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The younger generation in today’s China is heavily impacted by the rising cultural phenomenon of drinking made-to-order tea. My friends and I are no exception to its vast influence: when hanging out, we would order tea drinks in malls, just as many other youngsters do, despite the fact that I’m frankly not a huge fan of those drinks and was usually just following suit. However, when I’m free and alone, I do sometimes enjoy going to Starbucks and spending my afternoon there reading and studying. I noticed that there are vast differences between Starbucks and those new tea stores in numerous ways: their environment (noisiness), style of decoration, even the music they play, etc. Thus, I suspect that the customers visiting them must also vary accordingly. In order to verify my assumption, in this article, I will choose a local Starbucks and a chain of a popular tea brand named “HeyTea” as my subject of observation, with a focus on how their respective customers vary in age, socioeconomic status, and what they are seeking from the two stores’ services.

Background Information:
A bit of insight into modern day China’s drink industry provides a good context. In recent years, China has seen a boom in its tea industry. Countless made-to-order tea stores sprang up on the streets around 2017, offering modernized drink choices that innovatively combined traditional brewed tea with fruits and desserts such as pudding, chocolate, and cream. Thanks to their appealing tastes and highly customizable nature, these drinks promptly caught the imagination of China’s younger generation, and drinking them had somewhat become synonymous with being trendy. Getting a cup of pleasant tea drinks while wandering in shopping malls had become a must for some youngsters when they are hanging out, and even internet memes about tea drinks began popping up on social media, making the word “cultural phenomenon” a fitting description. In 2018, China’s made-to-order tea industry by itself has generated a whopping revenue of fourteen billion dollars (Zixuan and Rob, 2019, p.30). The successes of numerous emerging tea drink brands are creating an ever more intensified competition in China’s drink industry: Starbucks, the renowned brand that occupies a major share in the Chinese market, is sparing no efforts to retain their Chinese fanbase through diversifying their menus and expanding the coverage of their chains in order to catch up with the vast changes in the market (Yang and Tu, 2016, p.29).

Note: just to clarify, in China, with the pandemic already put under control, the government has already lifted restrictions regarding social distancing. Wearing masks is no longer mandatory. Gatherings are also fairly common.

Observation No.1
Location: A Starbucks at a major mall named Intime City in Shaoxing, Zhejiang
Time: 10/3/20, 3pm-4pm

It was a cool autumn afternoon with a gentle breeze. The Chinese National Day was just two days ago, and what follows was a long holiday week. Inside the bustling mall were people seeking to unwind and entertain themselves in this vast ocean of goods and services. The Starbucks shop was located at an easily noticeable spot close to the main entrance of the mall, and, combined with its eye-catching logo glowing with a greenish light, it is nearly impossible for passers-by to miss its existence. I pushed open its glossy glass door. What came into sight was Starbucks’s signature retro decoration, characterized by an overall brownish color tone and furniture with wooden textures; a comforting tender smell of cocoa swiftly occupied my sense of smell, and the light Jazz music being played on the speakers did the same to my ears—-a clear consistency among my three senses can be felt. From a myriad of names for coffees on the handwritten menu boards, I ordered my cup of Frappuccino (which suggests that I am an illiterate when it comes to coffees), sat down on a chair beside the glass walls where sunshine could come in, and began looking around.
Not many people inside the Starbucks were chatting out loud. The glass windows somewhat muted the noise from within the bustling shopping mall, and the primary source of noise seemed to be the tinkling made by coffee cups and machines, which I assume would be fairly pleasant for coffee lovers. Sitting across from me was a teenager about the same age and in a similar style of outfit as mine, holding an Apple Pencil next to his cheek and seemingly pondering about questions presented on his iPad. Beside the glass windows were two mid-age ladies in smart blouses smiling and chatting casually, presumably about pleasant daily trifles. A girl with glasses, also the same age as mine, could be seen from my spot focused and typing on her laptop. A waiter in Starbucks’s light green suit passed by me and picked up used plates and cutleries gently. Everybody in the store was harmonious with Starbucks’s iconic vibe–laid-back, comfy, exactly the way the playful light Jazz music in the background sounds—and having a good time with themselves chatting or studying, accompanied by a cup of refreshing afternoon coffee.

Observation No.2
Location: A tea drink store named HeyTea, at the same mall named Intime City. Shaoxing, Zhejiang
Time: 10/4/20, 2pm-3pm

It’s the same National Day holiday week, and I’m observing at the same mall. Nonetheless, today I was going for this customizable tea drink chain named HeyTea. I was wandering in the mall, wondering where the store was located, until my eyes were caught by its logo: a minimalist line drawing of a man drinking his tea with his eyes closed, probably suggesting that he was enjoying it. Without having to enter the store, I could easily notice the vast difference between the store’s style of decoration and that of Starbucks: unlike Starbucks’s overall dark, brownish color tone, the HeyTea store was overwhelmingly white and greyish; its tables and seats were bearing a smooth, glossy texture, its walls painted grey and decorated with short Chinese and English phrases featuring a modern, simplistic font, in stark contrast with Starbucks’s wooden chairs and walls adorned with vintage oil paintings. I walked in. The store on the inside is not less noisy than the outside: what promptly entered my ears was trendy pop songs and the chattering sound from the long line of people waiting in front of the counter for their order. This brand’s been enjoying years of popularity, and it still don’t seem to show any signs of ceasing. The menu was shown on several LED displays, but I couldn’t see them clearly since I was kept from approaching the counter by the crowd. I chose to order with my phone, and, from a dazzling variety of combinations consisting of teas, milk foams, etc., I ordered the most essential milk tea drink. I was told that the order was successfully placed, but some twenty orders were made before mine, so I had to wait.
Unwillingly, I sat down on one of those glassy-looking chairs and started observing. There are rarely mid-aged people visiting this store; most of the customers being youngsters with trendy outfits, some visiting with their girl/boyfriends. People waiting in the line were doing nothing other than chattering and scrolling somewhat purposelessly on their phone screens. Few people actually sat down on the seats, and rightfully so because despite the seats’ fancy appearances, they are not that comfortable sitting on, definitely far from Starbucks’s seats’ level of comfort. No one could be seen reading or working on stuff since the store is way too noisy for studying. Feeling that there isn’t much left for me to observe, I just spent some time with my phone until my drink was available. I walked to the counter, found my order, and left the store, just like most customers do after they find theirs. My drink was green tea with a layer of milk foam, and it tasted pretty smooth and sweet. I feel fat after finishing my tea, and more so when I remember reports about the high amounts of fat and sugar in these drinks.

The result of my observation didn’t go beyond my expectation. As mentioned in my observation, in the HeyTea store, what I saw were overwhelmingly teenagers or people in their 20s, mostly in trendy outfits. Most would directly leave the store after getting their orders, and few would sit down in the store. In Starbucks, by comparison, I saw a mixture of young and middle-age people. Their purpose of visiting the store is less about that cup of coffee they order than the comfortable environment of the store. With its exquisite decoration and comfy furniture, Starbucks would make it a suitable place for studying and meeting friends. Starbucks’s relatively high pricing makes it safe for us to assume that its customers have a higher socioeconomic status than those of HeyTea, whose drinks are affordable even for teenage students. This study on the two stores’ differences in their customers might inspire both of them to improve. As opposed to just catering to youngsters embracing a quick-paced lifestyle, HeyTea could seek to refine their decoration, making their stores more comfortable for customers to linger—-a step that I believe could be vital in HeyTea’s road to premiumization. Starbucks, on the other hand, could consider adjusting their pricing so that they could cater to a broader customer base.

Yang, Q., Tu, X (2016), Starbucks VS Chinese tea—Starbucks brand management strategy analysis in China, International Business and Management 12(1), 29-32, DOI:

Zixuan, W., Rob M., (2019). Factors influencing consumers’ purchase intentions towards made-to-order tea drinks in China, Journal of Marketing Communications, International Journal of Food and Beverage Manufacturing and Business Models 4(2), 29-52. DOI: 10.4018/IJFBMBM.201907010in3

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