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Study Forecasts Slowdown for China Luxe

Sales of luxury goods are projected to slow this year to single digits.

SHANGHAI — Sales of luxury goods in China are projected to slow this year to single digits, due to changing consumer tastes and new policies from Beijing that restrict government officials’ spending on big-ticket items for individual purchase or to give as gifts, according to a study released this week from Bain & Co.

This story first appeared in the December 14, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The study projects that luxury sales in China will slow to 7 percent growth in 2012, down from 30 percent growth in 2011. Another report, released Thursday by McKinsey & Co., projects luxury spending growth on the Mainland will slow to an annual rate of 12 percent to 15 percent between now and 2015. That report said growth of luxury sales has been between 16 percent and 20 percent annually over the past four years. 

While deceleration began at the end of 2011, declines in luxury spending have become much more apparent in recent months, largely because of political reasons, the reports said.

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In October, just ahead of the 18th Party Congress to determine new leadership for the country, the government issued a new set of policies restricting officials’ spending on luxury products. A number of officials have come under fire in state media and online for their conspicuous spending habits. During the National People’s Congress in the spring, for example, the luxury garb that officials donned at the meetings became one of the hottest topics on the Chinese Internet.

Eradicating government graft, much of which occurs via the purchase of expensive presents between officials and corporations, is a top priority for the Communist Party as it continues its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, which will wrap up next spring.

“The government is not discouraging the spending. It is discouraging the showiness,” Yuval Atsmon, a partner in McKinsey’s Shanghai office and lead author of the consulting firm’s report, said. “The government’s crackdown on corruption has led to what we think is a temporary aversion of gifting that will go back to more or less normal after the new government is in place.”

Atsmon said a slowdown in China’s economic growth has had a minimal impact on spending. “We remain overall cautiously optimistic,” he said. “Maybe the carnival is over, but the party will continue.” 

There are other factors impacting luxury consumption. Both the McKinsey and Bain reports say more Chinese consumers are avoiding expensive purchases at home due to high taxes on imported luxury products and the fact that a stronger Chinese currency means such products are now even cheaper in the United States and Europe. Mainland consumers are the number-one nationality for luxury spending, yet 60 percent of that spending occurs outside of China, the Bain report said.

Europe has benefited the most from Chinese consumers, mainly because of a depreciating euro. Spending in Hong Kong has experienced a slowdown, Bain said.

McKinsey projects that by 2015, more than a third of global spending on high-end bags, shoes, watches, jewelry and ready-to-wear clothing will come from Chinese shoppers, both in the domestic market and abroad.

Changing consumer tastes are also a factor. More Chinese consumers are opting for more sophisticated, low-key luxury versus products with logos. Atsmon says this puts many luxury players at a crossroads. Luxury brands need to cater to the tastes of newer entrants in the market who still crave more bling yet maintain the loyalty of a more discerning clientele who seek exclusive products not available to the masses.

“It does pose a real challenge for those brands,” he said. “Do they want to be a significant part of the market? Or do they want to morph themselves a bit?” 

Sixty percent of respondents living outside of Beijing and Shanghai said in the Bain study that logos are important to them when buying luxury, while only around 10 percent of those surveyed in Beijing and Shanghai said conspicuous labels were desired when buying high-end products. “As the savviest brands have learned, simply building lots of stores in Chinese cities and offering merchandise emblazoned with famous logos is not nearly sufficient for reaping the rewards that this market offers,” the McKinsey report said.

Overall, Atsmon said that luxury spending in China is beginning to fall in line with the growing wealth in the country. Past luxury spending booms were driven by “luxury as a novelty” among white-collar workers who would purchase an expensive product to fit in with social norms. That boom is starting to fade as consumer spending parallels income levels, he said. “A lot of the growth was a one-time effect,” Atsmon said. “There were a fairly large number of people wanting to buy, but now they are not going to buy as much as before.” 

Yet Atsmon said the bulk of shoppers remains newer entrants, who make up about 90 percent of the high-end market yet represent only 15 percent of the total spend. China’s wealthiest consumers — who make up 0.4 percent of the market — will account for 28 percent of consumption by 2015, McKinsey said.