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    Decoding’s China’s $170 billion ‘romance economy’

    Love, luxury brands, and unique services like "scolding to cure love-brain" are helping redefine gifting and affection.
    Image: Xiaohongshu
    William Zhou and Tanya Van GastelAuthors
      Published   in Consumer

    “My suitor doesn’t send red envelopes or gifts on Valentine’s Day. Is it because he has low emotional intelligence?” asks @lightexistance on Weibo.

    White Day, which falls today, is sometimes mentioned as another Chinese Valentine’s Day, but it is not as popular, yet. Coming one month after Valentine’s Day, the occasion sees people give reciprocal gifts to those who gave them gifts on February 14.

    China commemorates love on three separate holidays: the Western Valentine’s Day on February 14, the uniquely Chinese 520 Day on May 20, a celebration derived from internet slang where the numbers “520” phonetically resemble the words for “I love you” in Mandarin, and the traditional Qixi Festival, which usually falls in August.

    China commemorates love on three separate special days. Image: Xiaohongshu
    China commemorates love on three separate special days. Image: Xiaohongshu

    Meanwhile, Singles’ Day is celebrated on November 11 as an anti-Valentine’s Day. Initially a counter to romantic celebrations and conceived as a day for single individuals to treat themselves, it has evolved into the world’s largest online shopping event.

    The romance economy

    China’s Gen Z consumers are a key element of the “romance economy,” responsible for 54% of related orders according to the “Romantic Economic Big Data Report” released in 2022.

    China’s romance economy refers to the segment of the market that encompasses financial activities related to the expression of love and affection, particularly through gifting and other forms of expenditure connected to romantic relationships and celebrations, such as the various Chinese Valentine’s Days.

    “For me, I think a gift is good! There may be some peer pressure. If all your friends received expensive gifts and flowers, but your boyfriend only said ‘that’s a marketing festival, I won’t pay,’ I’d be angry,” says Gloria Liu, 28, who works in Shenzhen as a tech professional.

    Survey data from iiMedia Research in 2023 revealed that regardless of their relationship status – single, in a relationship, or married – over 90% of participants were eager to celebrate romantic festivals by presenting gifts to family and friends.

    Notably, jewelry ranks as the number top gift category for coupled-up individuals on China's romantic days.

    The findings also outline the significant growth of gifting in China, with the market expanding from $111 billion in 2018 to $170 billion in 2022.

    Projections from the same report suggest that the gift economy will expand to $225 billion by 2027.

    Traditional gifts like flowers, personal care items, and beauty products remain favorites and “gift boxes” persist as a preference for consumers on seasonal occasions.

    About gift-giving habits, Liu says: “Yes, when you just fall in love, it’s more like a surprise gift. After maybe two years, girlfriends can ask ‘can you buy me a dyson hairdryer.’ There can be a clearer briefing.”

    More than 90% of singles in China will buy Valentine’s Day gifts for themselves or their family and friends. The gifts they buy tend to be beauty and skin care products, digital products and jewelry.

    Luxury labels like Loewe have celebrated China’s 520 Day by infusing their handbags and jewelry with romantic hues of pink. Last year, the YSL Small Gold Bar 1966 Matte ranked among the top three best-selling makeup gift boxes in terms of GMV.

    Luxury labels like Loewe have celebrated China’s 520 Day by infusing their handbags and jewelry with romantic hues of pink. Image: Loewe
    Luxury labels like Loewe have celebrated China’s 520 Day by infusing their handbags and jewelry with romantic hues of pink. Image: Loewe

    'Love-brain' and ‘scolding to cure love-brain’

    One romance economy service has become especially popular with Chinese Gen Z, albeit for different reasons.

    “Love-brain” (恋爱脑) has recently emerged as a trending term online. It centers on the idea that individuals often lose their emotional or financial rationality when in love. This phenomenon prompted the creation of the phrase “scolding to cure love brain” (骂醒恋爱脑) as a response. And in turn, this has sparked a new type of service.

    It entails a lovesick person seeking the objective opinion of a stranger in an effort to regain their sense of judgment and rationality.

    “Scolding to cure love-brain is a very unique service. Many people may really need a bucket of cold water from others to enlighten them,” says Yun Wuxin on Weibo.

    The majority of customers placing orders at the online scolding store are Gen Z women, predominantly aged 18 to 25. Many are ordering on behalf of their sisters and friends, in the hope that customer service can offer a third-party, objective perspective to heal their “love-brained” sibling or buddy.

    In the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, orders for the service surged, reaching triple the usual daily rate. The service became one of the top three trending searches on Taobao.

    A consumer commented in the review area of one scolding service: “Sisters who can’t let go, you can try it. I think it’s very useful for me, and I’m quite sober now.”

    One vendor commented that users of the service can choose whether they want a boy or a girl to “scold them.”

    For a “wake-up” through text and voice messages, the basic charge is $2 for 15 minutes; a phone conversation costs $3 for 15 minutes. The highest-level service will charge $150 for a “full day” package in the form of “continuous scolding” for cases of “severe love-brain.”

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