This is a usability analysis in comparing the shopping experience at wet market and supermarket, which can be seen as a traditional shopping experience in contrast to that of a modern consumption.

The act – the event

It all started when I had to buy the food ingredients of the dinner. The two dishes were “Steamed Chicken with black fungus and golden needle” 金針雲耳蒸雞 (Golden Needle is the dried flower of Daylily) and “Tofu Soup with Flesh Tomato” 鮮茄豆腐湯. I got a hand-written shopping list with Chinese characters from my wife that listed out all the required items. All items were to be bought in wet market for the freshness but I was asked to buy the tofu in supermarket because the smooth texture of a specific brand of tofu was best for steaming style.

The scene – the place and time

When I stepped into the Sunshine Plaza Wet Market in late afternoon, the first impression that grasped me was the crowded environment and the vibrant lighting atmosphere created by a mix of warm and cool light sources. The background was filled with noises of people talking, promoting and negotiating, machines and motors roaring and air-conditioning whispering. There was a big contrast with atmosphere of the PARKnSHOP supermarket where the environment was clean and tidy, and you could hear the background light music and occasional promotion jingles.

The shopping experience at wet market was adventurous and full of surprises. The zoning of wet market was just loosely arranged for the convenience of the management, although raw and cooked commodities were intentionally separated for hygiene and safety concern. However I could find key & lock shop next to a shop selling roasted meat, an aquarium shop next to a shop selling Philippine grocery. There was even a frozen food shop located next to a shop selling Chinese religious ritual products, that is, food for man next to food for the deceased. But it was this apparently messy arrangement that made the wet market interesting. You did not know what would show up next. This satisfied a basic psychological need; that the brain welcomes variety, contrast and change.1

Someone may consider sound and chaos at wet market are NOISE and disturbance of a shopping experience. However perception is an active process. We are constantly being selective of all the possible stimuli, and that what we do perceive is but the tiniest part of what is perceptible. When necessary, we can ignore all the noises and only concentrate on the shopping business.2 However our brain is more sensitive to new stimuli that give us the best opportunity to learn new knowledge, in this case the ambient NOISE plays a vital part in creating the right atmosphere and arousing emotion of customers for an in-depth shopping experience.

The agent – The actors / produce / products

In the wet market, shopkeepers are always the shop owners. They give their customers a warm and friendly feeling. They are enthusiastic to share information on how to make great dishes with the raw ingredients they sell. They talk about their produce just like parents talking about their children, and really care about what they sell to the customers. In supermarket, salesmen are as cool as a vending machine. They are the agent facilitating the purchasing process and their duty is to organize the products and refill empty shelves. They know the location and price of particular products but do not really care about the characteristics and differences of the products they are refilling.

The enthusiasm of wet market shopkeepers is reflected through the frequent facial engagement, which is opened up by eye contact. Facial Expression is an effective way of communication. Shopkeepers are usually obligated to respond to requests for facial engagements cause they owe this to themselves, because through such communication their own interests to complete the selling and buying activity can be served.3 Also the participation of facial engagement can be a sign of social closeness and relatedness that are extremely important in creating customer bonds and loyalty in this highly competitive environment.

Interaction is intensive too. Take experience of buying the chicken as an example. Within 5 minutes, the process of information sharing about the characteristic of the locally breed organic chicken, the best method and procedures to cook it, the chopping & packaging of chicken, and the payment processes are completed smoothly and simultaneously. Customers are free to watch, touch, smell and even taste the ingredients. These largely enrich experiences with full utilization of the 5 senses; visuals, sound, smell and textures.

In wet market, produce such as vegetables, pork, beef, poultry and seafood are fleshly displayed. Even frozen food/meat are displayed nakedly. You can touch and feel the food in its natural form. Freshness is “visible”. Customers recognize the shop name and shop owner in association with the produce they wanted. Faces of the shop owners become brands of their produce. Whilst in supermarket, products are mostly packed in boxes and plastic containers. Even flesh vegetables are divided into equal quantity & weight, and are packed in advance. Nature of products can only be identified by the information on the packaging. Every product has an expiry date. Products are differentiated by the brand, the graphic skin, and ultimately by the information embedded in the barcode on the packaging.

The agency – The shopping flow and procedures

There are 2 forms of narratives in this shopping experience: Qualitative Progression Form vs Repetitive Form of narratives. 4

In supermarket, the zones are organized systematically and schematically. Products are categorized with precision such as Noodles, Drink and Beverage, Snacks & Biscuit, Diary Products, etc. The careful planning of the shopping flow and sequence in supermarket reflects qualitative Progression form of narration. Drinks and refreshments always followed by Beverage, Snacks and chocolate always come after biscuits. Experienced shoppers can predict which types of products will be displayed in the next aisle. Even though the floor plan and layout may vary for different supermarkets in different locations, shoppers can more or less find their products by knowledge that is formulated by perception, pass experience, visual pattern and socially agreed pathway of shopping in supermarket. Of course, this qualitative progression form of experience eventually becomes the conventional form of shopping in supermarket as a whole.

Clear pathway and flow of shopping experience is a typical example of modernity that looks for efficiency, precision, productivity, common ideology, regulation, etc. Barcode is a sign of the monetary value of a product, but is also a symbol of modern consumptions carrying the characteristic of being systematic, convenient, digitized and efficient. Products are nothing more than bunches of numbers that creates profit. And from the variety of product brands and origins, consumers can actually SEE the effect of globalization.

Narrative of wet market is in Repetitive form, the consistent maintaining of a principle under new guises. It is the restatement of the same thing in different ways. Shoppers repeat the process of greeting, look, chat, touch, select, weight and pay every time buying from a different shop. Repeating process can create surprises for the participants when there are slight changes in every loop. These loops of actions enrich the shopping experience when strong characters of the shopkeepers largely magnify the vital element of an experience, the emotions and ideas, the human factors so to speak. Emotions are attached to these events and objects that give shopping experience at wet market an esthetic quality, in it as appreciative, perceiving and enjoying. 5

When I tell them the dishes is for 2, they will suggest on the right quantity. Their family recipe and personal tips for me enrich the sense of engagement in interaction and communication. In this experience, as described by John Dewey,

flow is from something to something. As one part leads into another and as one part carries on what went before, each gains distinctness in itself. The enduring whole is diversified by successive phases that are emphasis of its varied colors… An experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency.”

I feel that this is a REAL experience for me.

Other differences between two experiences include: in wet market, customers can order desired amount according to their need whilst in supermarket, customers can only have choice of multiply of standard unit. In wet market, one can physically feel the freshness of ingredient by seeing, touching, smelling, hearing and even tasting but in supermarket, one can only check the nutrient ingredient on the package and see the image and graphic representation of product inside. Customers repeat the picking and checking out processes many times in wet market, once per shop. In supermarket, after collecting all products needed on shopping cart, customers queue up for checking out in one go. In wet market, you can only pay by “real” money, but in supermarket you can pay by different methods such as cash, electronic money, credit cards, coupons, etc. and the final sound you can hear is “doo, doo, doo, ding” sound from the cash register and then take the receipt.

To a great extend, the experience in wet market is warmer, with more human-to-human interaction. The process is more sustainable and environmental friendly.

The purpose

Words or objects with more than one meaning will lead to subjective interpretation.6

When information on the product packaging is filled with difficult scientific terms and ambiguous descriptions, it will lead to unnecessary suspicion, misinterpretation and eventually consumer dissatisfaction. But for shopping in wet market, customers can freely explore the quality of target food ingredients with different senses, and has enough exchange of information and assurance from the shopkeepers. The responsibility for produce/product quality is shifted to the customers because it is their own choice, for better and for worse.


Gaver, W., in his discussion about emotion design, claimed that if design can appraise and influence the emotion of the user, it would be able to stimulate an interaction style that is more intuitive and sensitive: “Using psychological sensors or behavioral cues, digital products might be able to surmise their users’ emotional states and react accordingly. For instance, upon sensing frustration software might automatically open a help package, or to-do lists might automatically suggest task depending on their users’ mood”. 7 The proposition is amazingly similar to what a good shopkeeper is doing, that is to provide feedback according to the emotional state of customers and improve the level of satisfaction through smiling faces, friendly gestures and useful tips that constitute the human value in interaction.


  1. K. J. McGarry, “To Know and To Be Informed,” from The Changing Context of Information: An Introductory Analysis.
  2. John C. Condor. Jr., “From Experience to Symbol,” from Semantics and Communication.
  3. (Facial Engagement)
  4. Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Form,” from Contemporary Rhetoric: A Conceptual Background with Readings authored by Winterowd, W. Ross, Ed.
  5. John Dewey. “Having an Experience,” from Art As Experience
  6. Paul Rand, selections from A Designer’s Art.
  7. Gaver, W. in his paper published in the proceedings of the first International Conference on Design & Emotion, 1999, p. 52.