China is experiencing rapid economic change, an overhaul most evident in its domestic food industry. Export markets have opened up, demanding a more international approach to standards of factors such as quality and design, and the opportunities for Western style retailers are growing.  Michael Arnold, of the Grocers’ Review takes us on a rare stroll through China’s new supermarkets.

You may not find quite what you’re looking for in a Shenyang food store, but under a rapidly changing economic climate, what you will find is a new food industry that approaches international standards in hygiene, variety, convenience and design.

Shenyang, eight hours north by train from Beijing, is the industrial hub of the innermost province of China’s Northeast, a region formally (and perhaps more enticingly) known as Manchuria. Once the birthplace of the mighty Qing Empire which held China for most of the last millennium, now it is a humble provincial capital: clouded in coal dust, sweltering in summer, thickly laden with coaly black snow in the wintertime.

Stroll to the supermarket

On my first night in Shenyang I am led to the local supermarket, Xtra, a Malaysian chain owned by the Parkson Group that now has interests throughout Asia. It is nearing the end of summer, shirtless men and miniskirted women swarming the street side night markets that set themselves up each evening, clothes, trinkets, toiletries and pirated movies being standard merchandise. There’s the odd individual selling food, too; one man I notice is squatting behind a sky-blue truck which is full of watermelons, cleaving them on a brick for buyers, who in turn squat in the gutter to consume them immediately, spitting out seeds. Another is turning what looks like a miniature concrete mixer over hot coals with his feet, from one end of which puffed corn, wheat and rice emerges to fill a long sack.

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The night is thick with noise, with the voices of passers-by and with the entreaties of the traditionally-dressed door girls to encourage customers into their respective restaurants, all gaudy in neon and coloured bulbs. From the upper storeys, the sound of boozed karaoke singers on high reverb drips out from the windows and oils out onto the streets. Ahead of me, an enthusiast group is practicing the art of ‘Dragon Dancing’, moving sinuously in single file, twisting bushy fans to the music of a hand drum and a two-headed clarinet.

Retail revolution?

The parade of food merchants drags on right to the door of the supermarket, where an elderly woman thrusts her fruit at me entreatingly. The old fashioned, still accustomed to the notion that any individual grower can expect to generate sales at a market, still regard the recent advent of the supermarket as something that should be a free-for-all. Interestingly, the guards show no interest in removing them from the parking lot, there being, in this culture, no sin in the attempt to make money.

The interior of the supermarket is familiar and superb: a well-lit, air conditioned, tidy supermarket of international design, it is divided into two stories, the top reserved for bathroom items, kitchenware, hardware and clothing, the bottom for aisles of food. Staff are (as is typical in China) plentiful, and next to almost every shelf stands an assistant to help shoppers with their product choices.

I am in a particular quandary on the food level – my attempts to find something familiar are thwarted at every turn. The meats counter (all unwrapped, I note) offers every part of the animal I’d never before considered edible; breads are served stale (I later learn they come out of the oven that way) and are invariably laced or filled with red bean paste; other more recognisable items have been ‘ruined’ by having been soaked in vinegar or suspended in jelly. I search for cereal without success – their only approximation is a powder that is designed to thickly and unappealingly float to the top of a volume of warm milk.

As a Kiwi, I found the dairy aisle particularly disappointing. Shenyang does have cows, but fresh milk is curiously impossible to buy, all milk available is either soured to a thin yoghurt or ultra pasteurised and packaged as UHT. The milk, when served, has a difficult-to-place aftertaste of wheat. New Zealand products do make an appearance, although at highly inflated prices: Anchor exports butter and cheese to here, and Kiwi brand ice cream is also available in two-litre tubs. Locals tell me that NZ products are popular despite their price – NZ has an unparalleled reputation in China as the world’s ‘purest’ country and genuine NZ goods are highly coveted.

French fancy?

On another day I am escorted to Shenyang’s leading supermarket, a branch of Carrefour, a French chain that has now opened throughout China and is quite possibly the foremost player in the industry. Whilst the fare on offer is still a nightmare for the foreign palate, Carrefour’s business practices clearly designate them as the market leaders in terms of branding, hygienic packaging, and store design.

For Shenyang locals, it’s a revolution in shopping. Barely 10 years ago, meat was still purchased more or less off the cow, thick fatty slabs sliced on dusty boards by the jin (about half a kilogram). Vegetables were bought from the backs of trucks, like the watermelons largely still are, and household items were bought from a specially designated area of town. Maoist anticompetitive economics spawned row upon row of identical shops with identical merchandise, none allowed to outskirt the other and thus only collectively attracting consumers. Store owners were forced to stand outside their shop fronts clapping loudly to try to gain an edge; in these days this is still common although no longer necessary.

Encouraging climate

Local initiatives saw the propagation of smaller convenience stores, but it was the government’s encouragement of foreign investment which truly brought Shenyang’s food industry in line with those of other modern cities. In fact, the economic climate has never been better for the industry – optimism is at a high, wages are on the increase, meaning consumer power is rising and affecting the quality of merchandise at last. Most importantly, the awareness amongst consumers regarding their purchasing choices is rapidly modernising. The goods at the supermarkets may be more highly priced than those purchased on the street-side tables, but consumers are beginning to understand that the value of food quality, freshness, and cleanliness is well worth the mark-up.

The climate has seen a number of competitors join the market within the last few years: a Taiwanese Tymall recently opened near the university campus in the north, capturing the student market, and last year a Chinese firm opened a Zhong Xing branch on Shenyang’s main commercial street. It hasn’t been all success stories, however: a Bigmart recently closed after 3 months’ trading due to poor location. In general, though, Shenyang’s supermarketing industry, with a potential customer base of 7 million consumers, is soaring into the new century with the best of them.

By Michael Arnold of Grocers’ Review