The market is growing furiously, but getting tougher for foreign firms
In the heart of old Shanghai is a magnificent villa that serves as the workplace of Guo Jingming, a provocative young film-maker. "Tiny Times", his recent blockbuster, follows the travails of some fashionable college girls (pictured, in the walk-in closet of one of them). Its depictions of the high life, rarely shown in Chinese films, have set social networks ablaze; they have also been attacked by the People’s Daily for "unconditional hedonism". Mr Guo says: "So what? Materialism is neutral, neither positive nor negative." After all, he goes on, China’s cosmopolitans know at any given moment what movies are playing in New York and what fashions are on the Paris runways.
China’s once-drab and Mao-suited interior is not so far behind. In Mianyang, a middling city in the province of Sichuan, an enormous billboard featuring Miranda Kerr, an Australian supermodel, draped in Swarovski crystals welcomes shoppers to the Parkson shopping mall. It is one of half a dozen high-end malls in town. Luxury sales are exploding there. Local Audi and BMW dealers sell more than 100 cars each a month; Land Rover, Jaguar and Cadillac have just muscled in on the market.
Thirty kilometres (20 miles) away in Luxi, a town of 57,000 people, online shopping is hot. The first express-delivery office opened only three years ago, and handled perhaps ten packages a day; today, there are five, each handling 100 packages a day. Even 60km away, in rural Santai county where farm-workers are the customers, one modern shopping mall has sprung up and another is being built. "Customers are evolving very quickly from the low-end market to the middle and high-end," says Yang Shuiying, proud general manager of the Zizhou shopping centre.
In the 1950s and 1960s the world economy was transformed by the emergence of the American consumer. Now China seems poised to become the next consumption superpower. In all likelihood, it has just overtaken Japan to become the world’s second-biggest consumer economy. Its roughly $3.3 trillion in private consumption is about 8% of the world total, and it has only just begun.
"The future of the world will be profoundly shaped by China’s rush toward consumerism," says Karl Gerth, an expert on Chinese consumption at the University of California, San Diego. Although investment made the biggest contribution to China’s growth last year, and although private consumption’s share of output, now at 36%, fell between 2000 and 2010, that trend is unlikely to last, for several reasons.
First, boosting the people’s desire to consume is a stated goal of China’s leaders. Higher government spending on health care and pensions may encourage households to save less for such things. Higher interest rates may, paradoxically, discourage thrift if people reach their savings goals faster. Rising wages and an ageing population will also shift the balance towards consumption rather than saving. And although household debt is growing fast, China still has relatively little.
Besides, consumption has not fallen in absolute terms. It has, in fact, grown briskly--just not quite as quickly as the economy overall. In dollar terms, China contributed more than any other country to the growth in global consumption in 2011-13, according to Andy Rothman of CLSA, a broker. Moreover, China’s official statistics understate some consumption--spending on housing, for example.
A massive push to urbanise is also under way, which should produce tens of millions of richer citizens seeking retail therapy. McKinsey, a consultancy, forecasts that consumption by urban Chinese households will increase from 10 trillion yuan in 2012 to nearly 27 trillion yuan in 2022 (see chart 1).
How much China spends is striking. Even more so is the way it spends. This is now one of the world’s most sophisticated consumer markets, heavily skewed towards expensive goods. Local property barons are now building half the world’s new shopping malls in China, many of them in smaller cities, because even punters without big incomes are becoming big shoppers. Research by IDEO, a consultancy, has found that many young migrant workers earning less than 5,000 yuan ($830) a month will spend a month’s wages on an Apple iPhone.
That points to another difference from previous consumption booms elsewhere: with the world’s largest e-commerce market at their fingertips, Chinese shoppers are online from the start. As a result, what was once a foreign marketers’ fantasyland is now the world’s fiercest battleground for brands.
Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, calls the Chinese "increasingly aspirational and conspicuous consumers" who routinely trade up to fancier labels even on staples. Newly middle-class types in cities in the interior are keen to try out new products, especially the ones they have seen on foreign television shows. Jeff Walters of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) points out that even country bumpkins are consuming global media, thanks to the wild popularity of local online-video services. Chinese consumers, he says, were watching the latest season of "Downton Abbey" on Youku, a video-sharing website, well before it was released in America.
This passion for fashion is, in theory, good news for multinational marketers. Unlike, say, Japan, where consumers heavily favour local brands, Chinese consumers hold foreign brands in high esteem. Torsten Stocker of AT Kearney, a consultancy, observes that foreign brands are doing well in sectors they introduced to China (chewing gum, chocolate); those that have "heritage" appeal (premium cars, luxury goods) and those where local brands are not trusted, such as powdered baby milk. The world’s fast-food and consumer-goods giants--Procter & Gamble, Pepsi, General Mills and so on--are also big in China, but they are increasingly dogged by local rivals. A recent study by Bain, another consultancy, found that although foreign brands still lead in some areas (biscuits, fabric-softener, bottled water), local brands are surging in others (toothpaste, cosmetics, juice).
Brand-hopping, though, is rife. Having grown up with radical economic change, Chinese shoppers are "very fickle, and hard to pin down to a strong brand loyalty", says Mintel, a market-research firm. Yuval Atsmon of McKinsey reckons that brand-switching--between Pepsi and Coke, Colgate and Crest, KFC and McDonald’s--is common, "much more so than in most markets". Swarovski, the crystal-maker, has discovered that over three-quarters of Chinese customers are eager to try new brands, a far higher figure than elsewhere. A recent study by Bain found that the top five brands in ten categories lost 30-60% of their customers between 2011 and 2012.
This creates several problems. With two or three times as many brands on shelves as found in other countries, competition is ferocious. This makes advertising and marketing vital--but the cost of publicity is soaring. Also, firms that thought they enjoyed a "first-mover advantage" have discovered that their brands are now seen as stodgy or old-fashioned. Olay, a cosmetics brand, defined skin care in China for a generation--but Carol Potter of BBDO, an advertising agency, reckons that "the new generation thinks it’s a brand from yesterday." She adds that whereas Louis Vuitton once symbolised good and expensive taste in China, a new generation is seeking different, subtler luxuries.
The Empty Suitcase
Another complication for marketers is that many Chinese shoppers have a global outlook. When previous middle classes rose to prominence in America and Japan, the internet did not exist. People could not Google the latest European fashions or check discounts on Amazon. The arrival of cheap air travel has also made the Chinese more discerning shoppers. Mr Stocker argues that these factors have "compressed the discovery process", which in Japan took 30 years, to less than ten.
The Chinese are already the world’s biggest shoppers abroad, but a report released on January 20th by CLSA forecasts that the number of outbound Chinese tourists will double to 200m a year by 2020 and that their spending will triple over that time. James Button of SmithStreet, a consultancy, reports a well established piece of etiquette: "You must let friends know when you are going overseas," and take along an empty suitcase.
Many Chinese also use online shopping agents, who aggregate requests and bring back foreign goods. Sales by overseas purchase agents came to nearly 50 billion yuan in 2012, a leap of more than 80% on the year earlier; they jumped by half again last year to 74.4. billion yuan. Foreign websites, including Amazon, now offer direct delivery to China for certain products, and local e-commerce giants such as Alibaba run cross-border services.
Buying overseas saves money, since mark-ups and hefty taxes are the rule in China. Many ordinary folk travel not just to Hong Kong, the most convenient spot, but to Jeju Island in South Korea (where they can visit without a visa and shop duty-free) to stock up on cosmetics that cost much more at home. Price, though, is not the only motivation. Another is to avoid the counterfeit goods so common on the mainland. Even more important, consumers say, are the variety and freshness of the products available overseas.
Nowhere is this wide-ranging urge to spend more obvious than in the market for luxury goods. Globally the Chinese are the biggest buyers of expensive items, accounting for some 29% of purchases last year (see chart 2). Some two-thirds of Chinese spending on luxury goods takes place outside the mainland; a fifth of it in Europe. (Harrods of London has seen sales to Chinese shoppers, its largest foreign contingent, increase by 50% a year since 2011.) Consistently favoured brands include Lancôme, Gucci, Audi, Rolex and Tiffany.
The Chinese are also the world’s largest consumers of Bordeaux wine and cognac, though sales (like those of Moutai, a local grain alcohol) have fallen in the wake of official campaigns against gift-giving (see "Corruption: Less party time"). At Berry Bros & Rudd’s bonded wine warehouse in Basingstoke, in southern England, where 4.5m expensive bottles are stored, more than 1m of those are owned by oenophiles from greater China. No longer, says the firm’s chairman, should the Chinese be pictured ruining fine wine by pouring Coca-Cola into it.
Although a government crackdown on corruption has crimped mainland sales, and some luxury firms slowed down the rollout of new boutiques there last year, Coach, Prada and Bottega Veneta continued to expand. Apple expanded too; it now has more stores in Shanghai than in San Francisco, and launches new iPhones in Beijing when it does in California. Mr Button of SmithStreet thinks brands offering affordable luxury--Michael Kors and Kate Spade, say--can capture both the upwardly mobile and the "post-luxury" elites in the cities, who want less flashy brands.
In the past, the Chinese showed little interest in Western art. That is starting to change, and may change quicker with the opening of a new museum of Western art in Shanghai. The richest man in China has just paid $28m for a Picasso, though he was condemned as "unpatriotic" on Sina Weibo. Ms Potter also observes that two-thirds of affluent consumers are keen to know the history and cultural background of foreign brands. So they love to buy Piaget watches in Geneva and Zegna suits in Milan, but reject unconventional offerings such as German watches or Japanese leather bags.
It is not only in luxury goods that Chinese shoppers are leading the way. China has become the world’s biggest e-commerce market, with spending forecast to reach $540 billion next year. On Singles Day, an annual online-marketing extravaganza held on November 11th, 400m Chinese spent $5.7 billion just on Tmall, an e-commerce platform run by Alibaba; Americans, on their Cyber Monday a few weeks later, spent only about $2 billion. China is the world’s biggest maker and consumer of smartphones, and will soon be the largest "mobile-commerce" market, too.
Perhaps because they distrust official information, the Chinese rely heavily on peer reviews. Research by BCG has shown that they write, and act on, online reviews of products and services far more than Westerners do. A recent study of purchases of moisturiser found that two-thirds of Chinese buyers relied on online recommendations by friends or family; the comparable figure in America was less than 40%. Millions of online shoppers follow the thoughts of Miumiu and Viviandan, leggy twins from industrial Chongqing, who started posting pictures of themselves in the latest fashions, with wry observations on trends and prices, a decade ago. Even now they post recommendations nearly every day on social-media sites such as Instagram, or on Weibo. Their likes and dislikes make or break products.
Online shoppers in the remotest parts of China often know a great deal about a global brand’s attributes and pricing worldwide--which can put marketers on the back foot. Chinese consumers are no longer willing to pay a hefty premium for any old foreign brand. As they grow more discerning, multinationals are having to work harder to prove their worth--and are having to defend their brands on China’s wild social media. But creative approaches can pay off.
When VF Corporation, a large American clothing firm, wanted to promote The North Face, a brand of outdoor clothing, in China, it struggled. Whereas climbers and hikers in the West relish the thought of conquering mountains alone, the Chinese generally think of outings in Nature as a spiritual escape, to be enjoyed with friends. So the firm created an online community linking amateurs to clubs devoted to outdoor pursuits. The website offers points for activity and loyalty that can be redeemed for products. Sales are soaring, and VF now has a detailed database of over half a million keen customers.
The online awareness of Chinese customers has big global implications. According to Andrew Keith, the president of Lane Crawford, cosmopolitan Chinese consumers are now setting the agenda: "We are not teaching them, they are teaching us." (He should know; his Hong Kong department store has half a dozen shops in greater China, 650,000 high-spending customers and, in the new Shanghai store, private suites for "Platinum VIPs" who spend 60,000 yuan or more a year.) Alexis Perakis-Valat, head of L’Oréal’s China business, agrees. He believes that the Chinese market, unlike those in Western countries, is driven by young urban consumers who are demanding something new and have no taboos. He points to peculiar and distinctive products developed for this niche in China, such as a black-foam face-scrub for men, which are now being launched around the world.
We’re All Chinese Now
Another sign of such innovation is the reinvention of Johnnie Walker, a mass-market whisky brand belonging to Diageo, the world’s biggest spirits firm, as a luxury brand in China. Keen to win over sceptical consumers more accustomed to baijiu (a local firewater), the firm opened Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai almost three years ago. For around 800,000 yuan, or $132,000, the company’s master blender (with the delicious surname of Beveridge) will fly in and brew a special batch of Johnnie Walker precisely matched to a customer’s tastes. Certain rare blends, including some bearing the marks of the Chinese zodiac, are sold only at this venue.
This effort has helped Diageo introduce its whiskies to thousands of affluent customers, who in turn have pushed the firm towards new inventions--such as blends with a much higher alcohol content--which helped its whisky revenues grow twice as fast as the industry average. The concept has been such a success that the company has opened new Houses in Beijing and Seoul, and plans others. When Diageo unveiled Odyssey, a special-edition blend, in 2012, it kicked off the global launch not in London or New York but in Shanghai.
Life was simpler for foreign brands when they first came to China, reflects David Roth of The Store, an advertising agency: "It was a land grab…you just had to create awareness as quickly as possible." Now the Western invaders must not only cater to the world’s most demanding shoppers, but also cope with increasing home-grown competition. Chinese firms are starting to catch up with their fancier foreign rivals. Some even aspire to become global brands.
Huawei, a telecoms-equipment giant, is making a big push into branded consumer electronics. "We have it easier than Samsung did," says Colin Giles, chief marketing officer for its consumer business, because Korean firms paved the way for global acceptance of Chinese brands. Xiaomi, a startup smartphone manufacturer in Beijing, has developed a hugely popular phone-and-app system inspired as much by Amazon as by Apple. It could become China’s first global innovation powerhouse.
Leading the local pack is Lenovo, an electronics firm that previously bought IBM’s personal-computer business (and on January 23rd agreed to buy its low-end server business, too). When it launched its latest Yoga tablet last year it chose Ashton Kutcher, a Hollywood star who had played Steve Jobs in a film, as its spokesman. David Roman, Lenovo’s chief marketing officer, says that even a few years ago it would have been unthinkable to do a global product launch in China with a single tagline, unified advertising content and a Western spokesman. But now he thinks there is "a global consuming class", with more in common across borders than within.
That sums up the rise of China nicely. Future consumer markets everywhere are going to look more Chinese. They will increasingly be cosmopolitan, luxury-minded and online. Firms that can flourish in China are not only winning today’s toughest market, but are also positioning themselves for tomorrow’s.
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