Exploring Cultural Differences in Consumer Decision Making: Chinese Consumers in Montr+Al

Kathleen Brewer Doran, McGill University
[ to cite ]:
Kathleen Brewer Doran (1994) ,"Exploring Cultural Differences in Consumer Decision Making: Chinese Consumers in Montr+Al", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 318-322.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 318-322


Kathleen Brewer Doran, McGill University

Consumer decision making processes have been widely studied in North America. However, to date, little understanding exists of how culturally-based social influences (Hofstede, 1980; Hofstede and Bond, 1988; Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961) affect the utility of widely accepted models of consumer decision processes (e.g. Engel, Kollat and Miniard, 1986) in cultures outside North America. Yet this understanding is crucial as the world moves toward a global society. Those studies which do exist, such as Arnould's (1989) study of preference formation in Niger, highlight deviations from North American marketing models. Additional research in this area may show, for example, that cultures with a strong group orientation differ substantially from their more individualistic North American counterparts in types and numbers of search sources consulted. Research in a number of other disciplines (see, for example, Boyacigiller and Adler, 1991) has already begun to expose the American parochialism embedded in fundamental organizational theories, thus leading to the over-generalization of North American-based theory globally. There are a number of ways in which cultural factors such as overall orientation, values, attitudes and beliefs may lead to models which represent alternatives to the classic models of consumer decision making. Possible points of divergence include nearly every phase of the consumer decision making process.

This study was designed as an exploratory interpretive investigation into the role of culture on decision making processes. Participants from a contrasting culture, China, were chosen as the basis for the inquiry, both because of their cultural polarity to North Americans and because of their importanceCsince there is still little research on Chinese consumer behavior despite the vast potential of the Chinese market. [For the purposes of this paper, "China" and "Chinese" refers to the People's Republic of China and its citizens.] The objectives of the study were twofold. First, the study was designed to produce a descriptive examination of the search and choice characteristics of the Chinese expatriate in MontrTal. Second, by investigating a group culturally distant from those usually studied, this study was designed to expose areas of disparity between accepted search and choice theories and non-North American populations.

The study assumes that influence applied through culture and socialization may shape individual consumer decision making. Even in North America, where consumer choice patterns have traditionally been considered individual (or possible family) processes, the influence of reference groups is well-known, even if not well-studied. Olshavsky and Granbois (1979) note the importance of social influence on the majority of consumer choice events. Yet reference group is not as strong an influence on consumer decision processes as culture. A number of studies have noted differences in decision processes among various nationalities (e.g. Anderson and Engledow, 1977, Douglas, 1976), but few have attempted to explore the possible cultural implications of these findings (for exceptions see Arnould, 1989; McGuinness, Campbell and Leontiades, 1991). This study attempted to address this gap in the research, as the basis for more culturally-grounded future research.

In spite of the strength of cultural influence, a certain level of adaptation to new purchasing environments is expected, as is acculturation to new cultural situations generally. The current study defines consumption culture as a dynamic condition combining an individual's core culture with the consumption setting, including interactions with the prevalent culture at the consumption location. One focus of this study is to determine how culture and marketing environment interact through the study of consumption culture in MontrTal.


Participants and Participant Selection

The study employs interpretive techniques and a relatively small sample. Participants for the study were all Chinese nationals currently living in MontrTal. All were either graduate students or visiting scholars at one of the four Montreal universities, or were recent graduates of a North American graduate program working in MontrTal. Tenure in North America ranged from two months to ten years. Fifteen men and ten women were interviewed and ranged in age from about 23 to 50 years. Slightly over half the participants were married. While most of the participants were students, they were older (average in their 30's) and more experienced than the bulk of the student population and most had significant buying experience in China. The Chinese community in MontrTal is thriving and dedicated to preserving Chinese culture for those Chinese now living in the city.

A snowball sample was employed beginning with six individuals personally known to the researcher. At the end of each interview, participants were asked to provide an introduction to one or more of their friends who they felt would be appropriate to the needs of the study. This element of the study became critical as many potential respondents appeared to be somewhat shy and extremely busy with their own school commitments.

Interview Parameters

Whenever possible, interviews were conducted in participants' homes. However, some were conducted in the participants' offices, as some individuals were reluctant to bring a relative stranger into their homes. Nonetheless, exposure to individuals' offices still provided a deeper insight into the respondent than a neutral site would have. Interviews were arranged in advance in person or by telephone, after an introduction from one of the earlier participants. Each session was recorded on audio tape using a palm-sized recorder, after permission was received from the participant. The interviewer took extensive field notes during each interview, and also kept a field journal.

By definition, the study was more etic than emic, since the researcher was neither a member of the Chinese culture nor a participant in the search process. Various procedures were undertaken to ensure high data quality and interpretation (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988; Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry, 1989). For example, defamiliarization exercises were undertaken to help eliminate cultural biases resulting from the cultural differences between the researcher and the sample population. Memoing and external auditors were also employed to help improve the validity of findings.

Interviews were somewhat free-form, although they followed a basic outline, and ranged in length from about 40 minutes to over two hours; slightly over an hour on average. Interview content included background information, cultural information, and a series of questions based on actual situations involving the purchase of consumer electronics. These verbal protocols generally evolved into a more theoretical discussion of beliefs and attitudes concerning various information sources and search strategies. In addition, the researcher used a series of hypothetical situations to help draw out the interviewee, and to help determine how the current living situation might modify normal search patterns. Topics covered included determinants of search, information sources used, beliefs and attitudes concerning those sources, and a discussion of each individual's self-concept and relationship to his or her culture. The focus of the interviews was on information search; however, developing an appreciation for search strategies and rationales required delving into other areas of the consumer decision making process as well. This depth was particularly important in determining the placement of search within the decision making framework.



Consumer Choice Domain

A focus group of graduate students of multiple nationalities was used to help define the product choice for the interviews and to help structure the interview content. The study utilized consumer electronics as the basis for search discussions. While all participants have bought some electronic equipment, not all have bought the same type. Some have bought audio equipment and systems; others have bought video equipment (e.g. television and VCR); and some have experience buying both. Those who had experience with both product categories approached the two searches in an identical fashion, lending viability to the utility of the overall category choice. Some had experience in both their home countries and Canada; these individuals utilized similar, but not always identical, searches, lending credence both to the existence of adaptation and the tangibility of consumption culture.


A Description of the Chinese Choice Process

While exhibiting some individual differences, the Chinese participants, as a group, showed remarkable similarity in their choice processes. An overall model of the choice process used by participants in the study is outlined in Figure 1. The model reflects discrete time differences from generally accepted models of consumer search (e.g. Engel, et al, 1986). In addition, the group reflects a distinct system for information search patterns and source choice.

Since the Chinese value thrift highly, attitudes which approve the use of debt are rare. In the current sample, every individual saved in advance to make the purchase; impulse buying for this type of product was unheard of. While several individuals used credit cards for convenience and safety, all paid off their entire balances monthly. This credit consciousness tends to truncate the choice and search process into two distinct stages: a general search, prior to saving, designed to develop a familiarity with the products offered and common price points, and an intense short-term search, following saving, designed to choose and buy the product. The first stage of the search tends to be more leisurely and less directed. It includes visits to and consultations with friends and relatives and store visits (nearly always accompanied by friends). Individuals considering purchase may even borrow an item from a friend to "try it out," though this behavior decreases sharply with exposure to the West. Once a decision is made to buy and a budget selected, search virtually stops (except, perhaps, for accompanying a friend who is shopping) until the desired budget figure has been reached. At that time, in the second stage, an intense search of short duration, usually under a week, is undertaken and the final purchase is made.

Information Search

For the Chinese, information sources are viewed differently than they are in North America, possibly because much less information is available in China than in MontrTal. Sources of information used were strongly divided by the type of information sought. The participants made a profound distinction between information perceived as "factual" and that perceived as "evaluative." Within the sample, there were consistent views concerning the three types of information source: personalCgenerally friends and family; neutral, such as Consumer Reports; and marketer-dominated, such as advertising and salespeople. Personal sources were heavily consulted in all areas. However, most participants preferred to use both neutral and marketer-dominated information only for price and availability, although several admitted that they might also use these types of sources to provide details on functions available on various models. Mes-sages which implied an evaluative element were discounted unless they came from personal sources: "I don't trust other people, only my friends or my family. They [store representatives or manufacturers] might try to make me buy something I don't want. But for prices or functions, I ask. They can't lie about that."

In general, store searches occurred in two distinct phases, which coincided with the early, pre-saving search and the final, post-saving search. First, potential buyers wanted to browse stores undisturbed to get a general idea of product choices and price ranges early in the search process. They did not want to interact with salespeople at that time. The other time for store searches was at the time of purchase, after money had been budgeted and saved for the new purchase. One typical participant explained her reactions this way: "when salespeople talk to me, it makes me feel bad. I feel guilty and uncomfortable. I feel I have to buy...I feel pressed and sometimes afraid and I leave the storeCeven if I want to stay." Self-service, warehouse-type stores, and large electronics specialists were the most popular places to shop since they provided the shoppers with several key ingredients: relative anonymity from aggressive salespeople, large selection at a reasonable price, and an appearance of staying power and success.

One reason for the strong emphasis on both brand and personal sources of information which was mentioned by a number of participants was the need for trust. In addition, only one of the participants was willing to be an early adopter, with the rest preferring to wait until one of their friends or relatives already has a unit of the type desired. Since relationships are so strong, and the perceived importance of the product is so great, the Chinese interviewed often went beyond visiting a friend's home to see a product and actually borrowed the item to try it out. This process was possible because such a high level of trust exists in personal relationships, and having personal hands-on experience with the product before purchase helps build trust (and loyalty) with the manufacturer and product. However, as acculturation increased, borrowing behavior declined dramatically.

Social desirability also played a role for the group, as individuals tried to match their choices to those of their friends. One individual stated his feelings this way, "I want to buy at least as high a quality as my neighbors, but not too high, or I may embarrass them and lose face myself." This same issue of matching levels and social desirability may help to explain why adoption rates are slow at first, and then very rapid. It may be considered socially undesirable to be first, unless several people buy at the same time.

Local reference groups tended to have less impact on process than overall culture. However, reference group had a dynamic impact on information search and product choice outcomes. For example, five acquainted participants had the identical model of Aiwa personal cassette player, based on consecutive recommendations. Other areas where indivdual differences were clear included urban versus rural upbringing and marital status. Those individuals who were raised in rural environments tended to depend even more heavily on friends' recommendations than did other participants in the sample. Married individuals, even those who were physically separated from their spouses, tended to develop a dialogue with their spouses. However, while joint decision making was the norm through the first half of the decision process, it was less apparent during the final choice phase.

Other Search Characteristics

Although the Chinese are thrifty by nature, they value quality very highly. As a result, they choose a model first, then try to find the best price for that model, rather than setting a price threshold first and finding the best model they can for a given price. Functionality was very important to these individuals, who have a highly developed sense of product utility. In their combined views encompassing face, thrift and quality, they try to buy only functions they use, but those functions they do buy should be the best quality. Their attitudes toward products and money appeared to be "prudent practicality." For example, unlike many North Americans, not one of the people involved in the study had a VCR they did not know how to program, or a cassette recorder they didn't know how to use for recording. Many considered that it would be wasteful if they had functions which they considered superfluous. Similarly, they made a strong effort to learn how to use their new equipment when they got it home. Yet, product appearance was also important to a number of participants. Several noted that it was important for the product to have a "good face;" they felt comfortable because the unit was "very pretty; it looks very nice. Having a good look is important."

Brand influence was particularly accentuated in the sample group. Perhaps this aspect was an artifact of the product category chosen, yet in discussions of all types of product categories, brand influence was a major factor. In the case of consumer electronics, in addition to individual brand influence, there appeared to be an element of brand identification with a producing nation; in this case, Japan. Every individual interviewed commented on the perceived superiority of Japanese electronics. With only two exceptions, the participants were willing to wait to buy until they could afford to "buy Japanese." Both of the exceptional cases bought products which consisted of Japanese parts, but which were assembled elsewhere. Representative comments included, "We Chinese may not like the Japanese people very much, but we trust Japanese electronics. They are the best, and having the best is very important to me."

The importance of electronics in the Chinese culture was alluded to by a number of participants. Since ownership of major items such as houses or cars is seldom viable, consumer electronics play an important symbolic role projecting an aura of personal success. Yet appearances within the group seemed more important in China than in Canada. Some professed a sense of being more liberated in Canada, less bound by convention. For this reason, many individuals noted that they felt they might have bought a fancier or more upscale item in China than in Canada. Brand and national origin of products were also considered more important in China than in Canada, though brand and product origin were still very important. "Japanese machinery is [a] fashion in China...[it] shows you have money. Americans don't market as much," was a typical comment which combined the symbolic value of possessing electronic equipment with the quality image associated with specific national origins.

Most participants continued to buy equipment from the same store once an initial purchase had been made. For example, having bought a music system, a consumer would most often return to the same store to purchase a television and VCR, even though he/she would probably visit other stores casually.

Acculturation and Choice Processes

There were trends in acculturation which tended to differ over time. Acculturation appeared to occur along a relatively steady, but shallow, slope as long as an individual had in mind a specific time period to return to China. The rate of acculturation accelerated with the imposition of one of two conditions. First, when landed immigrancy was obtained (even when the plan was still to return), or second, when a decision was made to try to stay in North America, individuals began to acculturate at a greatly intensified rate. One exception to this pattern was the youngest female, who had little experience buying in China and, therefore, appeared to adopt more typically Western strategies right away.

One interesting development was the contrast between those who had come directly to Canada from China versus those who had lived in the United States first. Those who had lived in the U.S. "melting pot" tended to be more assimilated given a consistent period of exposure to the West than those who came directly to Canada where "multiculturalism" encourages more retention of traditional values for immigrants. The "melting pot" sample was more likely to use marketer-dominated and neutral sources, less dependent on personal source evaluations, and less brand conscious. These individuals were most likely to have bought equipment which was not of Japanese origin, or were more willing to do so in the future. However, it is possible that this difference results not from specific differences encountered between U.S. and Canadian culture, but simply from exposure to an additional culture, regardless of its characteristics.

Overall, the more acculturated individuals exhibited less brand consciousness, and were more likely to shop alone, as well as more likely to buy less fancy equipment, but sooner. As individuals became more used to the retail choices in MontrTal, the likelihood of frequenting small ethnic stores where they could forgo tax increased. However, this gray market activity had very high perceived risk for most of the sample. In the same light, as acculturation increased, Chinese consumers were likely to shop more stores, as well as use more marketer-dominated and neutral sources of information. Finally, they were more likely to try to "buy the most product for the money" rather than choose the model first, and then try to locate it at the best price.

Study Contributions and Limitations

The current study makes contributions to the literature in four basic areas. First, the descriptive knowledge gained from an interpretive investigation of a population which has not been widely studied can be used to add data to a growing information base on marketing habits in the multinational context. Second, the study reinforces the assumption that massive cultural differences exist between East Asian, in this case Chinese, and North American buyers, and that these differences drive essential distinctions in consumer decision making processes. In other words, culture matters, and the particular dimensions of a culture relate directly to existing patterns of search and choice in a given situation. Third, even in a strongly reinforced subculture such as the Chinese community in MontrTal, over time assimilation occurs which reflects the influence of the dominant culture and marketing environment encountered. Last, the study develops the notion of consumption cultures which combine elements of social culture with the marketing environment to create a contextual synthesis in each choice set.

Relationships obviously play an important role in the search and choice processes: the friends who are consulted, the product choices made with reference to appearances within the reference group, the emphasis on developing a brand relationship and the stores patronized over time all represent long-term commitments and relationships for the consumer. As anticipated, satisfaction levels were uniformly high. The search process itself, which emphasizes hands-on experience and personal knowledge of the product through friends and relatives, appears to lead to more realistic expectations, and therefore greater satisfaction.

Based on these results, there is support for the notion of a consumption culture which combines elements of both an individual's deep cultural roots and the marketing environment encountered in any particular choice event. Consumption culture in this sense is evolutionary; it maintains many of the deepest cultural values, while adapting search and choice patterns to the current situation and marketing environment. It is possible that the results of this study reflect normal new immigrant behavior. However, most individuals maintained central behaviors developed in China, at least until a decision was made to remain in the West. Further, many of the participants did not consider themselves immigrants, but temporary visitors, and many of this returning faction were buying items with the intention of bringing them home to China. Nonetheless, even behavior typical of new immigrants lends credence to the concept of consumption culture by showing how the marketing environment may affect purchasing behavior.

The study itself is unquestionably exploratory in nature. The sample size is small, as well as rather homogeneous, since all participants have, or are now working toward, advanced degrees. More importantly, perhaps, there is no control group of North Americans. Yet, because the effects of acculturation mitigate true Chinese buying characteristics, the differences found here may, in fact, understate the extent to which culture influences decision making. Further, while the study provides an illuminating view into the adaptation of one group into a distinctly different environment, it may not fully capture the processes used when in their home environment. Additionally, the study may suffer somewhat from two elements: first, students' somewhat impoverished financial status may have an overly large impact on budgeting as a factor in search procedures; second, the high education level achieved by all of the participants affects the representativeness of the sample for the overall population.

There are, of course, limitations associated with protocol-type analyses (see Nisbett and Wilson, 1977), although there are a number of precedents in this area (e.g. Herr, Kardes and Kim, 1991; Rosen and Olshavsky, 1987). At the exploratory level, however, verbal reports still provide new insights into general modes of behavior. Nonetheless, as noted in Adler, Campbell and Laurent (1989), only through exploration and experimentation can an appropriate methodology for investigating structurally divergent cultures such as the Chinese be developed. Perhaps these self report techniques will lead to new breakthroughs in ways to compare cultures experimentally.

Finally, while an understanding of consumer decision making processes is very important, since this study investigates only one culture it only begins to address the long term needs of cross cultural research in developing generalizable theories for global use. Nonetheless, the varying degrees of acculturation found were strongly related to length of stay in the West, which adds an element of multiculturalism.


The results of this study are compelling, yet clearly require a significant body of follow up research. First, researchers must investigate the Chinese in other decision contexts in order to test the robustness of the proposed model. Second, studies need to be undertaken which encompass a number of different cultures with contrasting dimensionalities. Third, the research needs to move beyond exploration into a more confirmatory mode. Fourth, in order to truly explore cultural differences in consumer decision making, studies must be undertaken in situ.

The findings of this investigation show some of the ways in which new immigrants adapt to new cultures from the perspective of consumer decision making processes and particularly external search. Specifically, the study inquires into the existence of a distinct and evolutionary consumption culture. In addition, the analysis of interview information shows broad differences in culture-based search patterns between the Chinese respondents and findings from previous, Western-based investigations.

Cultural differences appear to be more important than national borders when investigating decision making processes, but local marketing environments, including current reference group and ambient culture, also have a profound effect, especially on contextual outcomes. Therefore, marketers should be careful to think globally in terms of understanding cultural differences, but act locally by understanding the effect of local environment.


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