What is motivating China’s new hard luxury consumer?

Over the past four decades, China has experienced a transformative economic journey and established itself as a potent global consumer market. 

This shift has prompted luxury brands to reevaluate their strategies in response to the dynamic preferences of Chinese consumers, marking a level of influence not seen since the rise of Japan in the 1960s or the US in the early 20th century.

Relative latecomers to the European-led luxury scene in the 1980s and 1990s, mainland Chinese shoppers have rapidly become digitally savvy, brand-conscious, price-sensitive, and value-focused luxury consumers, presenting a huge opportunity to incumbent brands. 

Now accounting for approximately one-quarter of all luxury sales worldwide, China exerts significant influence in the global luxury market. 

This is particularly true in the hard luxury market — specifically, jewelry and watches — where, after decades of expansion and investment, brands now find themselves in an unusual situation. Younger Chinese consumers, particularly those born after 1990, have never known a China without high-end malls and luxury boutiques, and are more difficult to attract and retain than their older counterparts.

The post-90s generation has never known a China without high-end malls and luxury boutiques. Photo: K11 Shanghai

This means global hard luxury brands must constantly measure and reevaluate their marketing efforts in a fast-paced market, while competing with a rising tide of local watchmakers and jewelry brands, as well as a thriving second-hand market. In Jing Daily’s latest report, we explore the challenges and trends shaping China’s hard luxury market, from generational shifts to evolving consumer motivations. 

As China’s luxury market continues to evolve in the post-Covid-19 era, its hard luxury segment is experiencing a remarkable transformation. This report preview delves into some of the key trends influencing the consumption patterns of the new Chinese consumer.                   

1) Sustainability a central concern

In the realm of luxury, sustainability has transcended its niche status to become a central concern for consumers. An increasing number of shoppers, including those in China, are prioritizing brands with transparent green credentials. Notably, Chinese consumers, traditionally not associated with environmental activism, are now demonstrating a stronger preference for sustainability-minded products than their global counterparts. 

For instance, PwC’s Global Consumer Insights Pulse Survey in June 2022 revealed that 34 percent of Chinese consumers consider a company’s environmental actions when making purchasing decisions, compared to 29 percent in the US. This growing emphasis on sustainability extends to the luxury jewelry market, with 86 percent of mainland Chinese consumers citing the importance of ethically sourced precious stones, as per an Altiant survey of 100 mainland Chinese consumers in April 2022.

Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this shift in consumer behavior. The rising spending power of Chinese millennials and Gen Z has contributed to increased environmental consciousness, leading to significant differences when compared to their American and European counterparts. The luxury sector is witnessing a transformation, with brands investing in sustainable practices and transparent supply chains. However, the extent to which sustainability influences purchasing decisions in the hard luxury market, particularly in timepieces, remains a topic of debate.

2) Digitalized luxury consumption, driven by millennials and Gen Z

Millennial and Gen Z consumers in China are reshaping the hard luxury market by embracing e-commerce platforms and official brand channels. This shift extends beyond apparel and electronics, as a considerable number of these young consumers now purchase high-end timepieces online. For instance, Deloitte’s 2021 survey reported that 44 percent of Chinese respondents had bought a watch online in the previous year.

To cater to this growing demand, luxury businesses like Richemont have forged strategic partnerships with platforms such as Alibaba’s Tmall Luxury Pavilion, offering Chinese consumers a new way to access prestigious watch brands. The platform’s introduction of 3D try-on and livestream support further underscores the luxury watch segment’s digital transformation.

Tmall launched a 3D space on its app during Watches and Wonders 2023, where consumers could try on the latest models virtually. Photo: Alibaba Group

Nonetheless, changes in youth culture attitudes towards work and personal fulfillment may impact the hard luxury market, necessitating a reevaluation of brand strategies. China’s young consumers are embracing lifestyles that prioritize luxury goods and experiences, seeking to enhance their personal well-being. The rise of “double-income, no kids” households, stemming from delayed family planning, has contributed to increased high-end consumption. These shifts in consumption patterns present a promising prospect for luxury brands in China, diverging from the more conservative spending habits of older generations.

3) Government policy influencing the luxury market

Under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, government policies aimed at expanding domestic demand, promoting equity, and emphasizing people-centered growth have the potential to benefit the hard luxury sector. The “common prosperity” policy introduced in 2021 focuses on controlling excessive displays of wealth and encouraging higher-income individuals and businesses to contribute more to society. While there were initial concerns about its impact on luxury demand, common prosperity has had a lesser effect on the sector than the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused a contraction in the luxury market in 2022. However, recent consumer behavior reflects a gradual recovery in demand.

The government’s focus on developing inland regions and nurturing economic growth in smaller cities could unlock new consumer bases eager to make their first high-end purchases. Initiatives like elevating disposable incomes in provinces like Zhejiang may translate into millions of Chinese citizens with more discretionary income, potentially benefiting luxury watchmakers and jewelry brands.

In March 2021, Chopard opened a store in the MixC mall in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Photo:

4) Rise of new wealth in China

China continues to experience substantial wealth creation, with a projected doubling of high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) between 2021 and 2026, positioning China as the global leader in HNWIs. Notably, much of this wealth generation is concentrated in lower-tier cities, which are increasingly attracting global luxury brands. Despite the Covid-19-related disruptions leading to a 10 percent decline in the luxury market in 2022, the fundamentals for luxury consumption in China remain robust, and a rebound in growth is expected in 2023.

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