Spiritual And Self-Improvement Economies On The Rise In China

The pandemic has changed attitudes on spending, leisure and entertainment due to deeper shifts in human values and happiness. In China, and across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a stratospheric rise in spiritual and self-improvement consumption. Natural pursuits, physical health, and mental wellbeing are all rising to the forefront when it comes to purchases.

Spending that will enhance personal mood and spirit has particularly grown with local Gen Z. A 2022 report jointly published by the research institute of e-commerce giant JD.com, Tencent Music, and podcast platform Himalaya found that more than 52 percent of Gen Z consumers are increasing their spiritual consumption in 2022. Movies, music, and (audio) books are the categories that have seen the most noticeable sales growth, while electronics such as smart earphones and VR glasses are also trending. Aromatherapy products are also favored by Gen Z consumers thanks to their healing and stress-relief properties.

After the pandemic started, I made fewer fashion and beauty purchases because there were fewer opportunities to go out. During the lockdown in Shanghai, I paid more attention to improving the usage and arrangement of my home space,” a young Shanghai-based consumer Olivia Wang based previously stated to Jing Daily. “For example, For instance, I purchased more kitchenware and aromatherapy products to lighten my mood. Passionate about dancing, I also acquired some indoor exercise and dancing equipment.”

Since the pandemic, more shoppers are recognizing that “health is wealth.” It’s no surprise that wellness, fitness and outdoor hobbies are being adopted as lifestyles and not just pursuits.

Outdoor Athleisure

Outdoor athletic activities serves to improve health and fitness, however, the current trend differs from traditional outdoor sports in that they place greater emphasis on the “leisure” part of athleisure. With global travel in 2022 still a challenge, young Chinese people are exploring alternative ways to enjoy precious outdoor activities closer to home. Cycling, camping, frisbee, and skateboarding are the most notable emerging Gen Z hobbies. And the accompanying styles and fashions, such as “mountaincore,” have risen in online search, social media debates, and general popularity. Brands like Timberland, Patagonia, Arc’teryx have tapped these trends, exposing a great opportunity to capitalise on this lifestyle shift.

Cycling: China is obviously no stranger to the pleasures of the bicycle. But starting this May and June, streets in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai became busier than usual with cyclists. On the social media platform Xiaohongshu, the keyword “cycling” has attracted close to 22 million views while searches related to cycling in the first quarter of 2022 have increased 230.8 percent year-on-year. JD.com reported a 240 percent year-on-year increase in cycling-related product sales from May 23 to 30. The likes of Lululemon partnered with Blue Yogurt to host branded cycling trips around cities like Shenzhen. Analysis suggests that over 55 percent of cycling-related content on Chinese social media is from those born after 1990. Short cycling trips in urban or suburban settings are popular and many KOLs are sharing fashion tips for recreational cycling.

Lululemon teamed up with Blueglass Yogurt to host a cycling activity in Shenzhen in May. Photo: Lululemon

Camping: Camping, especially higher-end “glamping,” surged in popularity in the spring and early summer of 2022. On the first day of the May 1st holiday, search volume for “camping” increased by 90 percent while ticket sales for parks that allow campsites grew by over 50 percent year on year. China’s camping market is expected to reach $51.8 billion (354.6 billion RMB) this year, an 18.6 percent yearly increase. For Gen Z campers, relaxation and stress relief are the top motivations at 84.2 percent, while the most popular activities are barbecuing and picnicking at 91.2 percent. An accompanying retail boom has followed. For example, ABC Camping Country, a well-designed camping lifestyle collective store founded in 2020, has since quickly expanded to five Chinese cities.

Frisbee: Frisbee is making waves in China because it is perceived as fashionable, easy to play, and offers a great way to socialize outdoors. In June, searches related to the word “frisbee” on Xiaohongshu increased by about 98 percent year-on-year, while Frisbee-related content on the platform jumped by six times to around 500,000 posts. Millions have picked up the sport, making it more popular than soccer in 2022. Activewear brands, too, have jumped on the bandwagon, with several hosting frisbee events to promote their products and others launching flying disc-related collaborations — an apt opportunity for nimble brands to tap into this growing trend.

Skateboarding: Young Chinese consumers flock to skateboarding for its “challenge yourself” attitude, alternative lifestyle, and opportunities for self-expression in the form of fashion and music. There’s also the artistic design and collectibility of skateboards. The inclusion of skateboarding in the Tokyo Olympics helped push it into China’s mainstream and local giants like LiNing have collaborated on skate-themed drops with the likes of AAPE and SMFK. Sales of skateboard-related items rose 290 percent on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Tmall between May 31 and June 3 for this year’s 6.18 Mid-Year Shopping Festival. And subsets of skating such as land surfing have gained virality and popularity with the country’s younger generations. Foreign and domestic sportswear and streetwear brands are vying to capture this rising market, including skate brand Supreme (of LV collab fame) — which made its official debut in China as part of Dover Street Market’s new three-story space in Beijing on November 5.

Li-Ning has collaborated with several brands on skateboarding-themed drops, including AAPE and SMFK. Photo: Li-Ning

Indoor Fitness

At-home exercise has replaced social gatherings and shopping sprees as the main way for Gen Zers to reduce stress during the pandemic. It also quickly became a trendy activity during lockdowns, as shown by the skyrocketing popularity of Taiwanese singer-turned-personal-trainer Liu Genghong. On short video and livestream platform Douyin, workout sessions featuring Liu and his wife, set to renowned pop songs as background music, started an at-home exercise revolution. Within one month, the couple gained 64 million followers and their livestreams were viewed more than 100 million times. For context, it took seven years for leading fitness app Keep to claim 34 million monthly active users.

Liu Genghong and his wife Vivi Wang livestream their exercise and dance routines on Douyin. Photo: Liu Genghong’s Weibo

While Liu’s popularity will eventually subside as normalcy returns, but his sessions introduced many people to the convenience of indoor exercise, which will remain a popular fitness format. According to a 2021 report by Mob Research Institute, 560 million Chinese will regularly exercise by the end of 2030, and over 22 percent of these fitness buffs are between the ages of 18 and 24. The popularity of indoor or “cloud” fitness has also boosted the sale of small exercise equipment and activewear in China.

The competition is increasingly fierce between big-name global brands like Lululemon and Nike and the Chinese brands like Maia Active and Neiwai Active that feature distinctly Asian fits and feminine details or soothing palettes. Yoga culture was influential for years before the pandemic but is now gaining mainstream popularity especially in first-tier cities thanks to dedicated IRL activations and digital ones such as Lululemon’s wellness campaign on Shanghai’s Bund.

This growing economy of self-improvement, spiritual wellbeing, and active lifestyles all go hand in hand. Consumption tied to the pursuit of self-betterment is appealing across generations of Chinese because more believe that health is wealth in this new era. While the acceleration of this market might ebb and flow depending on multiple factors, its direction is firmly on the up.

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Consumer Insights, Market Analysis