Senior Execs and Signium Greater China agree that insight into shifting consumer lifestyles is key to success in Chinese market

Although China’s GDP growth is slowing, consumption in China is still growing by more than 10% a year, thanks to strong structural shifts in the economy.  Between now and 2021, estimates are that the country will add $1.8 trillion in new growth alone - a huge opportunity for consumer companies.  We spoke to two business leaders in China, Sam Shih, Global President of APP Tissue and James Lau, Managing Director China for the Miele Group, as well as two Signium Greater China’s Partners, Charles Bien and Kasper Cheung, to get their insights. 

“There is no doubt that growth in the number of affluent families, the spending habits of younger consumers, and e-commerce are pushing consumption levels higher,” both Signium Greater China Partners stress.  “Companies need to translate the trends to specific changes in Chinese consumers’ lifestyles and how they evaluate and buy goods.”

To show how these trends are leading to new shopping behaviours, experts have identified five emerging consumer profiles: 

  1. the savvy shopper

  2. the single person

  3. the eco-friendly consumer

  4. the passionate trend seeker

  5. the connected consumer

These profiles are common in many countries; but they are new to China.  To capture the growth, companies need to focus on consumer segmentation, brand structure and strategy, customer engagement, value, and channel design.

“I know these types are common in other countries,” says Kasper Cheung, Managing Partner Signium Greater China.  “But it is important to realise that China is changing very fast and its consumers are now, in some ways, even more sophisticated than those elsewhere.”

1. The Savvy Shopper

Globalization, technology, and rising incomes have combined to create far savvier shoppers in China today than in the past.  

Consider apparel.  Two decades ago, consumers could buy these products only in person, and they were exposed only to brands available in stores in their home city (or in places to  which consumers travelled). Today, virtually all major global brands are available in China and have built up a significant presence in shopping malls, online channels, or both. As a result, consumption is not limited to certain segments of the population.  Instead, everyone in China is a potential consumer, and Chinese people are far more discerning in evaluating products than they were in the past. 

People are growing more independent in the products they choose to purchase. For example, surveys have shown that men now devote more time and attention to personal grooming than before.  Men living in the Tier 1 cities in China (such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou) now spend 24 minutes each day on grooming.  Not surprisingly, spending on skin care products among men is growing: from 2014 to 2015, men’s spending on these products increased by 24%, compared with just 11% growth in overall skin care product spending.

No-one sees this more clearly than Sam Shih, Global President of APP Tissue.  “The Consumer has more choices with today's overwhelmingly ‘internet’ age. The Consumer takes decisions based on brand loyalty, pricing, quality and value.”  Interestingly though, James Lau believes some consumers are becoming indifferent to luxury brands.  “Personalisation is what will set your products apart from others in many cases,” he says.

Similarly, older generations in the country are far more likely to spend money on travel, and to travel to more-distant destinations. From 2012 through 2015, spending on travel among this population grew nearly 22%, according to the China National Tourism Administration, compared with overall growth in travel spending of 16.8%.  

2. The Single Person

Demographic shifts are creating more single people in China.  Among urban populations, 16% now live alone, compared with just 5% ten years ago.  Many people are choosing not to marry - nearly half say they are indifferent about whether or not they marry.  As a result, 21% of those older than 35 are single (up from just 4% a decade ago).

There are various reasons for this dramatic shift. Some people are more career-oriented than in the past, and social media networks make it easier for people living alone to stay connected. The trend is accompanied by a profound change in people’s perceptions of remaining single. The concept is less stigmatized in Chinese culture, where getting married and starting a family was considered a filial duty. Single individuals have a different lifestyle - people are more likely to live, dine, travel, and pursue activities by themselves - which leads to changes in the products they purchase.

In general, single people seek smaller volumes, greater convenience, and higher-quality goods. For example, sales of small appliances - such as mini-freezers - are rising in China.  At the grocery store, foods are increasingly available in smaller pack sizes and in prepared forms - such as vegetables that are pre-washed and pre-chopped - that make cooking more convenient.  Even grocery store design has changed, with smaller and more upscale markets that carry a wide selection of imported products becoming popular.

Sam Shih believes: “The urbanisation taking place and sales contributions from upcoming cities has increased.  Consumers there look for convenience. For example, we have introduced paper kitchen towel rolls, small pack convenient wet tissue paper towels and similar.” 

3. The Eco-Conscious Consumer

Over the past decade, the awareness of environmental factors and sustainability has risen dramatically in China. This concept spans both the personal level (“I want my purchases to be good for me”) and the planetary level (“I want my purchases to be good for the planet”).

A recent survey found that 80% of Chinese consumers feel that brands and companies should be environmentally responsible.  These consumers want healthy and organic food, apparel made from natural products (such as cotton and linen), energy-saving electronics, and natural skin care products. They are also more willing to support environmentally friendly companies - for example, those that reduce their packaging, encourage recycling, and take other steps to mitigate their environmental footprint.

Charles Bien, Managing Partner of Signium Greater China, agrees: “this is one of the biggest social changes in China in recent years.  Many young consumers especially worry about their environment and try to do more to take care of it.”

4. The Passionate Trend Seeker

Chinese consumers are passionately taking up new interests, and are increasingly willing to spend money on them - not just on products, but also on experiences that will enrich their lives. In the past, many Chinese people focused on working and professional advancement, and had simple hobbies that did not require high levels of spending.  Globalisation, technology (which gives people greater exposure to the world), and rising income levels (which give them the time and money to follow their interests) are the driving forces behind this trend.

Travel is a major focus of the passionate trend seeker. In 2015, more than half of Chinese travellers visited Japan and Korea.  They are increasingly interested in visiting places like Africa, the Middle East, and even the North and South poles. Extreme sports, such as rock climbing, car racing, and surfing are all projected to grow rapidly in the next several years.

“Consumers consistently look for new products and different experiences.  Companies need to innovate all the time.  For ‘connected’ consumers, e-commerce creates a good platform to reach more customers and the chance to introduce new packaging and products to a very targeted group of consumers,” Sam Shih suggests.  James Lau agrees: “Traditional advertising is losing its power rapidly.  Key opinion leaders and personal references have taken over to a great extent.”

5. The Connected Consumer

Chinese consumers are fully digitized and connected.  Researchers estimate that China has nearly a billion active internet users.

E-commerce is more attractive in China than in some other markets, in part because of the nation’s strong digital infrastructure. Notably, Chinese consumers say they buy products online more for convenience than price. Yet it also means the country is ripe for smart devices and services that use mobile technology to increase their functionality.  Consumers in China are also particularly open-minded about the early adoption of new products and technologies. Smart home appliances are a good example. Whereas consumers in developed markets tend to look for complete system solutions, consumers in China are willing to purchase one smart appliance at a time.

In addition, digitisation is changing consumers’ lifestyles, product needs and desires. For example, digital entertainment means that people are likely to socialize with friends at home rather than go out.  These lifestyle changes trigger corresponding changes in the products that these consumers buy.

Implications of these Consumer Profiles

So, what are the implications of these new consumer profiles for brand and product managers seeking to maximise return from their Chinese operations?

Update your Consumer Segmentation

In the past, it was sufficient for companies in China to apply a relatively basic consumer segmentation scheme built primarily around demographic factors such as age, gender, and income. The needs and desires of consumers in each group were more or less homogenous and predictable. Today, the number of consumer segments is growing, and they are far more differentiated and distinct. Consumer companies need to keep up with this shift.

To put it bluntly, if you have not identified more segments in China than you had pinpointed a year or so ago, you are almost certainly behind. In addition, because the market is changing so rapidly, you will need to update your segments at least every 12 to 24 months. But segmenting along consumer dimensions alone is not enough. To understand the factors that lead to a purchase, companies need to know the context of that purchase (such as the time of day, the consumer’s mood, and who he or she is shopping with).

Sam Shih agrees that “Understanding your consumer and building loyalty are crucial.”

Match your Brand Portfolio and Strategy to your Updated Segmentation model

As consumer segmentation becomes more precise, brand portfolio and strategy need to follow suit. It is no longer sufficient to offer a small number of products that are merely acceptable to most segments. You need to understand the increasingly diverse preferences of emerging consumer groups and sub-segments and review your brand portfolio and strategy to gauge how well your products meet those needs.

Develop Consumer Engagement at every opportunity

A decade ago, Chinese consumers evaluated products primarily based on their functional and technical capabilities - ‘Does this do what I need it to do’?  Today, the emotional connection to a brand or product is equally important and will ultimately build brand loyalty. For consumer companies, this means one thing. Evolve the ways in which you engage with consumers, not only with regard to product attributes—for example, design features—but also at every touch point along the way. Every interaction is an opportunity to increase the emotional connection—or to undermine it. You need to understand how your products and services meet specific consumer needs, and those needs are increasingly emotional, rather than just technical or functional.

At no cost to Value to Consumers

In addition to forming an emotional attachment, Chinese consumers are intensely focused on the value of products and services. They require that companies justify their prices. Having a well-known brand is no longer enough to win over consumers.

Adapt your Channel Design to deliver insight and engagement

As e-commerce becomes more prevalent, consumer companies must create a format that seamlessly integrates online and offline elements. At every step along the purchase journey, you need to design meaningful touch points that deepen your engagement with consumers, give you critical data and insights about their wants and needs, and help you win them over as brand loyalists who will advocate for you among their friends and family.

James Lau strongly believes: “Artificial intelligence is increasingly being applied to enhance consumers’ experience and convenience to an unprecedented level.”

The Opportunity is Great 

China’s economy is changing rapidly, but the underlying story is one of strong growth in consumption through 2021, at least. Companies that build a detailed understanding of the trends that are driving this consumption growth and how those trends are driving new shopping behaviours, preferences, and habits will be front-runners in a market worth trillions of dollars.

All four of our correspondents see enormous potential in the rapidly growing China consumer markets.  “As always, what will make the difference is knowing your market, your customers and adapting quickly to new trends,” Charles Bien comments.  “And don’t forget the regional differences.  These play an important part in any consumer strategy for China,” he continues.

Getting all this right, in China especially, takes time, investment and effort. But all strongly agree that the rewards will be massive.

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