Amid a backdrop of soaring living costs and stagnant wages, China’s youth are embracing thrift in a manner that’s reshaping the nation’s consumer landscape. This year has seen the arrival of China’s “Stingy Economy” (抠门经济).
The term is fast becoming synonymous with Gen Z spending behavior. Driven primarily by economic necessity, this thrift-centric economy is giving birth to a myriad of novel consumption patterns.
This behavioral shift by young people has sparked a wave of new ventures in food, clothing, housing, and transportation and even “resurrected” many businesses that were previously unpopular.
On Weibo, Chinese netizens on Weibo have noted the reverse consumption trend: “Now we should sell luxury goods to the elderly and sell street stalls to young people.”
Momo, a 26-year-old based in Shanghai, has traded eateries like Wagas, a popular healthy food chain, for the humble offerings of Chinese community canteens. “It’s not just the affordability that draws me in but also the nutritional value these community-run kitchens offer,” she explains. “Most of the people here are seniors but people my age are starting to love it too. I hang out here with my friends.”
Zhou Zhou, a community canteen operator, shares that previously, mostly seniors would eat there. However, she’s seen a huge reversal lately, with 70 percent of her patrons being young. To further attract this demographic, she has started to issue coupon incentives on apps like Dianping, a Chinese platform for restaurant recommendations.
Discount snack stores
Snack stores have also become popular with young people in China, with a new category opening up: discount snack stores. These stores sell snacks in small packages, catered towards the busy Chinese professional. As Momo shares, “I work so many hours, you know, 996. So I rarely have time to cook. I love going to these snack stores instead.”
Many of these stores use simple yet eye-catching decor to lure in young consumers. Busy For You (零食很忙), a popular discount snack chain, features bright yellow decoration and the slogan “life is not busy, snacks are busy” to market itself towards young professionals. Busy For You opened up more than 1,000 new stores in the first half of 2023, with the total number of stores nationwide surpassing 3,000.
Snack Youming, another popular discount snack store chain, opened its first store in April 2021. By April 2023, there were over 1,200 stores domestically. Capital markets have also caught wind of the trend; discount snack store Zhao Yiming secured a Series A financing round of $20 million in February to expand its business.
Food-themed blind boxes
A slew of small-scale applications are making waves thanks to the uptick in economic frugality. Blind box apps offer affordable packages of food for a low cost, typically sourced from supermarkets or bakeries that have a surplus — similar to the Danish app Too Good To Go.
When Momo saw her friends posting on WeChat about blind boxes (盲盒), she decided to place an order on the WeChat mini-program Food Magic Bag. “I love to eat, and I love unboxing,” she says.
Momo’s blind box featured four different kinds of bread for merely 12 yuan ($1.64). She posted about it on her Xiaohongshu account and quickly gained many followers. Chinese social media is awash with blind box reviews, with some posts racking up over 200,000 likes.
Behind this booming “stingy economy” and the creative businesses comprising it, there lies a deeper narrative — one of economic constraints faced by China’s youth. Consumers like Momo are becoming more financially mindful and are consciously attempting to navigate through the economic labyrinth with frugality as their compass.