The mystery of the Chinese consumer
In the first of a two-part series on Asian consumers, we ask what makes the Middle Kingdom’s shoppers tick
Jul 7th 2011 | SHANGHAI | from the print edition
LILY LI wears a lanyard with a little plastic card around her neck, even at weekends. It is a badge of honour: it shows that she has a white-collar job. (She is a secretary at Access Asia, a retail-research company in Shanghai.) She uses Apple earphones for the cheap Chinese mobile phone in her pocket, so it looks as if she owns an iPhone. And she drives to work, though it takes four times longer than public transport, just to show off her little car.
After decades of deprivation and conformism, Chinese consumers regard expensive consumer goods as trophies of success. In public, they show off. In private, they pinch pennies. The owner of a gleaming new BMW will drive around for half an hour to avoid a 50 cent parking fee. And she will hesitate to spend much on interior decoration, because only her family sees the inside of her flat.
By some forecasts China will be the second-largest consumer market in the world by 2015, not far behind America. Chinese people already buy more cars than people in any other country: 13.5m last year to Americans’ 11.6m. China is on its way to becoming the biggest luxury-goods market. The central government made an increase in domestic consumption one of the priorities of its latest five-year plan.