How UAE expats adapt to a land of luxury
Brunch in a five-star hotel, a little enjoyable retail therapy in the luxury boutiques, then an upscale restaurant meal to round off the day: a fairly typical Friday for many western expatriates in Abu Dhabi. Few of them would have filled their leisure time the same way back home in France, the UK or the US, but the higher standard of living over here isn’t the only explanation for their new consumer habits.
Individuals change in response to contact with new cultures, including consumer attitudes and behaviours, through the process of acculturation. Different patterns of individual acculturation exist, as identified by researchers:
• Integration (i.e., the best of both worlds): the individual is equally attached to the home-county culture and the host-country culture (often through using its language or adopting local eating habits);
• Assimilation: the individual prefers the host-country culture to his home-country culture;
• Separation: the individual prefers his home-country culture, and rejects the host-country culture;
• Marginalisation: the individual has no particular attachment to either the home-country culture or the host-country culture;
• Hyper-culture: the individual displays an even greater attachment to his home-country culture than compatriots who have never left the homeland;
• The oscillating pendulum: the individual’s preference swings between the home-country culture and the host-country culture, depending on the circumstances.
As these types of acculturation are already identified, we tried to reveal empirical evidence of behaviour but mostly perception changes among expatriates. Our study – conducted between October 2013 and September last year as part of Abu Dhabi Sorbonne’s luxury-research programme – looks at the acculturation of expatriate consumers in the UAE, focusing particularly on the way their consumer behavior evolves in one of the country’s key markets – the luxury market. Starting from the simple observation that a newly-arrived expatriate is more likely than a longer-established expatriate to look round at a passing Maserati, we studied how the length of the expatriation period influences expatriates’ perceptions and buying habits for luxury goods.
Two-hundred and fourty-three French expatriates agreed to take part in our online survey. Analysis of their responses shows two successive phases in the acculturation processes: an initial “culture shock” phase on arrival in the UAE, followed by a normalisation phase.
The culture shock phase is characterised by excitement and amazement as an entirely new culture is discovered. This phase is comparable to the “honeymoon period” that past research has suggested, but never really defined or proved empirically. It is reflected in unquestioning perceptions of luxury with a bias in favour of the host culture’s norms, although initially some distance is kept from the market. A “newcomer” expatriate consumer is fascinated by the abundance of luxury goods and services in the UAE but also feels intimidated by it, and shows some reticence towards the luxury market.
The initial enthusiasm fades as the expatriation period proceeds, and the culture shock phase finally gives way to a normalisation phase: the expatriate consumer has a more standard response to a market considered increasingly normal. Luxury products come to be perceived as less sophisticated and extravagant, but more expensive and more snobbish, and purchases of luxury products become more frequent. In other words, having brunch in a five-star hotel or seeing a Maserati no longer impress or surprise the expatriate consumer as much as before.
We explain these apparently paradoxical observations by the expatriate’s growing familiarity with the luxury market the longer he spends in the host country. During the normalisation phase, the market begins to look less extraordinary, less intimidating, less “foreign” to the expatriate consumer, who starts to buy more luxury products. The increasing familiarity with the luxury market also explains his greater awareness of prices, which leads to a perception of luxury products as more expensive. The host-country culture loses some appeal as feelings of homesickness set in for the country where the expatriate intends to return sooner or later – one possible reason why buying luxury products is perceived as increasingly snobbish.
These results are very informative, as expatriates form a group that is not often studied by marketing researchers even though their numbers are constantly rising. Also, there is little marketing research on the UAE and the Gulf states in general. The Sorbonne Abu Dhabi’s luxury marketing research program is seeking to enhance understanding of consumer behavior by locals, but also by the foreigners who spend periods of varying lengths in the UAE. Our upcoming research will focuse on perceived risk when consuming counterfeit products that one is aware are counterfeit.
Cécile Chamaret is an assistant professor at Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi and supervises its luxury-research programme. Béatrice Parguel is a researcher with France’s National Committee for Scientific Research at Paris-Dauphine University
Updated: January 18, 2015 04:00 AM