Unmasking the Dichotomy of Chinese Consumers

on November 27 2012 | in Lifestyle Trends | by | with No Comments

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In McKinsey’s 2012 Annual Chinese Consumer Report, the fact that luxury spending continues to grow is not a complete surprise despite talk in the media of a slowing China. Just where consumer dollars are going, however, has been interesting to even some of the McKinsey analysts. “Interest among Chinese in products that appeal to their individuality is clearly on the rise, as is loyalty to brands that they like,” the report says. “Although their numbers are increasing at eye-popping speed, they are still outnumbered by others whose behavior has yet to evolve in this manner. The result is a widening dichotomy that will oblige many companies to thoroughly rethink their strategies for tapping this vast market.”

McKinsey calls these two groups the “new mainstream consumers” and the “mass consumers.” The former group, with incomes equivalent to $16,000-$34,000 annually, makes up the level of consumption where family cars and other luxury items can be added to family budgets. The mass consumers, however, are able to cover just their basic needs with incomes of about $6,000-$16,000 annually.

McKinsey predicts half of all Chinese consumers will be in the new mainstream category by 2020, and already the researchers see that emotional responses to products are driving sales, a sign of things to come. In this year’s report, 39 percent of respondents said they purchased products if doing so made them feel or think “I am taking good care of my family” – showing an increase of 10 percent from last year. Brand loyalists made up 43 percent of respondents, up from 31 percent in 2011.

While growing income level plays a big role in this transition phase of consumer behavior, it’s not the only factor. McKinsey says there are others to consider.

Area of Residence

The type of city that a consumer lives in can often dictate purchasing behavior, particularly if that resident is feeling “network effects.” Peer influence and easy access to products often plays a larger role in consumer habits in Tier 1 cities, where McKinsey says income and spending power tend to be the highest, especially when it comes to discretionary categories.

The report found that, “For personal care, tier 1 consumers reported spending amounts that were 30% higher than their tier 2 counterparts, 42% higher than in tier 3, and more than double the tier 4 levels.” Similar patterns were reported for dining out and traveling. Tier 1 residents will also pay more for well-designed home electronics, whereas the mass consumers in lower-tiered cities may go for simpler electronics as a sign of their reliability. Functionality is much more important to mass consumers.

City Clusters

The McKinsey Cluster Map organizes China’s 815 cities into about twenty-four clusters, which each contain anywhere from two to seventy neighboring cities with “economic linkages, cultural similarities and common consumer attitudes and preferences” in addition to similar income levels and geographic proximity.

McKinsey reports that, “Sharp differences continue to exist across most clusters. This year’s survey shows that developed-country behavior patterns tend to be much more prevalent in clusters along the coast–where the economy has been prospering for a much longer period of time — than in clusters located inland.”

The Hangzhou cluster serves as a prime example of how different clusters can display the dichotomy between new mainstream consumers and mass consumers. Located on China’s eastern coast just south of Shanghai, the Hangzhou cluster’s GDP is approximately that of Finland’s, and consumers are already propelled to make purchases as a bid to assert their individuality. But then there’s the landlocked Yangzi cluster, located 700 kilometers west of Hangzhou with a GDP equivalent to Romania’s. The residents here are more concerned with a product’s usefulness than its ability to satisfy emotional needs.

The coastal cluster residents, naturally, consider themselves adventurous consumers – 38 percent of Hangzhou respondents report being the first among their friends to try new products as they are introduced to the market. Just 9 percent of Yangzi respondents said the same. Twenty-seven percent of Hangzhou residents are brand loyalists, compared to just 15 percent of Yangzi residents. Fifty-four percent of inland consumers are seeking a “reliable brand” — one not necessarily their favorite.

Consumer Age

Young Chinese shoppers are more active in displaying the new mainstream consumer trends than their mass consumer parents and even those just slightly older than themselves. A willingness to indulge separates China’s young consumers from other demographics, even in the same income bracket. Forty-five percent of 18-to-34-year-olds said they enjoy spending for their own enjoyment on personal care products, compared to 37 percent of new mainstream consumers who are 35 to 65 years old. Forty-one percent of 18-to-34-year-olds say they will pay premium prices in order to have best products, compared to just 31 percent of 35 to 65-year-old consumers in the same income group.

Regardless of income, the internet is also causing a sharp divide between Chinese shoppers. McKinsey finds, “New mainstream consumers in the 18-to-34 year-old group are nearly twice as likely as their elders in the same income group to research electronic appliances and gadgets on the internet, with 33% of younger consumers saying they regularly do so versus only 18% of those over age 35.”

Overall, McKinsey finds that new consumer trends aren’t completely deviant from past behavior. “Behavior for which the Chinese are renowned — seeking good value for money, resisting impulse buying, and spending considerable time researching purchases—will continue to distinguish them,” the report says.



photo credit: chris

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