BEIJING — China gross domestic product numbers released at the start of the week showed the country’s slowest annual growth since 1990 of 6.6 percent. Even with this slowdown, the country is poised to become the world’s top retail market this year, displacing the U.S., according to eMarketer’s latest forecast.
Mainland China’s sales this year will surpass those of the U.S. by more than $100 billion, according to the firm, fueled by e-commerce, which is set to reach 35.3 percent of China’s retail sales, by far the highest rate of online shopping in the world.
In 2019, China’s total retail sales will grow 7.5 percent to reach $5.64 trillion, eMarketer said. In contrast, in the U.S., retail sales are expected to grow 3.3 percent to reach $5.53 trillion. Growth rates are in fact slowing for both countries, but China’s will exceed that of the U.S. through to 2022, eMarketer predicted.
The wider Chinese economy may be putting on the brakes, but the retail sector in fact rose slightly for the month of December, government data showed. It edged up slightly to 8.2 percent year-over-year compared to 8.1 percent the month prior, and above analysts’ consensus, which was 8.1 percent.
“I don’t want anyone to be under the illusion that a slowdown isn’t happening, but it’s a convenient excuse for a lot of brands to blame what may be them being out of touch with the market,” commented Mark Skinner, managing director of the digital agency China Skinny. “There are still plenty of opportunities, and a lot of brands are incredibly successful.”
Defying China bears, Nike Inc., for instance, clocked 31 percent growth in the market during the fourth quarter of last year. At Tiffany & Co., too, China registered double-digit growth for the brand, accelerating in the final two months of the year.
“Looking at China is holistically useful, but at the same time, it’s such a big heaving market that even if it is slowing, there is so much scope to do well,” Skinner added. “There are definitely some categories that are performing [such as those] related to fitness. We’ve seen that with Nike. There’s a real emphasis around health and fitness with people taking up running and other sports, and [fast-moving consumer goods] picked up from the year before. Some of the local brands are taking a large share of growth just from better understanding the consumers from a format, marketing and distribution perspective.”
E-commerce in China is driving much of the retail growth — China had already surpassed the U.S. in online sales in 2013. This year, 55.8 percent of all online sales globally will belong to China, according to eMarketer, and by 2022, the firm believes its global share will reach 63 percent.
“New retail in China is incredibly far ahead of the other markets and will continue to pull away,” Skinner said. “You’ve got a combination of an established physical retail market, and you’ve got a lot of data the likes of Alibaba that is just head and shoulders above anything that anyone elsewhere has from both a privacy point of view, which is not as much a concern or regulated in the same way in China, but also from a scale point of view. New retail is built on the foundation of big data, which I think other retailers will struggle to match.”