with contributions from Ellen Sheng
 on February 20, 2013

SHANGHAI — China’s New Year holiday sales grew at a double-digit clip this year but showed clear signs of a slowdown, especially in sectors such as apparel and restaurants.

This story first appeared in the February 21, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Sales in China during the New Year holiday period, which ran from Feb. 9 to 15, grew 14.7 percent over last year’s holiday, according to statistics released by China’s Ministry of Commerce. The 2012 Chinese, or Lunar, New Year celebrations came earlier in January.

This year’s growth is the slowest China has seen since 2009, when there was a 13.8 percent gain over the previous year. By comparison, 2012 retail sales over the Chinese New Year holiday were up 16.2 percent on 2011.

The ministry said that 2013 retail sales over the holiday period totaled 539 billion renminbi, or $86.33 billion.

The Chinese New Year sales period is traditionally the biggest in the Middle Kingdom, with retailers planning sales campaigns months in advance, and consumers taking the opportunity to spend big on gifts for family, friends, business associates and government officials.

“Chinese New Year is the perfect shopping period due to consumers having days off in which to shop, extra income in the form of the Chinese New Year bonus, as well as the need to purchase presents for friends or family,” said Kevin Der Arslanian, a business analyst at China Market Research Group in Shanghai.

“The strong growth numbers, which exceed GDP [gross domestic product] growth, show that the government’s shift from driving growth through manufacturing and exports to driving growth through domestic consumption is increasingly successful,” he added.

The country’s GDP was up 7.9 percent in the last quarter of 2012, following seven quarters of deceleration, and the World Bank is forecasting growth of 8.4 percent for 2013.

Over this holiday period, China-watchers were particularly interested to see whether incoming President Xi Jinping’s much-vaunted corruption crackdown would have an effect on New Year retail sales.

One area with particularly sluggish numbers was apparel, which saw only a 6.3 percent rise this year, down from 18.7 percent in 2012.

Another slowdown was seen in the restaurant sector, which may have taken a hit due to the government’s ban on gala dinners for officials. Overall, food sales grew 9.8 percent, down from 16.2 percent growth in 2012.

“The vast majority of Chinese New Year sales are for personal consumption or gifting to friends or family, and not for corruption purposes. The effect of this crackdown on Chinese New Year sales is so negligible as to be nonexistent, and would only be apparent in certain categories such as high-end liquor,” Der Arslanian said.

One positive factor for Chinese New Year retail sales was their timing, with the holiday falling over Valentine’s Day. Though this Western holiday was not traditionally celebrated in China, it has become increasingly popular with internationally minded young consumers. This increase in popularity was in evidence with a steep acceleration in jewelry sales over the weeklong holiday period. Gold, silver and jewelry climbed 38.1 percent, compared with 16.4 percent growth in 2012.

A statement released by China UnionPay, the country’s national bank card network operator, showed that more consumers than ever were swiping their way through the spending period, with the total value of domestic cross-bank card transactions increasing 43 percent compared to last year’s holiday period.

Chinese tourists traveling abroad also did their bit, with overseas card transactions up 33 percent.

According to a statement on China’s National Tourism Administration Web site, 4 million tourists spent the holiday period overseas (a growth of 14 percent on the 2012 Chinese New Year holiday), with Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand topping the list of favored destinations.

According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, total visitor numbers rose 20 percent to 1.1 million over the Chinese New Year period this year. In particular, the number of visitors from mainland China increased by 25 percent during the period, totaling 884,933. These comparisons are based on the January holiday period in 2012.

Hong Kong’s Census Department has yet to release official sales figures for the Chinese New Year season.
— with contributions from Ellen Sheng in Hong Kong