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Picnics soar in popularity in summer

By He Wei in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2020-06-25 11:10
Local residents have picnics at Chaoyang Park in Beijing on April 2. [Photo by Li Na/For China Daily]

Many cities in China recently moved from the reality of a pandemic to the joyful pleasures of a picnic.

As the country has largely flattened the novel coronavirus outbreak, people are more willing to go outdoors and embrace the fresh air. This has inspired a picnic fever among middle-income earners getting out after months of being locked down by COVID-19 in their homes or apartments.

Once seen as an escape from the city, a meal surrounded by trees and meadows is becoming a cultural token and a downright pleasant excursion for many families.

Data from online catering platform Ele.me showed that takeout orders to parks in Wuhan, Hubei province, jumped 4.3 times three days ahead of the May Day festival and in comparison with the rest of April.

It also found out that residents in Shanghai are most likely to order coffee in parks, while those from Kunming, capital city of Yunnan province, go for barbecues the most.

Retailer Suning spotted a similar uptick in the trend. It said purchases of common picnic items like tents and picnic pads surged 121 percent and 116 percent in revenue in May compared with the previous month. Sales of sunscreens grew nearly 2.5 times.

The picnic boom reflects the relaxation of stringent quarantine and social distancing measures in place since the start of the outbreak, said Zhu Di, associate researcher on sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"As the pandemic eases, people have a very strong urge to socialize. Picnic is the safe bet as it perfectly balances hanging out with friends and keeping social distancing at an outdoor space," Zhu said.

According to Zhang Lei, an economics professor at the Zhejiang University of Technology, a picnic represents the passage from one world to another culturally and aesthetically.

"Baskets and blankets manage to cross bridges both literally and figuratively, taking urban residents from crowded city centers to tranquil pastures and riversides," said Zhang. "That helps create a new psychological space that's burden-relieving, while sparking widespread interest in picnic-related items."

As simple as it sounds, it is never easy to prepare a picnic.

For Feng Zhenmin, an enthusiast who has taken three picnic trips since the start of April, finding a proper patch of grass is the first headache. Then there is the amount of time and energy devoted to making the picnic fare fresh and portable. "Once I was left clutching a sweaty bottle of champagne, only to realize that I forgot to bring the corkscrew," she said.

As the love for a picnic surges, so are the businesses riding the boom to make it less of a thorny task.

Before June 1, Hilton Group rolled out picnic-themed combos to provide those who fancy a five-star picnic as a special summer treat.

The hospitality giant offered customers the option to dine alfresco with plush picnic hampers featuring afternoon tea feasts, tasty cheese platters, fine drinks, and other delicacies.

People purchasing combos are also entitled to plaid blankets, wicker baskets filled with freshly-made sandwiches, and even balloons to add to the fun, said Wendy Huang, senior vice-president and commercial director for Hilton Greater China and Mongolia.

"Spring and summer times are perfect seasons to go out for a picnic," she said. "Our offering stands to give customers a quick jump start, circumventing all laborious preparations."

The pickup in demand also aligns with an emerging tourism pattern that has seen an increasing preference for short-haul trips around megacities and where people tend to cherish more family get-togethers in a secluded setting.

Lawrence Ng, vice-president for sales marketing at Marriott International Greater China, gave a nod to that sentiment by pointing to the greater focus of consumer behavior on health and wellness. He said the hospitality industry is pioneering some new practices and trends to meet those demands.

"We understand that travelers remain cautious and prefer to avoid crowded areas, and picnics have become an alternative way for family and friends to gather. Their need for nature, outdoor entertainment, and leisure was fueled during this period," Ng said.

There's a socializing element in the picnic boom such as taking photos/videos and sharing them on social media.

Social media site Xiaohongshu has doubled as a promoter and a witness of the conspicuous enthusiasm for picnics. The company has attracted over 19 million page views to a picnic-themed campaign it launched in April, with the number of picnic-related posts expanding 13.6 times year-on-year on the platform.

On Xiaohongshu, the top five cities where users uploaded the most posts are from Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hangzhou. This suggested a potential correlation between disposable income and the cultural narrative behind the picnic trend.

"I've literally stayed indoors for two months, canceling outbound trips and working from home," said Chen Xiaofan, 31, who works at a multinational bank in Beijing. "A picnic effectively fulfills the kind of romance of a weekend getaway, especially when we are still unable to go abroad."

Going out on a picnic is also reflective of how the internet is bringing virtual empowerment to women. This in turn translates into purchasing power, said Liu Guohua, assistant professor of management at the Shanghai International Studies University.

"Social media has a major role to play noticeably in women's shopping decision-making because of the variety of goods they are into, the high level of interaction, as well as the strong emotional impulse driving a purchase," said Liu.

"Some of my friends are keen on going to a picnic just for the sake of sharing photos on social media. They spend hours taking photos without taking a bite of the food," said Chen, the banker. "That's a deviation from the original purpose of scrapping social expectations and staying true to yourself."

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