visited the shopping center for strolling or for dating purposes, the scholars said.


Who Is Buying?


Based on the data they collected, the researchers established a model for determining which customers were most likely to make purchases. In a regression analysis of the survey, they assigned as controlled, or “predictor,” variables the answers to such questions as whether or not shoppers were satisfied with their trip; the time they spent shopping; their frequency of visits to the center; whether or not they were accompanied; as well as gender, education level and age. The dependent variables — or those that they were aiming to predict — were captured by questions about specific purchases the customers made, including food and other products.


Using age as a predictor, Guijun and his team found that shoppers between 20 and 34 years old are more prone to making purchase decisions, compared to shoppers of other ages. The researchers suggest that this is because consumers in that age range usually have specific buying plans when they are out shopping. “Shoppers aged 20 to 34 years have just started their careers; they are usually kept busy at work and bear a relatively heavier pressure; they don’t have too much time to stroll inside a shopping center. Therefore, they will, more often than not, make a list of things to buy in advance … and pick up their desired products according to the plan quickly.”


The analysis also showed that well-educated shoppers (with a college degree or above) are more likely to make purchases, compared to people who are less educated. The researchers point out that well-educated shoppers usually earn more money and are therefore able to buy what they want. Secondly, they argue, a sound educational background might equip them to shop and consider purchases in a more effective way.


According to their model, consumers who are Xi’an city natives are more likely to make purchases at the city’s shopping center compared to people from elsewhere. “This is perhaps because shoppers in the city know more about the building, and they are better acquainted with where their desired products are located, their brand choices and the quality levels of the available products,” the researchers note. “In comparison, most shoppers hailing from outside Xi’an have never heard of this center before, so they visit this center as tourists, without any plans to buy.”


In addition, those shoppers who come to the center at least once every two weeks are more likely to buy things than those who do not visit so often. “This also correlates with the fact that ‘regular shoppers’ understand more about this center,” they write.


The analysis also showed that males are more prone to making purchases than females. To account for this difference, the researchers note that male shoppers are often categorized as “utilitarian” shoppers, while female consumers are often defined as “hedonic.” “Male shoppers often buy things not because they like them; instead, they consider shopping as work, a means to satisfy some of their functional demands. Therefore, most of the men have a specific shopping plan and are more prone to making purchase decisions. On the contrary, female shoppers usually regard shopping as a ‘fun-seeking’ event that corresponds with enjoying a movie or a nice dinner. Therefore, it is relatively difficult for them to make buying decisions as they usually don’t know what they are going to buy before they walk into a shop.”


The researchers also discovered that shoppers who are accompanied by other people are more likely to make purchases than those who are shopping alone. “[Accompanied] shoppers take shopping as a sort of social activity, and they value communication with their friends or family members. Since they have other people along to offer them advice [about purchases], they have more confidence in making buying decisions.”


Suggestions for Retailers


At the conclusion of their study, the scholars offer some suggestions for retailers in shopping centers. Considering the fact that well-educated, young and local shoppers are more prone to making purchases, it is essential for retailers to focus their promotions on these specific groups, they say, adding that it would be helpful to launch customized advertising, pricing, marketing and product design to address their preferences. In addition, in light of the study’s findings on the difference in shopping behavior between men and women, retailers should consider different marketing strategies for each. “For example, for men’s products, the promotion or advertisements should be more concise and easier to remember; while when targeting women, who are more hedonic shoppers, those promotion activities could be a longer process and event,” they note.


Furthermore, the researchers note that food could be treated as a distinct category as the level of shoppers’ satisfaction does not influence their decision about buying food products to an obvious extent. The reason for this, they suggest, is the fact that food is a necessity. “Before entering the center, most shoppers have determined which foodstuff to buy for the day; even if they feel not so satisfied with their shopping trip, they still make that purchase. However, their buying decisions on other things, such as clothes, accessories, etc., are influenced by the level of their satisfaction with their shopping trip, to a very large extent.” They add that since people make food buying decisions based on various motives, research findings based on a food-specific supermarket may not apply to complex shopping centers.  

Guijun and his team also emphasize that retailers should pay much more attention to the shopping environment in areas displaying clothes and accessories. A tidy and clean environment, appropriate lighting or some nice music will help to facilitate more buying decisions, they say.