BEIJING — Despite a slowing economy, consumer confidence remains high in China and many are spending their money abroad, according to a new consumer report by McKinsey & Co.
The 2016 report, titled “The Modernization of the Chinese Consumer,” found consumers are becoming more selective about where they spend their money and shifting from mass to premium segments. All the while, they are seeking a more balanced life focused on health, family and experiences thanks to low unemployment and rising salaries. In 2015, the average disposable income per capita in China was 21,966 yuan, or $3,390 at current exchange, up almost 11 percent per annum from 2011.
Surveying 10,000 people aged 18 to 65 in 44 cities across China between September to November last year, the annual consumer report found travel to be a continuing trend and 30 percent of Chinese travelers selected their destinations based on shopping. Of more than 70 million outbound Chinese travelers, making 1.5 trips a year on average, 80 percent have made overseas purchases. Among these travelers, 25 percent of their money was spent outside China. Hong Kong, Macao, South Korea and Thailand are some of the top destinations for Chinese tourists.
“If you take the total money they spend — [on] education, insurance, rent, food — 25 percent of total money the Chinese spent last year was spent outside of China. [This means] flight tickets, hotels, not just goods spent,” the report’s author, Daniel Zipser, said, adding that almost half of luxury bag and watch purchases were made overseas. Breaking down overseas spending in categories, handbags made up 45 percent of spending and watches made up 55 percent. Moreover, diamond and jewelry spending was at 15 percent, skin care and makeup at 15 percent and shoes and apparel were both at 5 percent, according to Zipser.
The study also found that consumers are becoming more loyal to certain brands, making it a challenge for new brands to engage customers and promotions becoming less effective. Seventy-one percent of respondents said they would only buy apparel from brands they know, an increase of 10 percent from 2011.
Mall culture and shopping is considered valuable family time for Chinese consumers and 64 percent of respondents said shopping is one of the best ways to spend time with their families, up 21 percent from 2012. Malls are ramping up service elements to their offerings from movie theaters, children’s playgrounds and skating rinks to a slew of food and beverage options. China’s rigid city planning and continuous traffic jams make malls a popular one-stop destination for the whole family.
Visiting brick-and-mortar shops are becoming equally important. Though China’s e-commerce market generated revenues last year of 4 billion renminbi, or $615 million at current exchange, digitally savvy shoppers still want to see “the brand alive,” Zipser said, adding that prime real estate prices in China are still expensive and brands are heavily investing in shops.
Zipser said consumer trends in China are not fundamentally different than those in the West, but it’s how fast these trends happen and their rate of adoption, which can be overnight in China. For example, running.
“In 2007, there were no gyms [in China] and now there are more people running in China than in the U.S.,” Zipser said, explaining social media posts from friends on chat app WeChat, for instance, can spark a trend. Now wearable “mi bands” made by Chinese electronic group Xiaomi can track your steps and friends can form WeChat groups to compare the number of each other’s steps made per day.
Though consumer confidence remains high, Zipser cautioned that it varies between regions. For instance, when respondents were asked if they felt their incomes will significantly increase in the next five years, 33 percent of interviewees in the northeastern Shandong region said they will. Compared to in the south, near the Xiamen-Fuzhou region across the Taiwan Strait, 70 percent said they will. This was not the case four years ago when consumer confidence was more uniform across the country at 57 percent, Zipser said. This gap in optimism is partially related to looming layoffs in steel and coal factories and mines that are mainly located in the arid north. Last week, angry miners in the northeastern Heilongjiang region staged a massive protest over unpaid wages, stirring panic that these demonstrations are just the beginning of many since the government recently unveiled its plans to eliminate overcapacity in these sectors, displacing 1.8 million workers according to the government. But an exclusive Reuters report cited a source pegging the number closer to 5 million to 6 million by 2019.
Zipser said many respondents were aware of China’s slowdown but said knowing it and feeling it are different. “If you don’t feel it, that’s the dangerous part…in the U.S., Europe, they’ve been through recessions. China’s never been through a recession,” he said, adding that when the slowdown is actually felt by consumers, it will incite panic and that’s a risk to consumer confidence.