Tea break

Would you wait five hours for a cup of tea? They do in China


Madness of crowds: consumers queue up for Heytea’s hot product

Young workers in Shanghai are notoriously busy, facing long commutes from the more affordable outskirts of the city, coupled with lengthy hours in the office. Yet, bizarrely, many of them have found the time to wait five hours in line for a cup of tea.

This is the situation reported on from the latest HEYTEA branch, a milk tea chain, that opened its doors in Shanghai’s People’s Square. Five hours is just the typical time spent queuing too; there can be an additional 30-minute wait to receive your order.

Sitting inside HEYTEA, noted, were some clientele spared the leg ache of standing in line: pregnant women. These lucky few were permitted to skip the queue and wait inside.

There was a similar queue time at a recently opened bun shop in Shanghai, Master Bao’s (or Master Bun’s). Whereas the tea patrons were predominantly “fashionable youth”, Master Bao’s devotees are primarily middle-aged. But their similarities are more pronounced than their differences. In addition to the long waits, both outlets are also frequented by scalpers.

The scalpers do their time in the line, purchase a number of items, and then resell them at a marked-up price to punters waiting at the back of the queue. HEYTEA’s signature “layered milk tea” (tea with a thick, sweet milk that sits on top) can resell for an extra Rmb50, but since each customer is limited to six cups, the most a scalper can hope to make is Rmb300 ($43). The margins are higher at Master Bao’s, where you can resell a Rmb110 bag of buns for Rmb200.

With this many people willing to pay a premium or else wait hours on end, it would be fair to assume that the buns and tea have exceptional flavours. But apparently not. A journalist at Jiefang Daily asked 10 patrons what they thought of the food after they had finally tasted it: eight of them said it wasn’t worth the wait.

So what have these shops in Shanghai done to drum up such a crowd? According to the head of the socioeconomics department at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, Liu Zhangxi, it’s all about vanity.

Speaking specifically about HEYTEA, Liu said, “The reasoning behind this situation isn’t the tea itself. Whether it tastes good isn’t really important, but if you can buy this sort of product, then when you mention it in conversation with friends or on social media, it signifies to your friends ‘I bought something that was very hard to get, something that you all haven’t had’.”

Week in China can see the value of this theory, having reported in issue 350 about the braggarts who hire runners to complete marathons on their behalf but pretend they did it themselves. According to a number of other food outlets have enjoyed surges in similar popularity. But once too many people have bought the product, it loses the illusion of scarcity, and customers lose interest.

Food fads have been triggered by TV shows too. A South Korean soap opera spurred a mania for fried chicken and beer among young lovers, because the hugely popular heroine in the show liked the combo (see WiC227). Nor is this phenomenon restricted to within China’s borders. Overseas outlets can find themselves deluged with Chinese customers – the best recent example being The Plough at Casden. That pub was where former UK leader David Cameron hosted President Xi Jinping for a pint and some fish and chips. Footage of that event was seen by a billion Chinese on the nightly news. This instantly led the nation’s tourists to seek the pub out when they were in the UK and order what Xi had supped and eaten. In fact, it became so famous that a Chinese company called SinoFortune bought the pub last December (see WiC346).

It all goes to show that in China – and beyond – the law of very large numbers (1.4 billion mouths) can lead to some strange consequences.

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